Although rarely heard of today, ‘ breach of promise’ cases in the 19th century were quite common. A successful prosecution was a source of saving face, and social embarrassment; and could be of considerable monetary value if you were from the upper classes. All sorts of intimate details were revealed as the case dragged on, which provided delicious gossip for newspapers and their readers.*
Some of the original theory behind this tort was the acceptance through the centuries that a women would be more likely to give up her virginity to a man if she had his promise to marry her. If he seduced her and subsequently refused to marry her, her lack of virginity would make her future search for a suitable husband more difficult.
But as I said the value of a woman’s virginity could be weighed on whether she came from the landed society or from more humble stock. Two interesting cases are recorded in Patrick Melvin’s magnificent study of the landed society in Galway published recently.**
In 1843 a niece of Major Thomas Mahon of Belleville won the very substantial award of £2,500 against Henry Flanagan of Woburn, in the Eyrecourt neighbourhood. Flanagan, the wretch, had proposed marriage to Miss Mahon, but had requested that he retained a certain maidservant of whom he was fond. It emerged at the trial that Mr Flanagan was in the habit of breakfasting and dining in a bedroom, ‘she in bed in it at the time’...
The pretty servant of wealthy landowner Valentine Blake, of Gortnamona, Eyrecourt, was not so fortunate. She is described as a ‘young woman of humble station, but of a most prepossessing appearance and manners, and of considerable educational acquirements’...
Blake was smitten by her charms. He constantly sought her society, tried to seduce her, but she was having none of it.
Poor Blake was forced to declare that his love for her was honourable. He vowed to marry her there and then, but for a provision in his father’s will by which he was barred from marrying within five years of his death. Blake promised to marry the girl after this period; and the lady happily consented to live with him.
They lived together‘ at various respectable houses in the city of Dublin and elsewhere, she passing under the name Mrs Blake, and being introduced to society by him as his wife’.
However, as the five years came to an end, Blake’s friends persuaded him to give up such a foolish relationship, and dump her. He did so. The jury in this case awarded her a measly £300.
Many landowners had risen to prominence through family ambition, government service at home or abroad, or inherited wealth. Most of them depended on the rents from their tenants for cash. Because so much land was of poor quality, income depended on good harvests, healthy livestock, good prices; and perhaps above all, a good, prosperous marriage. If they were lucky new land would come with the bride.
Gentlemen met their future spouses in a variety of ways. A mutual interest in photography brought Gerald Dillon into the acquaintance of Augusta Croften of Mote Park. Elizabeth Dillon met her husband at a Castle Hacket party.
The Dublin season and the numerous county and cosmopolitan social events provided ample opportunity for the pursuit of an hairess. Robert Dillon, 1st baron Clonbrock, met his wife Letitia Greene in romantic circumstances while hunting in Limerick. Hunting was forbidden to the girls at Roxborough and Augusta Persse first saw Sir William Gregory at a cricket match there.
Ladies did, however, take part in fox-hunting. The gentry in Connemara always welcomed an invitation to a meet or to a hunt-breakfast east of the Corrib. J M Callwell recalled how her aunt had returned in ‘ deep disgust’ from such a meeting. ‘ The men,’ she declared, ‘ were hunting the fox, but the women were hunting James Daly’.
A few years before he purchased his large Dunmore estate the prosperous and eligible George Shee was successfully hunted in India by the beautiful and accomplished Elizabeth Marsh. I am not quite sure how she did it, but Shee was passed on to her daughter.
There were a few cases of marriage with actresses, a practice which became fashionable with the English aristocracy. In 1825 Andrew Browne of Mount Hazel ran away with the actress Millicent Dillon-Harvey. Richard St George of Headford married an actress in 1860, he had no family and his wife sold the estate later.
Lord Clancarty’s son and heir ran off with the actress Isabel Bilton in 1889. His father was so angry that he began to systematically liquidate and spend the family wealth. When the son eventually inherited what was left he became bankrupt.
The most amazing case of fortune acquired by marriage was that of Robert Percy Ffrench of Monivea who married in 1863 the heiress of Alexander de Kindiakoff, a Russian aristocrat. It was not a happy marriage; but Robert’s only child Kathleen Ffrench inherited seven estates on the Volga, five of which had large mansions. Her jewels and silver was said to be valued at 15 million roubles. The Bolsheviks, however, took it all away from her.
‘Humanity’ Dick Martin prevented his son and heir from marrying a wealthy channeller’s daughter even though her father promised to pay off the huge Ballynahinch debts. Thomas later married the youngest daughter of the Kirwans of Dalgan Park, an estate which was destined like Ballynahinch to come under the hammer of the Encumbered Estates Court.
Next Week: More from Patrick Melvin’s wonderful book on Galway’s landed Society
* It was accepted for centuries that a man’s promise of engagement to marry a women was a legally binding contract. If the man then changed his mind, he would be said to be in ‘breach’ of his promise, and subject to litigation for damages.
Curiously the converse was rarely true. The concept that it is a woman’s prerogative to change her mind appears to have some basis in law.
** Estates and Landed Society in Galway, by Patrick Melvin, published by De Búrca, on sale at Kenny’s Books, Liosban €70.