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Planning Retirement Online

Breach of Promise of Marriage

April 2014

Denise Bates uncovers the antics of Victorian women who made multiple claims for damages after being jilted before getting to the altar.

When women began to take their first tentative steps towards equality at the end of the nineteenth century, they were more than equal in the eyes of the law. And they knew it. Breach of promise of marriage was a flourishing legal action that allowed a jilted person to demand compensation from their faithless intended. In theory, the claim was gender neutral. In practice, men seldom sued for damages as they usually left the court hearing with the smallest coin of the realm, and the catcalls of spectators ringing in their ears.

Women were very clued up about their legal rights and enforced them, regularly winning a hundred pounds of more to make their continuing solitary state more tolerable. At today's values this is comparable to around £10,000. Most scorned women were content with just one claim for breach of promise, but an unlucky few found themselves having to sue more than once. Farmer's daughter Harriet Roper was already 30 when her fiancé decided not to go ahead with the wedding unless her father gave the pair a wedding gift of £500. In 1871, Harriet obtained £100 damages for her broken engagement. A few years later, the now middle-aged spinster met a young man who worked in his father's grocery business. The couple became engaged, but James Bagley said he would only wed her when he could afford to maintain a wife. After two years, Bagley ended the engagement and Harriet wrote, 'I think you ought to be made an example of to prevent others being deceived as I have been'. Her opportunity came in 1880 when Bagley married someone else, proving that he could afford to support a wife and family. This time Harriet obtained £80.

The most publicized case of a woman who made two successful claims was that of Elizabeth Dredge, an attractive young woman who worked at an upper-class barbers' shop in London. She attracted the amorous advances of a wealthy American customer who promised to marry her when he became financially independent of his family. On this basis she agreed to live with him and bore him a daughter, but rather than marry her, he courted and married a rich widow instead. Elizabeth sued him for breach of promise and obtained £1,500 – an exceptionally generous award. To disguise the social stigma of being an unmarried mother, Elizabeth moved to Bournemouth. There she reinvented herself as widowed Elinor Miller and built up a successful business as a milliner and hairdresser. A few years later, she captured the interest of local property entrepreneur Henry Joy, who asked her to be his wife. When Elinor told him about her previous relationship Joy said this made no difference to him and confirmed his offer, but when his scandalized children objected to their father's plan to provide him with a stepmother, he changed his mind. Rather than behaving as a gentleman and negotiating a private monetary settlement, he ended the engagement and threatened to reveal her shameful secret if she took court action against him. When Elinor began a court claim for damages, rumours began to circulate in Bournemouth that she had never been married and her daughter was illegitimate. Elinor's clients deserted her in their droves and her carefully nurtured business collapsed almost overnight. She had the final word when a jury ordered Joy to pay her £2,500 damages because he was seen as mean and malignant for publicizing something he had been told in confidence. This was one of the largest awards of damages made in the nineteenth century and caused a public sensation.

Irrespective of whether she made one claim or more, a woman who demanded money to compensate for a broken engagement was often considered to be mercenary, a little hussy or an extortioner. Even a successful claim for breach of promise seems to have been treated as a skeleton in the cupboard and not talked about. So, if you're researching your family tree and come across a Great-Aunt Maud who never went to work, or inherited money yet managed to support herself – it might be worth asking yourself, was she once a woman scorned?

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