Category Archives: poetry

Law, love, lies … and poetry

The law is a wordy profession, and, in some ways, it is not surprising that, at various points in history, lawyers have felt that they might turn their mind and hand from the deployment of words in argument to their employment in the drafting of poetry. It does not usually go well. Attempted poetry was one of the offences committed by the Welsh solicitor in this story from the newspapers of 1894.[i] Another involved serious (and bad) lying. The thing which got him, in the end, however, was his breach of a promise to marry a young woman.

In 1892, Mr James Benjamin Price, solicitor, of Neath, found himself on board a steamship, the P & O ship Carthage, which was bound, eventually, for India. He also found himself  in the company of, amongst others, a Miss Grace Rani Mitchell (19 at the time of the trial, so 17 at the time of the voyage), orphaned daughter of Mr James Mitchell, formerly of West Norwood, and, more interestingly, god-daughter of the Rajah Rampal Singh of Oudh (her mother’s sister having married him). They met on the hurricane deck. Before the ship got to Malta, he had proposed marriage. The young lady, quite properly according to the conventions of the time, sought her guardian’s consent. There followed a period of separation – she in India, he in Britain – and much correspondence. This is where the poetry comes in, and some of the lying. His letters were ‘unusually amorous’, and talked up his wealth, his lands, his legal practice. Miss Mitchell said ‘yes’, once she had her guardian’s consent. She returned to Britain, no doubt keen to get married to this amorous, wealthy catch of a man. Price, however, was not to be found. Miss Mitchell’s enquiries were met with a telegram from Price’s uncle, telling her that price had died ‘suddenly, at Bristol, from blood poisoning’. This was completely pants on fire untrue.

Price did not manage to evade detection, because plucky Miss Mitchell went and hit the archives, looking for primary sources (find myself liking her …). There was, it turned out, no death certificate. Price was unearthed. He made  a failed attempt to pay Grace off with £20, and tried to persuade her that she would be open to ridicule, if she went ahead with legal action. But Grace was not having it. The matter ended up in court – the London Sheriff’s Court in Red Lion Square –  a breach of promise suit. He could not say much, really – he had been caught red-handed (or burnt-bottomed, as a result of the combusting smalls?). There was substantial evidence that he had promised marriage, and that he had broken his promise. All he could do was try and argue that he was an absolutely huge liar, and that, despite his tales of wealth, assets, success, he was actually rather impoverished. This succeeded to some extent, and the damages award of £300 might have been higher, had he really been as wealthy as he had made out to Miss Mitchell.

A very dim view was taken of Mr Price’s conduct, and, in court, there was, apparently, applause, when an official said ‘happy was the woman who had escaped becoming the wife of such a man as the defendant’. The plaintiff herself received good press – she was ‘a prepossessing young lady, stylishly dressed, wearing a large feather boa.’ That does indeed sound a stylish accessory for a court-room appearance.

And what of the poetry? Well, there is an interesting suggestion that a solicitor writing poetry is rather ridiculous: ‘That a solicitor, of all people in the world, should take to writing love poetry appears to be an inversion of the order of nature, which, if the example were widely followed, would throw our whole legal machinery into inextricable confusion.’ Probably it is both the overall reputation of the law as a prosaic thing, and also the idea of solicitors’ work as not hugely intellectual, in comparison to that of the ‘upper branch’ of the legal profession, that contributed to this idea of incongruity. There is likely to be more than a touch of snobbery there. On the other hand, the poetry (and, mercifully, only a couple of lines are reproduced) really is pretty bad:

“Though now in another country

and many miles apart

I cannot see my darling,

but no other has my heart!”

Mmm – corny. Though I suppose there can be few of us who would relish having our clumsy expressions of love in letters, or indeed bad poetry, picked over in court and newspapers.

I do wonder what became of Mr Price and his legal practice after this. On his evidence, he had been disappointed as to an inheritance, and the practice was not really flourishing – and this was at least part of the reason that he had not gone through with the wedding to Grace. So I am assuming that he did not become a big figure in the legal profession.  Grace does seem to me like a bit of a star – and wouldn’t this all make rather a nice one-off courtroom drama?

In comparison to many of the events in law-courts – certainly the other grisly cases I have been looking at lately, this seems relatively light stuff:  nobody died, and the young woman did get some financial compensation for her disappointment (interesting question as to what she actually lost by not getting married to a lying humbug, one might have thought … but the jury said £300 plus costs). Going beyond seeing it as somewhat light, though, breach of promise cases were frequently treated as a bit of a laugh: certainly, they gave newspapers and their readers a chance to nose a bit into the often-ridiculous personal lives of others, and, though there had long been grumbling about the fairness of breach of promise actions (lying, exaggerating women …. poor, poor men manipulated and fleeced … familiar bleating), the Birmingham Gazette gives a good indication of the general attitude:

‘Can any man with a fit and proper sense of humour really desire to abolish breach of promise cases?’

… which is an interesting thing to ponder: legal cases as comic entertainment for a wider public. In many ways, this was the heyday of such nosy commentary in newspapers, since, at this point, they had both divorce cases and breach of promise cases to cover, in this light, joking, intrusive fashion. Apparently it sold units.







Image – feather boa. I am imagining Grace turning up like something out of Drag Race – completely historically accurate … Photo by Alexandra Vázquez on Unsplash

[i] See also these:

SOLICITOR’S BREACH OF PROMISE.|1894-05-05|The Cardigan Observer and General Advertiser for the Counties of Cardigan Carmarthen and Pembroke – Welsh Newspapers (

Breach of Promise Case.|1894-04-27|South Wales Echo – Welsh Newspapers (

-Neath Breach of Promise Case. ..|1894-05-11|South Wales Echo – Welsh Newspapers (

MITCHELL V. PRiCE.|1894-05-02|Evening Express – Welsh Newspapers (

Law and low literature

It is a wet morning and I am stuck indoors, an arm stiff from a Covid jab: not up to doing anything terribly energetic, but in need of some distraction. Naturally enough, I have turned to reading about some favourite topics – law, humour and poetry (loosely so-called). All of them come together in this report of goings-on in a county court in Cardiff, in 1907: Lloyd Meyrick, ‘Limericks and Law’. It alludes to the occasion, on 8th May 1907, when a judge, William Stevenson Owen, at Cardiff County Court, brightened up a dullish case by breaking out into a limerick.

This tale contributes to the image of this particular judge as something of a funny fellow. Newspapers of the period could not get enough of his ‘humorous’ remarks and caustic quips. Meyrick noted that, in court, Owen elicited laughter, ‘weak cackles and short hysterical yelps’, that he was known as one for ‘polished periods and sparkling epigrams’, but it was only at that point that he had revealed an ‘unsuspected vein of poetry’.

Mentioned in passing in this report were limericks about ‘A young lady from Chichester’ and another young lady, this time from Exeter, but Meyrick did not give the verses themselves. I had a bit of a search for possibles and found some rather rude ones.[i] (At least there was no hint of people hailing from Nantucket. If you don’t know, use your imagination). But, perhaps not surprisingly, there was no serious rudeness in Judge Owen’s court.

Luckily, the judge’s own limerick was reproduced in other, anonymous, reports, from 8th May 1907. Here it is in all its glory:

There was a young woman of Chichester

who went to see a solicitor.

He asked for his fee,

she said “Fiddle-de-dee:

I simply called as a visitor”.

Have to say the rhymes are a bit dodgy, but, according to the ‘stage directions’ in the newspaper report, the response in court was loud laughter. The newspaper report does not really explain what the nature of the case was, but it does seem likely to have involved an issue of whether somebody was consulting a solicitor professionally or not. Did he make it up there and then (in which case some struggling rhymes would be forgiven), or did he sit up for hours the night before, composing and polishing it (in which case, they would not)? In any case, it all adds to the picture of power-dynamics in court at this point, and, so it seems to me at least, the self-regard of judges.

I have quite a collection of judicial ‘humour in court’ reports now, and also a fair bit of material on Owen, who does seem worth investigating further.

Working from the newspaper archive (the easiest place to start!), the Welsh newspaper obituaries[ii] give us these apparent facts about his life:

1834       Born (1st February). Son of William Owen, of Withybush, Pembrokeshire (deceased), from a ‘well-known and highly-respected family in the county’.

?date    Married to Miss Ray, Kent family, had three daughters and a son.

1856      Called to the Bar 1856. Became a Chancery barrister. Travelled the South Wales Circuit. ‘An accurate  lawyer and a skilled equity draftsman’.[iii]

1883      Appointed County Court Judge in Mid-Wales

1884      Transferred to ‘Circuit No. 58’ (County courts at Cardiff, Newport, Barry, Chepstow, Abergavenny, Tredegar, Pontypool, Monmouth, Ross, Crickhowell and Usk.

1895      Chair of Pembrokeshire Quarter Sessions. Chair of Haverfordwest Quarter Sessions. Retired 1907.

1909      Died (4.30 a.m., 20th October) , at home in Abergavenny, Ty Gwyn, after an operation on ‘an internal complaint’.

1909       23rd October. Funeral, parish church, Llantilio Pertholey, nr Abergavenny. Grave on south side of church.

At the time of his death, he sat on the County Court Bench.


His legal views

Obituaries[iv] emphasise some detailed, technical views:

  • opposition to the judgment summons system (on the grounds that it encouraged credit)
  • support for a reduction in the time allowed for the collection of debt under Statute of Limitations, from 6 to 2 years.


His character or characterisation: ‘dry humour’ and ‘caustic and scathing observations’

In death, he was called a man ‘of strong character and striking individuality’,[v] and, in private life, ‘a charming host and a man of warm-hearted disposition’. [vi]

it was commented that he was ‘noted for the dry humour which he introduced into the prosaic proceedings of the county court’, and that ‘his smart, laconic commentaries frequently provoked laughter’. On the other hand, his ‘caustic and scathing observations … were things to be dreaded, as many a solicitor [would] admit’.[vii] There is a lot to interrogate there – both in terms of the apparent nature of his ‘dry humour’, and also the slightly sniffy suggestion that the proceedings of the county court were ‘prosaic’. My initial reading suggests that he was very keen to play up the importance of this, apparently scorned, jurisdiction. More on that in due course!

Obituaries noted the speed with which he picked up common law, that his judgments were rarely upset on appeal, that he was very fair to prisoners, in Quarter Sessions, and, in the County Court, ‘very much alive to the processes of the court being used to oppress the poor’, with particular attention to claims made by tallymen and moneylenders, and not to ask too much of poor defendants in terms of paying debts. Much, much more to say, I am sure, once I can delve further into his cases and the reports.

I note that the obituaries do not mention his poetical efforts. They do say that he had a ‘distinguished career’.[viii] That was clearly in law rather than literature, though.





Image from The Evening Express, 20th October, 1909.






[i] Chichester:


A pious young lady of Chichester

made all of the saints in their niches stir

and each morning at matin

her breast in pink satin

made the bishop of Chichester’s britches stir

(shame about the double use of stir, to my mind, but Chichester/britches stir is rather skilful).



There was a young lady from Exeter,
So pretty that men craned their necks at her.
One was even so brave
As to take out and wave
The distinguishing mark of his sex at her.

(grim and creepy, obviously).

No refs to author, nor date,  given.

Just how the Exeter verse mentioned by Meyrick was thought to end, we can’t be sure, but the first two lines were not quite the same as the rude version above – it began ‘There was a young woman from Exeter/ and a happy young man sat next to her’ [needs another syllable, doesn’t it ‘Sat down next to her’?]

[ii] See, e.g., ,. DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-22|The Cambrian – Welsh Newspapers (  JUDGE OWEN DEAD|1909-10-20|Evening Express – Welsh Newspapers ( DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-29|The Welshman – Welsh Newspapers (

[iii] DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-29|The Welshman – Welsh Newspapers (

[iv] ,. DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-22|The Cambrian – Welsh Newspapers (

[v] DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-29|The Welshman – Welsh Newspapers (

[vi] DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-29|The Welshman – Welsh Newspapers (

[vii] ,. DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-22|The Cambrian – Welsh Newspapers (

[viii] JUDGE OWEN DEAD|1909-10-20|Evening Express – Welsh Newspapers (