Breach of promise: the case of Lily Briggs, the jilted shopgirl

Edvard_Munch_-_The_Kiss_-_Google_Art_ProjectIn 1900, Lily Weston Briggs, a Derby shop assistant, became known as the “jilted shopgirl” in the press, after she brought a case alleging breach of promise against a local coppersmith.

Lily and the coppersmith, one Philip James Maskery, who worked in business in Derby with his father, had been courting. He was 27 years old at the time; she was 25.

Philip had proposed to Lily, and she had accepted. However, there was difficulty in setting a date for the wedding, with Philip apparently postponing the event. Eventually, he admitted to Lily that he was “keeping company with another woman”.

Reluctant to give up his status as a bit of a lothario, Philip then insisted that he DID want to marry Lily. She forgave him, but then later “saw him in a theatre with yet another sweetheart.”

Somewhat lacking in chivalry, Philip then told Lily that he wanted to “shake his loose leg” and therefore wanted to have nothing further to do with her.

But Philip had proposed to Lily before, and she had accepted. His jilting of her amounted to breach of promise – their engagement had amounted to a legally binding contract that he would marry her. He had failed to keep that contract, and so Lily immediately went to the Derby sheriff’s court to complain about Maskery’s behaviour.

The jury awarded her £50 for the breach of promise – a considerable sum (equivalent to around £3,000 today) for a shopgirl who lived in the streets and courts around Derby’s main railway bridge.

Philip did not end up marrying any of the three women mentioned in the newspaper report of the court case; in 1901, he was still living at home in Agard Street, Derby, with his parents and sisters. But at the same time, Lily was also living at home, just a few doors away from her unreliable ex, and therefore the former couple probably had to continue seeing each other on a daily basis; he perhaps resentful that she had cost him money, and she resentful of his treatment of her.

You may think that this was a story that could only have happened to our ancestors, but you’d be wrong. Just two years ago, an American woman successfully sued her former partner for breach of promise after he failed to marry her, and was awarded $50,000…

Sources: Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, 18 March 1900; 1901 census for 3 Agard Street, Derby and 7 Agard Street, Derby.

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