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.
[i] See also these: