Galway enjoyed an unusual breach of promise marriage case
‘Gentlemen of the Jury’ - I ask you for mitigation of damages. Nothing less than your verdict will satisfy me.
It is not often that one reads of a man taking an action for breach of promise of marriage. Such an action was heard in the County Court-house, Galway, at the Lent Assizes of 1817. (I think it was one of the first cases heard after the opening of the building).
The case Blake v. Wilkins - one for breach of promise was heard at the Lent Assizes for Galway in 1817. The plaintiff was Lieutenant Blake, R.N., and the defendant the Widow Wilkins. Blake had served for 10 years abroad the man-o-war "Hydra". He met and paid court to the Widow Wilkins a vain old lady of 65, possessed of a fee-simple estate of £800 a year. Her husband had been a staff surgeon on the staff of General Wolfe, and the general had died in his arms at the storming of Quebec in 1753. The widow lived in seclusion at her place at Brownville, near Galway. The battle of Waterloo retired many officers of the army and navy including Lieutenant Blake. His mother and sister living in straitened circumstances were neighbours of the widow. They were most attentive to the old lady and forced on her the idea of marriage with Blake. Suspecting their motives she broke off the engagement. Forced by his mother and sister Blake took action for breach of promise
The Galway, Dublin and other newspapers make it clear that so great was the interest taken in the proceedings that every lodging house, even the humblest in the town was filled to overflowing. "Lodging-house keepers,” writes the special correspondent of The Freeman's Journal,
"are making now a rich harvest beds a pound a night but then it is not so expensive when you get others to join you. Three of us slept in one bed last night in a double-bedded room, and four in the other bed. It was like the black hole of Calcutta.”
Hours before the opening of the Court crowds had gathered in the courthouse square, and as soon as the doors of the Court were opened every available seat was filled, and spectators crowded the entrance hall. Daniel O'Connell was briefed to lead for the defendant. Damages asked for were £5,000 and Blake's counsel after presenting the case was expected to be answered by O'Connell. Owing to an act of hoarseness, contracted at his monster meeting held the previous day at what is now called the Emancipation Rock at Shantalla, O'Connell left the defendant's case to his junior, Counsellor Phillips. Phillip's handling of his client's case was unprecedented as his shafts of ridicule were aimed at his own client.
"How vainglorious is the boast of beauty! How misapprehended have been the charms of youth, if years and wrinkles can thus despoil their conquests, and depopulate the navy of its prowess, and beguile the bar of its eloquence! How mistaken were all the amatory the rose and the thrill of the nightingale to the saffron hide and dulcet treble of sixty-five!" (Here his client rose and pushed her way out of the crowded courthouse). "The reign of old women has commenced and if Johanna Southcott converts England to her creed, why should not Ireland, less pious, perhaps, kneel before the shrine of the irresistible Widow Wilkin?"
Referring to the plaintiff Phillips said:
"For the gratification of his avarice he was content to embrace age, disease, infirmity, and widowhood, to bend his youthful passions to the carcass for which the grave was opening - to feed, by anticipation, on the cold corpse, and cheat the worm of its revisionary corruption. Education in a profession proverbially generous, he offered to barter every joy for money! Born in a country ardent to a fault, he advertised his happiness to the highest bidder and he now solicits an honourable jury to become the panderers to his heartless cupidity! Harassed and conspired against, my client entered into the contract you have heard - a contract conceived in meanness, extorted by fraud, and sought to be enforced by the most profligate conspiracy! Trace it through every stage of its progress, in its origin, its means, its effects - from the parent contriving it through the sacrifice of her son, and forwarding it through the instrumentality of her daughter, down to the son himself unblushingly acceding to the atrocious combination by which age was to be betrayed and youth degraded, and the odious union of decrepitude and precocious avarice blasphemously consecrated by the solemn rights of religion! Gentlemen of the jury, remember I ask you for no mitigation of damages. Nothing less than your verdict will satisfy me! By that verdict you will sustain the dignity of your sex by that verdict you will uphold the honour of the national character. By that verdict you will assure not only the immense multitude of both sexes that thus so unusually crowd around you, but the whole rising generation of your country, that marriage can never be attended with honour, or blessed with happiness, if it has not its origin in natural affection. I surrender with confidence my case to your decision!"
The jury found for the defendant. On the court rising Phillips left the building and hardly had he emerged into the square when Mrs Wilkins rushed at him and soundly thrashed him with a horsewhip.