There was once a time when a man had to be ‘as good as his word’ or else the full weight of the law would come crashing down upon him. In the late 1850’s the Dartmoor town of Chagford was witness to the crime of ‘breach of promise’ which considering how they once treated their women is a little surprising. Any woman who had escaped the possibility of the trials and tribulations exacted on ‘The Wives of Chagford‘ should have considered herself as fortunate.
This story comes from a newspaper report of a trial held in 1860 at a Nisi Prius Court held at Exeter before judge Baron Channell. The plaintiff was a 42 year old woman called Miss Courtier who lived with her father and sister at a lodging house which they owned in Chagford. The ‘villain’ of the affair was a 42 year old man from South Zeal called Pope. He was a widower with one daughter and earned his living as a draper and tea dealer. To all accounts he had a very successful business and his fortune was estimated to stand at around £4,000 which in modern terms would be about £250,000. Pope also loaned money on mortgages and was described as a “thrifty and well to do,” man.
Sometime in 1854 he and Miss Courtier became engaged and a wedding date was set for 1858, so this was no whirlwind marriage. Pope’s job involved a lot of travelling and so over the years their romance was conducted by frequent letters which were described as being of the “warmest nature.” This was determined because they were abounding in terms such as “dearest,” “sweetest,” “love,” and “affection,” all hot stuff! Sadly the wedding had to be postponed because Miss Courtier’s father became ill and then subsequently died. Shortly after this tragic event, Pope decided to end the romance and one of the reasons he gave for his actions was that in his opinion, Miss Courtier was an, “habitual drunkard.” This was considered to have been a attempt to remove her from all society and make her an object of scorn and disgust – how times change? Miss Courtier’s lawyer made it clear that he would call the clergyman of the parish, the doctor who attended her and several high standing gentlefolk of the area in order to prove that she was definitely not a drunkard. All of which duely took the stand and testified that they had never seen Miss Collier either partake of, or be under the influence of strong liquor.
Pope’s lawyer then argued for the defence saying that although, “drunkenness was the prevailing sin of the Englishman,” and men drank in public, English women would drink in private where nobody could see them. Therefore despite the number of statements from the eminent prosecution witnesses, Miss Courtier was very unlikely to have imbibed infront of them, it would have been in fervent secrecy. The lawyer also stated that Miss Courtier kept her ‘spirits’ in a locked cupboard and several witnesses were produced who all testified that although they had never actually seen her drinking they had on many occasions seen her in an intoxicated condition. It was also stated that sometimes she would be that intoxicated that she had to be put to bed in the daytime. The lawyer also went to great pains to point out that at the time Pope broke off the engagement he was not romantically involved with another woman. The jury were then retired to deliberate on the facts and upon returning found for Miss Collier and awarded damages of £80, which today would equate to around £4,5000 – not bad for a day’s work in anybody’s book.