Widow Wilkins and the delicate matter of her ‘breach of promise’

 Galway courthouse at the time of the widow Wilkins v Blake case.

Galway courthouse at the time of the widow Wilkins v Blake case.

The case of Blake v Wilkins in 1817 was so eagerly anticipated that every lodging house in Galway, ‘even the humblest in the town was' was filled to overflowing.

‘Lodging house keepers’, reported the Freemen’s Journal. ‘are making 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.’

The case was a breach of promise, a delicate matter in some cases where difficulties can arise between the couple, usually it was the man who broke off the relationship perhaps because he had fallen out of love, failed to get the dowry he had hoped, or had promised marriage simply to have his way with the girl, and wanted his freedom.*

But the reason why the Galway case created such a stir was that it was the man, retired naval officer Lieutenant Blake RN, who was suing the widow Wilkins for breach of promise. The case had the added piquancy that the famous Daniel O’Connell would defend the widow’s honour.

Blake in his thirties, had served for 10 years abroad the man-o-war ‘Hydra’. His mother, living in straightened circumstances, had minded the widow Wilkins for a number of years. She convinced her that marriage to her son would be the beginning of a fulfilling and happy state. Equally the mother persuaded her son to pay court to the widow, which he did, culminating in his proposal of marriage which she accepted.

The widow Wilkins, of indeterminate years (but believed to be 65 ), was a well known character in Galway, with an income of £800 a year. She claimed that her husband had been the staff surgeon with General James Wolfe, and she boasted that the general had died in his arms at the storming of Quebec. In her later years she lived in semi seclusion at Brownville, Rahoon, Galway. But if she was elderly, she was no fool, and growing suspicious that the lieutenant’s real focus was on her £800, she called off the engagement.

Shantalla

Hours before the opening of the court crowds had gathered in the Courthouse Square. A soon as the doors opened every available seat was filled and spectators crowded the entrance hall. Damages asked for from Blake were a jaw-dropping £5,000, so it is unsurprising that widow Wilkins sought the help of the best barrister in Ireland namely Daniel O’Connell, and his junior assistant the well-known advocate Charles Phillips.

However, at this time O’Connell was in the middle of his campaign for Catholic Emancipation, to win the right for Catholics to be elected to the House Of Commons, during which he addressed large crowds. The night before the trial he had addressed a huge crowd at Shantalla (at the Sliding Rock, now known as Emancipation Rock ) and as a result was hoarse. The charge would be answered by Phillips.

Answer he did, and famously did so, by mocking his poor client to the extent that she pushed her way through the crowds and rushed out into the street totally embarrassed and distressed.

Horse-whip

“How vainglorious is the boast of beauty”, Phillips cried to the jury, “ 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 roses and the thrill of the nightingale to the saffron hide and dulcet treble of sixty-five….”

It gets worse: “ For the gratification of his avarice he was content to embrace age, disease, infirmity, and widowhood, to bend his youthful passions to the carcase for which the grave was opening - to feed, by anticipation, on the untold corpse, and cheat the worm of its reversionary corruption…. 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 panderers to his heartless cupidity….harassed and conspired against, my client entered into the contract you have heard - a contract conceived in meanness, exhorted by fraud, and sought to be enforced by the most profligate conspiracy …..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 up hold the honour of the national character. By that verdict you will assure not only the immense multitude of both sexes that 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.”

After that the jury had little choice but to totally exonerate the widow Wilkins of any responsibility to Blake, who would owe him nothing despite her calling off the marriage.

But the widow Wilkins was deeply upset at the manner and words used in her defence. When Charles Phillips emerged from the courthouse the widow Wilkins was waiting for him with a horse-whip which she duly administered much to the delight, I am sure, of the expectant crowds.

NOTES: Interest by the public in breach of promise cases was usually intense as the parties were often well known, and every tittle-tattle piece of gossip would have been the talk of the neighbourhood where the plaintiffs and defendants resided. In 1863 a case came before the Galway assizes involving a clergyman and the daughter of a ‘gentleman’. The ‘court was densely crowded. Several ladies occupied the bar seats, and his lordship accommodated two with seats on the bench’. In such cases juries were overwhelmingly sympathetic to female plaintiffs.

So they were in a 1897 case where Catherine Darcy ‘a young lady of prepossessing appearance’ in her early twenties, sued Terence Dunne , a man of ‘mature age’. Catherine had only met her future husband once but she was satisfied to marry him, and they became engaged.

At a meeting in a private room over a pub in Portumna, the sensitive question of her dowry was discussed. Dunne produced a cheque for £450 and asked if it could be matched. All Catherine’s father could produce was £50. Nevertheless the wedding day was set, and the plaintiff spent £15 on her wedding trousseau.

Out of the blue Catherine received a letter from Dunne calling off the wedding. In court she admitted that Dunne was an old man but she was willing to marry him. When asked why, she replied that he ‘was well off’. The barrister then asked whether it was the £450 or Dunne that she was marrying and she responded that she was ‘marrying both.’ Dunne claimed that he called off the wedding because her dowry had not been paid. It was put to the jury that her dowry, small as it was, would have been paid on the wedding day. Dunne’s defence was not accepted by the jury.

I am taking this from a very interesting study: Marriage in Ireland 1660 - 1925, by Maria Luddy, and Mary O’Dowd, just published by Cambridge University Press.

Next week: Abductions in Galway- how some men forced a woman into marriage.

 

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