A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
News: Frank Brown, breach of promise to marry case, 1887
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. 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....
The background
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. 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. In September 1939, Hannah was back in Preston and once again living at Spindle Cottage, Hitchin Road.
Hannah died aged eighty in the late spring of 1941. She was still living in the Hitchin Registration District.