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”.

An extra shilling for Valentine’s Day

 

Not a crime story, but I liked this Valentine’s story from 1871, so thought I’d share it:

“On the evening before St Valentine’s Day, there was an immense increase of labour in the inland branch of the Post Office, which was met partly by the employment of an extra number of men and partly by extra exertion of the regular hands, who were paid an additional shilling for coming an hour earlier than their usual time.

“The ordinary force of 350 sorters was made up to 500, by the enlistment of men who were off duty in their own right, and of others from the Dead Letter Office.

“The number of valentines despatched on Monday evening from the General Post Office was 250,000 more were received the same night and on the morning of St Valentine’s Day, for despatch by the day mails.”

The Derby Mercury, 22 February 1871 (who in turn had lifted their story from the Globe).

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