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.


Miss Ingrouville and the bigamous “baronet”

314px-ForAfternoonWear1894The press was agog in 1899, when it heard about Agnes Roselle Ingrouville. “All must sympathise,” The Era reported breathlessly, “with the distressing position of Miss Agnes Ingreville [sic].”

Agnes, aged 27, was appearing in the Divorce Court, seeking the end of her marriage on the grounds that her husband already had a wife living.

She had married just two years earlier, to a 39-year-old baronet named Greville Louis John Temple – the couple marrying on 8 March 1897 at St Peter’s, Pimlico.

However, a year later, in August 1898, a court case was heard in New York. A woman named Estelle Wassall was seeking a divorce – from Greville Louis John Temple.

Estelle had married Greville Temple in 1895, but three years later, he had confessed to her that he had since married Agnes in London.

Agnes too sought a divorce, filing the papers on 3 March 1899. Greville Temple failed to appear at the Central Criminal Court to defend himself, and Agnes was duly awarded a decree nisi.

Why did Greville fail to defend himself? There was good reason. On 20 June 1898, Greville had been convicted of bigamy at the Central Criminal Court, after Estelle’s case had been heard in the States.

Greville was given a harsh punishment – he was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude (at a time when others convicted of the same offence were more likely to receive six months).

He was therefore already in prison when Agnes sought the divorce from him, his conviction providing her with a clear-cut case.

It also turned out that in addition to being a bit of a cad when it came to marriage, the bigamist was also anything but a baronet. The grand Greville Louis John Temple was actually William Woodman Runcieman, a chancer from Chelsea.

Born there in 1858, he was the son of a Welsh commercial traveller, and named for his father, his middle name being his mother’s maiden name.

He spent his early childhood in Ewell in Surrey, before being sent to stay with his uncle, an army schoolmaster, at the Royal Military Asylum of Children of Soldiers in the Regular Army, back in Chelsea. He was educated there, under his uncle’s supervision.

Runcieman is not to be found in the 1881 census; the next time he appears in the archives is in April 1889.

He was convicted at the Oxfordshire Easter Quarter Sessions of obtaining an endorsement to a cheque by false pretences – with an additional charge of larceny not proceeded with – and was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude.

Runcieman's initial conviction in 1889.

Runcieman’s initial conviction in 1889.

He served his sentence in Dorset, at Her Majesty’s Convict Prison in Portland, where he was listed as a convict in 1891.

Therefore, when he was convicted of bigamy, his earlier conviction was considered and he was given a harsher sentence as a previous offender.

Agnes’s decree nisi granted on 12 June 1899 and the final decree on 22 January 1900.

She may have had reason to want to divorce Runcieman quickly, for as soon as the final decree was issued, she married again.

Dartmoor Prison, c.1879

Dartmoor Prison, c.1879

Conned by a man who said he was a baronet, Agnes’s second husband made no such claims.

Meanwhile, William Runcieman continued to live a life not suitable for a baronet – this time, in the confines of Dartmoor prison.



Sources: The Era, 17 June 1899; Old Bailey Online, trial of William Woodman Runcieman, bigamy, 20 June 1898 (t-18980620-426). 1871 census, 1891 census, 1901 census and Oxfordshire Quarter Sessions register (Easter sessions, 1889) via Ancestry.

The Whipped Boys of St Ives

The first of two posts to mark my recent holiday in Cornwall…and neither of them is related to smuggling!

St Ives

St Ives

In 1842, two boys, James Stevens, aged 12, and 16-year-old William Quick, appeared in court before J King Letherbridge, accused of stealing a copper funnel.

The boys were from the coastal town of St Ives, and the funnel was used as a ship’s chimney. They had stolen it from a ship called the Agnes, which had been laid up for the winter in the town’s harbour.

The copper would have been valuable, but it had been an opportunistic crime, the boys seeing the funnel on the ship’s deck, nobody being around, and so taking it.

James Stevens' and William Quick's criminal record - from Ancestry

James Stevens’ and William Quick’s criminal record – from Ancestry

Newspaper reports were conflicted over what had happened to the funnel – stating both that it had been found in the possession of the boys, and that they had also sold it in two parts to two local marine store dealers.

But the two boys quickly confessed to the theft, and the jury equally quickly found them guilty. They were given one week’s imprisonment and ordered to be privately whipped.

This whipping would have been done with a birch; the whipping of boys for larceny was a common punishment, and could at this time be ordered by a magistrate at petty sessions.

But Quick and Stevens could have counted themselves lucky. Others younger than them were receiving harsher punishments at around the same time. Just three years later, an eight year old boy was whipped in addition to serving a month in jail for stealing boxes in St Pancras, London.

Did the boys’ whipping stop them from committing crimes? Well, there is no further entry for William Quick in the criminal registers, so he may have gone on to live a blameless life after his initial offence.

But four years after the funnel theft, James Stevens, now 18, was convicted of house-breaking. His previous record was held against him, and he was transported to Australia for seven years.

Source: The Cornwall Royal Gazette, 18 March 1842 and criminal registers on

Bigamy in Birmingham: the tale of Horatio and Mrs Hoskins

Mary Ann - fifth entry - appeared before the Warwick Assizes under her first married name of Brown.

Mary Ann – fifth entry – appeared before the Warwick Assizes under her first married name of Brown.

At the Loughborough Petty Sessions in April 1846, a Mrs Hoskins charged her husband with having committed bigamy.

This was not unusual; bigamy cases appeared fairly often in court during the 18th and 19th centuries; as David J Cox has stated:

“before men and women could divorce on equal terms and without blame being apportioned, bigamy was seen as one way in which men (or less usually, women) could evade an unhappy and sometimes dangerous marriage and begin afresh.” [1]

But this case had a couple of differences.

Firstly, the man accused, Horatio Huntley Hoskins, was an attorney from a good background, and also the author of a couple of published works: Count De Denia: Or, The Spaniard’s Ransom (1841) and De Valencourt: A Tragedy in Five Acts (1842, written with his brother).

But secondly, Horatio Hoskins had previously accused his wife of bigamy – a case that had been heard at the Warwick Assizes a month earlier. His wife had been acquitted, but she then attempted to get her own back on her husband by accusing him of the same offence.

The details, as given in a brief piece in the local paper, were as follows.

At the petty sessions, Horatio, who was working as an attorney in Loughborough, admitted having been married twice, but then:

“[he] introduced into court a person by the name of Brown, who swore that he was the husband of Mrs Hoskins; and her marriage with Mr Hoskins, as it was therefore contended, illegal. Some doubts were attempted to be thrown on the identity of this first husband of Mrs Hoskins, and she utterly denied and repudiated him, but the magistrates gave credit to his evidence, and dismissed the case.” [2]

I looked into the backgrounds of both Horatio and his wife, to see who was telling the truth here, and it emerged that neither was entirely innocent.

Horatio's childhood home of Newton Park - photo by MJ Richardson.

Horatio’s childhood home of Newton Park – photo by MJ Richardson.

Horatio Huntley Hoskins was the son of Abraham Hoskins, also an attorney, a wealthy man who had Newton Park, in Newton Solney, south Derbyshire, built for him.

Horatio would have grown up in a privileged environment, and, no doubt, his father would have expected his son to make a successful career and make a good match in marriage.

However, it is possible that the Hoskins sons rebelled against their father – Horatio’s brother and co-writer in his youthful plays, William, was an actor – not always a terribly salubrious occupation in Victorian England, describing himself in 1841 as a ‘leading tragedian’ and in 1851 as a ‘comedian’. [3]

William married an American-born singer and actress, Julia Susanna Wallack, who was known professionally as Julia Harland, in 1842. [4]

Whether Mary Ann would have been deemed a better marital choice than Julia Susanna, though, is a matter of speculation.

Her background is unknown, but I believe that she was born Mary Ann Hodgkins, and married William Brown in Birmingham in the summer of 1837, when she was between 17 and 20 years old (records differ – the notoriously unreliable 1841 census gives her age as 20; at the Warwick Assizes in 1846, her age was given as 29). [5]

Two years after her marriage to Brown, in the autumn or winter of 1839, again in Birmingham, Mary Ann Brown married Huntley Hoskins [sic]; Hoskins was, at the time, serving as an articled clerk, having started a five year apprenticeship at the age of 18 that saw him working for at least three different solicitors. [6]

This means that Mary Ann certainly committed bigamy in 1839, assuming that the Brown who appeared before petty sessions in 1846 WAS her husband William.

In 1841, Horatio and Mary Ann Hoskins were living at 2 Darlington Place, Southwark, where the 20-year-old Horatio was described as being ‘independent’. [7]

Perhaps he and Mary Ann had separated by this point. Hoskins continued working, and in 1843 was back in London. But in the summer of 1845, he married Fanny Warner in her home county of Leicestershire, where he appears to have now been working, despite Mary Ann being still very much alive. [8]

Did Horatio know for sure by this point that Mary Ann had committed bigamy in marrying in, and so was confident that this marriage was illegal? Or had he been unaware, and, having separated from Mary Ann, committed bigamy himself (in the belief that his first marriage was legal)? Or, a final option, perhaps he had been aware all along of Mary Ann’s youthful first marriage, and had simply ignored it in order to be with her?

There is no way of telling, although it is interesting that Mary Ann had been acquitted of bigamy at the Assizes. Had she convinced the jury that she had thought her first husband was dead, perhaps?

As an attorney, Hoskins had certainly used his skills to track down Mary Ann’s legal husband and persuade him to be a witness in the case at petty sessions.

The gendered nature of Victorian justice might be seen in the fact that Hoskins’ second marriage was not the subject of disapproval – despite Hoskins admitting that he had married twice knowing Mary Ann to be alive and his excuse that her marriage to him had been illegal anyway – and that more credence was placed on the evidence of a stranger than on Mary Ann’s previous acquittal.

What happened to Mary Ann is unknown. But five years after the case, in 1851, Horatio Hoskins was still living with the remarkably forgiving Fanny in Lambeth, where he continued to thrive as an attorney. [9]  Shortly afterwards, he seems to have emigrated to Australia, where he died in 1876. [10]

Mary Ann retreated into the shadows of history after this case; but I’d love to know what she did next.


1. David J Cox, “‘Trying to get a good one’: Bigamy offences in England and Wales, 1850-1950”, Plymouth Law and Criminal Justice Review, 4 (2011), 2

2. The Leicester Chronicle, 2 May 1846

3. 1851 census, return for St John Street Road [sic], Clerkenwell

4. Marriage entry for William Hoskins and Julia Susannah [sic] Wallack, Medway district, Sep 1842, vol 5, page 427, accessed via Free BMD. Julia was the daughter of London actor and manager Henry Wallack (source: Drury Lane Fund)

5. Marriage entry for William Brown and Mary Ann Hodgkins, Birmingham district, Sep 1837, vol 16, page 244, accessed via Free BMD

6. Articles of Clerkship, 1756-1874, accessed via Ancestry

7. 1841 census, return for Darlington Place, Southwark

8. Marriage entry for Horatio Huntley Hoskins and Fanny Warner, Ashby de la Zouch district, Sept 1845, vol 15, page 3, accessed via Free BMD

9. 1851 census, return for Palace New Road, Lambeth

10. Australia Death Index, 1787-1985, accessed via Ancestry