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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The Condemned Criminal Tolerates Consolation

“The Home Secretary has issued orders for the execution of Bucknell, convicted at the late Somerset Assizes of the brutal murder of his aged grandfather and grandmother, at Creech St Michael’s, to take place at Taunton Gaol, on Thursday morning next, the 26th instant.

“The wretched criminal, it is said, appears extremely callous, and to have no conception of the enormity of his guilt.

“He is respectful to the reverend chaplain, but seems rather to tolerate than wish for his spiritual consolation and assistance.”

Liverpool Mercury, 23 August 1858

21-year-old John Baker Bucknell was executed at Taunton on 26 August. He had been convicted of housebreaking in March 1857 and given a 10 month gaol sentence.

The following year, he was convicted of murdering innkeeper John Bucknell, aged 72, and his wife Betsy, 74. He was described by the Taunton Courier of 11 August 1858 as an “unfortunate young man”.

Book review: Print Culture, Crime and Justice in C18th London

 “I have long said, that if a paragraph in a newspaper contains a word of truth, it is sure to be accompanied with two or three blunders; yet, who will believe that papers published in the face of the whole town should be noting but magazines of lies, every one of which fifty persons could contradict and disprove? Yet so it certainly is, and future history will probably be ten times falser than all preceding.” – Horace Walpole, 1782 [1]

image1Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London (Bloomsbury, 2014) is the first book by Richard Ward, formerly a research associate on the Leicester University project Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse, and now working on the Digital Panopticon project run by the universities of Liverpool and Sheffield.

I was eager to read this book, having done some research myself into 18th century print culture; I have previously given a paper on the coverage of domestic violence cases in 18th century newspapers and periodicals, and am currently working on a paper looking at a different aspect of crime reporting.

I have long recognised the similarities between parts of 18th century news reporting and the excesses of 20th and early 21st century tabloid journalism.

Stories are stretched, exaggerated, or given undue prominence, to sneer at individuals or competitors, or to stir up public feeling.

Reading the Daily Mail and its seemingly endless stories about immigration and terrorism sometimes feels little different to reading certain stories in the 18th century press, which whipped the public up into ‘moral panics’ about the state of England and the crime rate in their local area.

Ward recognises this early on, pointing out:

“the significant impact of media in creating and shaping panics through increased reporting of crimes, exaggeration, the distortion of events to fit a particular theme, the portrayal of rumours as fact and the creation of negative and fearful stereotypes.” [2]

The main focus of Ward’s book is on the trial reports of the Old Bailey, where he is able to utilise the fantastic online resource The Proceedings of the Old Bailey.

But he also looks at other forms of print culture, from books to newspapers, to analyse the links between the printed word and 18th century forms of prosecution and punishment.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is Ward’s exploration of how the press covered crimes. He finds that different sections of the press responded differently, some by critiquing the criminal justice system, while others backed it.

This reflected both the timescales of newspaper production and the ways in which papers got their stories, with agents appearing to be based at particular places of justice and getting the bulk of their stories from that single location.

The book also shows that differences in patterns of reporting crime across different newspaper titles was a result of how publications chose to focus on different kinds of offences, with some papers concentrating on street and highway robberies, which were more likely to remain unsolved and thus present negative connotations of justice to the reader.

Ward offers an ‘alternative’ view on how the press covered crime compared to Esther Snell‘s previous analysis of the 18th century press, which focused on The Kentish Post. [3] He shows that although the press did publicise the failings of the judicial system, it also covered policing in a more positive manner.

He emphasises Shoemaker’s point that although the proceedings of the Old Bailey did not misreport events, by omitting details, such trial reports ‘were constructed to present a positive image of justice’. [4]

Ward concentrates on a tight period of history – the mid 18th century, a fascinating time that saw a growth in crime reporting, subsequent moral panics about crime, and the impact of the end of the War of Austrian Succession, which saw rapid demobilisation cause unemployment and an increase in crime in some areas.

By concentrating on a limited time span, he is able to study changes in reporting in depth, and offers some food for thought about the operation of the 18th century press and its effect on public perceptions of law and order.

References

1: Letter to the Rev Mr Cole (21 June 1782) in The Letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, Volume 6 (Richard Bentley, London, 1840), page 176

2: Richard M Ward, Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London (Bloomsbury, London, 2014), p.14

3: Esther Snell, “Discourses of criminality in the eighteenth-century press: the presentation of crime in the Kentish Post, 1717-1768”, Continuity & Change, 22:1 (2007), pp.13-47

4: Richard M Ward, Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London (Bloomsbury, London, 2014), p.142

Why poor neglected females turn to crime

womenIt is a truth universally acknowledged that women do not always get paid the same as men for doing the same job, and this is in the 21st century. In the 18th century, women were often paid less than men, and had less recourse to the law than we do today to fight for a fairer deal.

Yet the fact that women were paid less, and sometimes paid a wage that they could not live on, was not a secret. Many knew it; and some had considerable sympathy for the plight of the female in the workplace.

One anonymous writer in 1796 argued that there was a clear correlation between the disparity in male and female wages and the likelihood of a woman turning to thieving as a result. He wrote that women were paid a quarter of what they should be, and added:

“I beg to remind the public that sempstresses had the same wages sixty years ago that they have now…while the wages of the men have been considerably advanced, those of the women had remained as before.”

In addition, legislation had regulated the wages of men, “while the poor neglected females have had none to plead their cause”.

And what was the result of this unfairness? The writer recognised the desperation of those who were out of employment, and who knew “the cravings of hunger”. He asked,

“Is there one man in a thousand who knows the cravings of hunger, who if a convenient opportunity offers to gratify his appetite even by means of theft, could withstand the temptation? No wonder that we heard of so many female thieves.”

The writer was relatively unusual in recognising why some women might be compelled to steal – not through a failing in their personality, or a lack of respect for society, but out of hunger, poverty, or lack of other choices.

Yet he still linked the criminality of women to that of men, unable to continue his argument that a woman could act independently of men. He concluded:

“The path of honesty once deserted, is very difficult to regain: but then entirely lost female virtue follows, and the consequence is, a connection is formed with the most infamous of the other sex, who then carry on the trade of thieving jointly.”

So once the female had set off down the path of thieving, it would be difficult to live an honest (poorly paid) life again; but if she met with an equally thieving man, she would be completely lost.

Source: The Oracle and Public Advertiser, 18 August 1796

 

A Letter from the Flagellator

1811_emblem_TheScourge_Boston_Oct3Letters to the editors of Victorian newspapers are often fascinating insights into the minds of our 19th century forebears. This one, from 1842, caught my attention – from the self-titled Flagellator (whose name should give you an immediate indication of his interests), he argued that frequent flogging was the way to deal with pretty much all offenders.

It’s also interesting as it sheds light on Victorian debates surrounding the execution of criminals. Here, for your delectation, is a letter from the Flagellator of Victorian England.

“Punishment of Flogging. To the editor of The Times. Sir: I most cordially agree with your article in this day’s Times relative to the punishment of flogging for various offences.

“It is true that there are many mawkish and morbid persons who cannot bear to hear, or see, or think, of punishments; but, as prevention of crime is the object of punishment, I should most strongly advocate frequent flogging during the period of imprisonment, which would check many crimes, and pickpocketing in particular.

“Indeed, though I should be sorry that hanging be abolished, yet, if the morbid and canting part of the world would not object, I should almost be inclined to stop hanging, provided even the convicted murderer should be kept to hard labour, and be flogged well once a month as long as he lied.

“This would effectually prevent all crimes, for men could not bear such constant inflictions. Till this is agreed on, hanging must be continued.” FLAGELLATOR, July 5.

From The Times, 7 July 1842