This year marks the 45th anniversary of the official end of a law which allowed jilted brides to take their ex-beaus to court and sue for “breach of promise”.
But, before the change, Wearside women could – and did – claim damages from partners who broke marriage promises, as historian Sharon Vincent has discovered.
“One such case came before Judge Moore at Sunderland County Court in August 1920, where the plaintiff was 20-year-old domestic servant Eveline Wright,” she said.
“She fell pregnant while courting John Henry Smith, a blacksmith and owner of a confectionary business, and he jilted her just days before the wedding.”
Eveline, of Londonderry Street in Dawdon, first met Henry by chance on the corner of Crowtree Road in October 1919. She became pregnant a few months later.
Henry, from Eastern Street – whose confectionary firm was at Mainsforth Terrace – agreed to marry her, and the wedding was set for May 8, 1920, at St Barnabus.
“Smith bought the engagement and wedding rings, while Eveline sent out invitations informing her family and friends that she was to be married,” said Sharon.
“Then, because of her pregnancy, Eveline gave up her job in service and went to stay with Smith’s sister, Isabella Rogers, in Hendon.”
Just a few days before the wedding, as Eveline set off to visit an aunt in Dawdon, Smith asked for her engagement ring, claiming he wanted to have it engraved.
It seemed such a romantic gesture, and one that she could not refuse, so without hesitation Eveline handed the ring over to him. It was the last she saw of it.
Two days later, she received a letter:
“Dear Eva, Just a few lines to let you know that owing to the trouble we have had, I have postponed the wedding as I am just fed up of this.
“You said I did not treat you right, therefore we had better not tie ourselves to each other as it would only be a life of misery for both of us.
Eveline immediately called on Smith, only to discover he had moved the night before. Eventually she caught up with him on May 13 but he refused to talk to her.
Hurt and angry at his actions, the servant girl sought the advice of local solicitor Mr Wolfe , who wrote a stern letter to her ex-fiancé.
“Your treatment of my client has been cruel and heartless and has caused her considerable anxiety and ill-health.
“I am instructed to inform you that unless you make ample reparation so far as you can in regard to monetary damages, legal proceedings will be taken against you in reference thereto.”
Smith, however, pleaded poverty and ended up in court. Here it was revealed his total income/turnover was up to £44 a week - around £1,000 in today’s money.
“Mr Wolfe asked the jury to consider how much Eveline should receive as recompense for the humiliation, shame and anxiety she had endured,” said Sharon.
“But Smith’s solicitor, Mr Priestly, tried to cast aspersions on her character by claiming the couple had become ‘intimate’ within hours of first meeting.
“Eveline strongly denied this and, when Smith was asked why he had changed his mind, he claimed his sister had told him Eveline had both fleas and lice!”
The couple, Smith claimed, had talked about breaking up and he then had second thoughts about marriage. He also denied all knowledge of a confectionary firm.
But, after Judge Moore summed up the case, the jury returned a verdict after just 11 minutes consideration. Smith HAD broken his promises to Eveline.
“The hearing went in Eveline’s favour and Smith was ordered to pay her £100 damages with costs. A great deal of money for the time,” said Sharon.
l Sharon is the tutor of a free 11-week course on World War One, organised by the WEA and being held at the Donnison School, Church Walk, East End. Sessions are held each Monday and further details are available from 565 4835.