Until 1971, English law allowed a jilted person to claim damages from the person who had offered and then refused to marry them. People who brought breach of promise claims were almost always female. If the idea of suing to win damages for a broken heart seems odd, or even distasteful, it is worth remembering that the law gave working-class women no other way of sorting out financial practicalities when a romantic relationship failed.
Cartoons dealing with the issue of breach of marriage promises.
Women who had cohabited for years had no claim for support when the man walked out and wed someone else. If they had provided money to buy or improve property that was in the man’s name they had no entitlement to recover their contribution. If they were in a bigamous marriage, even unwittingly, they had no rights to claim against the man’s estate for maintenance.
One of the most usual reasons for a woman to bring a breach of promise claim was to win a lump sum to help support an illegitimate child. In Victorian times a woman was considered responsible for any children she bore out of wedlock. She could opt to affiliate the baby and if parish officials accepted her contention that a particular man was its father, he could be ordered to pay her whatever sum the parish had set for errant males to pay contribute towards maintaining their illegitimate offspring until they were old enough to earn their own living. Usually this was a few pence a week, perhaps sufficient to cover a child’s food, but not to keep a roof over its head.
From the start of the nineteenth century, jurors approached breach of promise cases involving illegitimacy with a surprising degree of goodwill towards the woman. To the Victorians, seducing a modest woman under a promise of marriage was akin to a crime. Far from condemning her for the moral lapse, women left holding the baby generally received higher damages than those who retained their virtue.
The curtain rises on the Court of the Exchequer where a jury and the public assemble to hear a case of breach of promise of marriage.
When the woman was middle-class, damages could amount to several hundred pounds. In 1852, George Bansall was ordered to pay Fanny Bird £800 (current value £95,000). She was the daughter of a prosperous farmer and a suitable match for a gentleman’s son. Value judgement about a woman’s worth was a feature of breach of promise claims and working-class women tended to receive less in damages, even if their seducer was rich and the injury was similar. They usually received around £250, (c£25,000) which would have ensured that neither mother nor child became a charge on the Poor Rate. Jurors were drawn from the class that paid towards maintaining the indigent of the parish and making the child’s father give the mother a capital sum would have helped to ensure that the parish rate was kept to a minimum.
Very occasionally, a working-class woman received substantial damages from a seducer. In 1872, hotel maid Mary Ann Marsh was assaulted twice by her wealthy fiancé, Frederick Rowlinson who slipped drugs in drinks she was about to consume. Both times she fell into an insensible state and when she regained consciousness, realised that she had been interfered with. Rowlinson reiterated his promise to marry her when she discovered her pregnancy, but repeatedly put off doing so, leaving her with no alternative but to sue him for breach of promise after the child was born. Appalled by the revelation that Rowlinson had never intended to marry her, the jury awarded Mary Ann £1,000, (£101,000) the full amount she had claimed.
Rather than addressing the root cause of women’s problems and giving them a proper remedy against lovers who exploited them, the Victorians preferred to give women who had been harmed by a man indirect redress through a claim for breach of promise. Fortunately the law was usually humane. The damages some women received were not to mend a broken heart but to repair a broken life.