Breach of Promise of Marriage Case - Friday, 6 May 1887
This was a case that had been sent down from the Queens Bench Division of the High
Court of Justice to a court at Hertford to assess damages in an action for breach
of promise of marriage.
The plaintiff was a young woman named Hannah Mary Frost whose father is in service
as a butler in London but whose mother lives at Preston near Hitchin. The defendant,
Frank Brown, is a hay and straw dealer at Preston.
The defendant had allowed judgement to be entered against him by default. The only
question for the jury was the amount of damages to which the plaintiff was entitled.
It was stated that Frost even now was willing to marry the defendant if he would
carry out his promise. Her counsel was prepared to consent to an adjournment of ten
days or so to allow the marriage to take place.
Counsel for the defendant said that his client was quite willing to marry the plaintiff
but he was not going to be ‘rushed’ into the payment of costs if he could help it.
The attempt to bring about an arrangement failed so the case proceeded.
Miss Frost stated that she was 27 years of age. In April 1884 she went to live with
Brown as his housekeeper and to look after his four children as he had lately become
a widower for a salary of £12 a year. A few months after she had been in service,
he said to her ‘I think we had better be married’ but she said she thought her responsibility
was so great that she could not undertake it then.
He expressed love to her from time to time and in the summer of 1886 he seduced her
with the result that she was about to become a mother. In December 1886, she told
him of her condition and he promised to marry her. She asked him from time to time
to carry out his promise and on the 3 March this year he went to Doctor’s Commons
and procured a licence and spoke to the curate at Preston, Mr Tanqueray, about marrying
them on Monday, 7 March. On Sunday night, she spoke to him about the wedding the
next morning and he said he did not know whether he would be able to go and in the
morning he absolutely refused to go to the church. In consequence of this, she left
the house and Brown then said he would be married about the middle of the week and
would write to the Vicar of Hitchin, Mr Hensley, about it.
On a subsequent occasion, he said he would be married on the following Saturday or
he would forfeit his life. The Vicar refused to marry them as Brown had failed to
come on the Monday and Brown said he would write to the Wesleyan minister as he did
not care whether he was married in church or in chapel. On the Saturday morning however,
a little girl came to Frost’s house to say the weather was too rough for him to go
to the church (it was snowing). Frost went to Brown’s house to know if it was true
and Brown said he could not go.
As to his means, Brown had told her that he paid a railway company £50 a month for
carrying his goods to London. He employed three or four men and boys to cut the hay
and straw up and two others to cart it away.
When cross-examined, Frost said that she had heard that a creditor of Brown in London
had failed, owing him hundreds of pounds. He had told her a week ago that he was
willing to marry her and she told him she was willing with the consent of her father
and her solicitor. Several persons had suggested to her that she brought this action.
When re-examined, Frost said she was willing at this present moment to marry Brown.
Her father and mother corroborated her testimony.
When called, Brown admitted that in December last he promised to marry Frost. He
said that on 7 March, Frost did not make any preparation to get married, so the matter
passed over. He refused to get married at the Wesleyan chapel as he was a member
of the Church of England. He went to London to Frost’s father to make arrangements
about the wedding but he was so rough that there was no speaking with him. He now
had the licence in his pocket. He had since often offered to marry Frost but she
would not make any arrangement without her father’s and her solicitor’s consent.
He was even now willing to marry her and was anxious to do so but if he did, he could
not pay the costs (of this case) as he would be very much pressed and it would only
make the marriage miserable.
He was now insolvent. His debts and liabilities amounted to £650 and his assets to
less than £50. He was entitled to a reversion under his father’s will but it was
mortgaged to over its full amount. The rent of his cottage, an acre of land, a small
orchard and stables only amounted to £20 a year and there was a year’s rent owing.
He did not know why he hadn’t a ring on 7 March.
On cross examination, Brown said he was still doing a little business – he had not
filed his (bankruptcy) petition. A Mr Smiles in London sent him money to carry on
his business – it was exclusively a credit business. The executors had mortgaged
his reversion to between £800 and £900 and it might be, he did not know, be worth
£1000 and there were seven of them to share it. He had £400 from his father. He would
marry the plaintiff at the present moment but he could not pay the costs and would
only marry her if she paid them.
It was stated Brown had a bad debt of £512 which he was unable to recover.
After consulting together for twenty minutes, the jury assessed damages at £150.
The protagonists in this case were from established and intertwined Preston families.
The plaintiff was Hannah Mary Frost. She was the daughter of the London butler, David
Frost, and his wife Hannah (nee Saunderson) who were living along Chequers Lane in
1881. Hannah snr was to move to Spindle Cottage on the Hitchin Road and open the
village Post Office there. Hannah jnr was also the granddaughter of Joseph and Harriet
(nee Swain) Saunderson who owned and farmed from the Red Lion for almost forty years
from 1811. When Harriet Saunderson died in 1847, the inn was bought by William Brown
who owned it for a further fifty years. (Link: William Brown)
One of William Brown’s sons was the defendant in the case, Frank Brown. He married
Lydia Watts on
1 November 1871 at Christ Church, Highbury Grove, Islington, London. The couple also
settled at Chequers Lane living in the cottage that is now known as Sadleirs End
where they had four children. Frank traded as a hay and straw dealer. In 1881, he
was described as a farmer of 65 acres employing three men and a boy.
Now, a little about Frank’s character. He was evidently aggressive and accustomed
to getting his way. Two confrontations with local farmer, John Dew ended before Hitchin
Magistrates - as did a fight with his older brother, Alfred Brown, in 1874 when
Frank baulked at paying costs of 7/6d - a foreshadow of what was to happen thirteen
years later! Frank was also charged twice with cruelty to horses - working them when
they were in an unfit state.
Then, in 1883, Frank’s wife, Lydia died and was buried on 10 November. He was left
with four small children and a house to maintain....
Knowledge of the case was not confined to the wagging tongues of Preston. It was
seized upon by several newspapers and circulated far and wide: Hartlepool, Northampton,
Dundee, Manchester, Nottingham, York, Gloucester, Whitstable, Taunton, Sheffield,
Devon, Lincolnshire and Edinburgh. It was also reported by Lloyd’s newspaper of London.
The headings led with ‘Amusing Breach of Promise Case’ and ‘ A Tardy Wooer and the
Weather’ and so on. But, one suspects that of the two, Hannah was the more embarrassed
about the nationwide publicity.
The matter was speedily resolved. Frank, true to form, clearly couldn’t or wouldn’t
cough up £150 - of which Hannah and her advisors were fully aware. Probably, Hannah
paid the court costs. Almost inevitably, using his previously obtained licence, a
week after the case was concluded, on 13 May, Frank married the heavily-pregnant
Hannah at St Mary, Hitchin. The service being conducted by Lewis Hensley - who had
evidently relented. Making sure that Frank ‘did the right thing’, Hannah’s mother,
Hannah Frost, and Frank’s immediate neighbour, Mary Marriott, were the two witnesses.
A son was born to Hannah shortly after the wedding. The birth of Reginald Joseph
Brown was registered in the June Quarter of 1887.
By 1906, Frank and Hannah had left Preston and 1911 saw them settled at Lower Luton
Road in Harpenden where Frank continued to trade as a hay and straw dealer. The couple
had three children, but only two survived. Hannah died aged eighty in the late spring
of 1941. She was still living in the Hitchin Registration District.