Breach of Promise to Marry Research - Facts and Figures

What the database contains

It is thought there were approximately 3500 - 4000 breach of promise cases in England and Wales.

My breach of promise database currently comprises:-

PeriodTypeNumber of cases
Before 1780All19
1780 - 1939
(covered in book)
Women win2395
Women lose274
 Male plaintiffs75
After 1939All81
Total 3172

The database is revealing many new insights.

For example, although men had been awarded damages of a shilling in the 1780s, the first woman to receive a very low sum was a Miss Vaughan in 1801. She won just £10 from a man with dementia in a case the jury were clearly uncomfortable with. A few weeks later another jury took a harsh line with a Miss Tee who received £2 as she had flirted with a Frenchman during her engagement. The first woman to receive a shilling was a Miss Kimber in 1821. Her father had already received £600 for her seduction. The first woman to receive a farthing seems to have been Polly Walker in 1829 after her family connived to get the defendant drunk enough to propose.

Claims by Men

My conclusions for claims made by men in Breach of Promise to Marry were based on 54 cases between 1780 - 1940. I have now located additional cases within and outside this time period. These confirm that many men who brought claims were fortune hunters and that judges and juries took the man's motivation into account when dealing with any case brought by a man.

I have now located 78 male plaintiffs. The earliest case was in 1766, when a lawyer sued a widow and lost. I also have two cases after 1940. These are additional to the 75 in the table above.

Men winning claim42
Men losing claim29
Men settling claim7

The most lucrative breach of promise claim by a man may have been in 1780 when Mr W was awarded £2,500 from Miss A. Both were in their 50s. This may have been an exceptional outcome as by 1790 courts were rebuffing claims made by men, unless a rich woman's change of mind had left them out of pocket in some way.

DamagesNumber of Men
1 farthing11
1 shilling4
up to £208
£21 to £506
£51 to £2,5005
out of pocket expenses8

Forty claims were brought before 1851. After that the claim declined just a handful per decade. It was rarely used by men after 1914.

The majority of settled claims resulted in the man receiving no damages. Several were brought because the woman or her family were making slanderous statements. Once the woman confirmed there was no truth in the comments the man withdrew the breach of promise claim.

Breach of Promise Damages for Women

I currently have details of 2395 breach of promise cases won by women from 1780-1939. With this amount of information I am able to carry out a more comprehensive analysis of how damages changed over time than was possible in Breach of Promise to Marry. I have retained the methodology outlined in the book and the trends I detected at that point are borne out by the additional data.

The graph shows the mean average damages on a year by year basis 1811-1914.The figures have not been adjusted for inflation. Each annual value is a seven year moving average ending in the stated year. I used this method to smooth out any spikes that result from exceptionally high or low awards in any year. It also reduced any potential distortion in the years before 1851 when there were far fewer cases heard than in the second half of the nineteenth century. Hover over the bars to see the year's figure.

Damages were much higher at the start of the nineteenth century than at its end. They peaked around 1820 and then declined markedly. A further fall began around 1839 and it was in the early 1850s, as some prosperity returned to the country after a period of economic hardship, that they began to grow again.

Towards the end of the 1870s damages dipped again. This was a time when the claim was beginning to lose favour with many people. A temporary period of recovery occurred in the mid 1880s, but by the mid 1890s they were in a steady decline that continued until 1914. After 1914 averages have little relevance. By this time juries were assessing each woman's damages according to the financial loss she had sustained from her broken engagement rather than compensating her for more nebulous aspects such as hurt feelings or injury to reputation.

Outcomes for Women 1781 - 1940

This graph shows how the breach of promise claim grew from 1781 for the next hundred years before declining at the start of the twentieth century. It also reveals the very high success rate of women during this period. In the cases where the jury gave a verdict, only in 1791-1800 was the woman's success rate less than 80%. In nine of the decades 1781-1940 the rate was more than 90%.

In this analysis settled refers to disputes resolved between the two parties after the case had been listed for hearing by a court but before the jury were asked to decide. Many more claims would have been settled before court papers were issued.

My data has been collected from newspaper reports. I conclude that the apparent reduction in cases 1831-40 relates to under-reporting at a time when government reforms, Chartism and the campaign to repeal the corn laws were vying for attention. The number of claims declined in the 1880s before rising again. This decade saw several unsuccessful attempts to reform the law relating to breach of promise and this may explain why fewer cases were brought. It is also likely that newspapers under-reported breach of promise in this decade as there were other serious matters in the public eye and in 1890, the case of Knowles v Duncan which received a disproportionate amount of coverage. The £10,000 damages initially awarded to Gladys Knowles may have stimulated the increase of breach of promise cases in the 1890s.

How Often Amounts of Damages were Awarded

A woman was much more likely to win a breach of promise claim than lose it. Damages were less predictable. Although middle-class ladies generally obtained more than working women, there are numerous examples of poor girls winning £500 or more. There are also cases where well-bred ladies received low or even contemptuous awards.

Hover on the bars to see the number of women in each category.

Approximately half of the women who won their claim for breach of promise obtained £50 - £200 damages.

Just under 30% of women were awarded more than £200 and just under a quarter left court with less than £50.

Not all women received the damages they were awarded. There are plenty of examples of men who filed for bankruptcy after a breach of promise case, and the woman only obtained a very small amount.

Outcomes of Cases Settled out of Court

I have details of 281 cases from 1811-1914 that were settled after being listed for a court hearing. On 224 occasions the settlement terms became publicly known. Strictly speaking, cases settled at this stage should have declared what arrangement had been made, but not all judges insisted on this, especially if wealthy people were involved. Amongst the 57 cases where the settlement was not disclosed, several were rumoured to include a substantial payment to the lady who had been jilted.

The reason why a few cases were settled for a nominal sum or no money at all was that the woman wanted the defendant to acknowledge publicly that his promise of marriage had been broken. She did not enforce her right to exact financial compensation for the breach. There were also a few claims where the couple married, but were too late to stop the legal process.

A settlement could occur at any stage. Sometimes the barristers representing the warring couple announced that an agreement had been reached when the case was called into court. Sometimes a compromise was reached after part of the evidence had been heard.

Of the 224 cases where the settlement became public, 22% involved a payment of £1,000 or more. This compares with 4% in cases where the damages were determined by a jury.

The Influence of the Press in 1879

At the end of the 1870s, breach of promise had fallen into disrepute amongst the middle classes who believed the claim was 'scandalously abused'. Damages paid to compensate for a broken engagement were thought to enrich undeserving (regularly used as a synonym for working-class) women and were seen as an incentive for them to commit blackmail and fraud.

There were several awards of high damages in England and Wales in the 1870s that bore scant relationship to the harm a woman had suffered from her broken engagement. There were a few fraudulent breach of promise claims too. Interestingly though, the average damages a woman received in 1879 was just £99, which is the third lowest annual average for 1811 -1939. It is one of only three years when the average damages were less than £100.

Although markedly higher than £99, the years 1878 and 1880 also had low average damages, compared to the years that immediately preceded and followed them. A sudden but temporary decline in the level of compensation is also a feature of the cases that were settled in 1879. Was something unusual influencing awards?

The most likely reason is that breach of promise became a public talking point in 1878-9. It culminated in a debate in the House of Commons in May 1879 which focused on its negative aspects and resolved that damages ought to be limited to any financial losses the jilted party had suffered. Had this become law, it would have stopped a woman being compensated for hurt feelings or loss of marriage. It would also have meant that a man who behaved as a complete and utter cad, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake, would never be required to pay large damages.

The damages in breach of promise cases were decided by jurors, who were members of the public, not legal professionals. As laymen, jurors would probably have based their opinion of breach of promise on what they read in newspapers as this was the only source of information on the subject that was readily available to them. Coverage relating to the parliamentary debate of 1879, certainly seems to have been reflected in decisions about damages, keeping them at a lower level than might have been expected for approximately two years. It is an interesting demonstration of the power of Victorian newspapers to influence public opinion.

The number of breach of promise cases also fell in 1879 and continued at a lower level than previously throughout the 1880s. An upward rise began in 1891 which seems to be linked to the sensational £6,500 that Gladys Knowles obtained from Leslie Duncan. This was not accompanied by an increase in average damages awarded, which fell from the early 1890s, as individual damages became more aligned to the harm a jilted woman had sustained from her broken engagement.

In the decade before the outbreak of the Great War damages dipped to their lowest point. Against this backdrop, the second lowest annual amount, £93 was awarded in 1910.

The most niggardly year for damages was 1831 when the annual average stood at £90. However, the figure is skewed by two of the awards being of £1 or less, whilst the other three ladies were well compensated.

I have made a thorough search for cases between 1879-1890 and feel that there are not many left to find. In contrast I regularly continue to discover cases from the 1890s, indicating that there was a rise in numbers after 1890. There has been some discussion as to whether the 1870s or the 1890s had the highest number of claims. I feel that the 1890s had that honour.

The Smallest Coin of the Realm

The smallest coin of the realm was the farthing (current value approx £0.001). It was awarded as damages by courts to express contempt when a plaintiff had a case in law but when bringing it seemed distasteful. When a jury awarded just a farthing, it was a signal to the judge that the plaintiff's legal costs should not be borne by the defendant. The judge was free to make his own decision on this point but usually followed the steer given by the jurors.

In the nineteenth century a shilling (current value £0.05) was occasionally awarded as an alternative. The reasoning was that the plaintiff would not profit from the claim but would her receive legal costs from the defendant. By the 1870's judges had stopped awarded women their costs in this situation and the last time 1 shilling damages was given in a breach of promise case may have been in 1894.

My database contains 43 cases where a woman was awarded a contemptuous farthing, the first was in 1829 and the last in 1938. Reasons for the award can be grouped.

NumberReason for Award
20Some aspect of the woman's conduct was at fault.
This included entrapment, flirting, treating the engagement as a commercial venture or throwing repeated tantrums
13No obvious reason.
Most cases in this category involved a woman over 40 or a foreign one, suggesting that jurors made value judgements
3Judge thought the jury had been harsh towards the plaintiff
2Defendant's exceptionally poor health
5Various, including a lawyer ignoring his client's instructions to drop the case, an unemployed defendant with no money and an engagement formed by a 16 year-old girl

For many of the 43 cases there are ones with similar features in which the woman was well-rewarded with damages. The impression that the plaintiff and the defendant made on the jury seems to have been at least as important as the merit of the case.

In approx 15% of cases the man was wealthy and the plaintiff was trying to take advantage of this. In a similar percentage the man was so poor that the woman's motive for suing seems vindictive.

One woman who received contemptuous damages managed to turn public rebuff to her advantage. In 1904, a 42 year-old Jane Whetstone framed the coin she obtained from wood dealer James Cornforth and displayed it in the window of her tobacconist's shop, along with a poster inviting the public to try her breach of promise cigars.

In contrast, men who sought out a rich woman to propose to often received a farthing in damages if they were jilted. Juries were not prepared to allow a fortune hunter to enrich himself at a woman's expense.