The Diary: A Promising look at love, lust and law...

Denise Bates

Denise Bates

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For a nineteenth century Lothario it was perhaps the ultimate way into a woman’s heart - not to mention her corset.

Proposing marriage followed by later retracting the request could get a wag his wicked way while keeping him free of obligation.

But new research by a Sheffield historian has found many women seduced and scorned in this way were too busy getting even to get mad.

Denise Bates has studied a little known piece of English law - introduced to address this very issue - which allowed jilted fiancés to sue those who broke their hearts.

Payments worth thousands of pounds were regularly orded by courts for women (and the odd chap) who had been the victim of a cancelled engagement.

And that includes hundreds of cases where the proposal had been made verbally perhaps, dare one say, in the heat of a moment.

“It’s an absolutely fascinating piece of law,” says Denise, whose findings have been published in a new book, Breach Of Promise To Marry.

“We often think of jilted lovers weeping and wailing. Far from it. Real life Miss Havishams didn’t mope. They hired lawyers on no-win-no-fee deals and got stuck in to bringing false lovers to book.”

More than 4,000 cases went before the courts between 1780 when the law was introduced and 1970 when it was repealed.

And almost 90 per cent of those resulted in the man coughing up compensation.

Such cases included that of James Price, a London solicitor who - bit drastic, maybe - pretended to be dead to avoid honouring commitments made to Grace Mitchell in 1892.

When she found out he was still very much alive, she sued and won the equivalent of £33,800.

In another in 1876, chemist Alfred Hodgson claimed his proposal to Elizabeth Boden was unofficial because he was already engaged to another.

The judge had none of it, and orded him to pay up.

Denise who was born and bred in Heeley but now lives in Tameside, said: “In many cases a rich man seems to have been...charmed into proposing an engagement he shouldn’t have. There are several examples of sons of peers being sued by young actresses after his family learned of a proposal and called it off.”

“But she’s already married, your honour”

Promises of marriage were broken across the country but a particularly interesting case occurred in Sheffield in 1907.

Mary Taylor, a widow living in Abbeydale Road, claimed Pitsmoor butcher John Kramer had left her high and dry after renegading on a request for her hand. She attempted to sue him for £250.

Despite his denials he had made the proposal, it looked like the court would rule against him. Until, that is, he produced a cast-iron defence: Mary Taylor’s husband.

Far from being widowed, it seems Mrs Taylor’s old man had actually done a runner years earlier.

Kramer produced him for the court, meaning the case became void.

More successful - though no less bizarre - was the case brought against city chap Andrew Scott.

In 1855, he reported Sophia Evans to the police claiming she was a former friend who had stolen a bag, an umbrella and an engagement ring from him.

The courts believed her version of events - he’d given them her after proposing marriage - and he was ordered to pay £500.

The book, published by Barnsley-based Pen and Sword, is out now, £12.99.

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