When Henry Arscott asked Kate Southwood to marry him in the 1890s and then broke off the engagement, he could not have imagined that he would end up in court, be ordered to pay damages and face bankruptcy. It was a peril confronted by many men in the Victorian age. Here, I look at the breach of promise court hearing at which Henry was ordered to pay £50 damages – equivalent to about £5,000 today – to Kate. The hearing – held at the Devon Assize Court and which was frequently interrupted by loud laughter from the public galleries – was widely reported in many newspapers.
Farmer’s son Henry Arscott first met Kate Southwood in a chapel in Dulverton in 1894. On Whit Sunday that year he spoke to her for the first time – telling her he had for some time ‘viewed her with admiration’ and that she had so ‘charmed his feelings’ he desired to make an offer of marriage to her.
A week later, they exchanged lovers’ vows and Henry bought Kate an engagement ring. All was well between them until Kate went away for a three-week stay in Bristol. Henry broke off the engagement – and on January 31, 1895, he found himself in court.
Kate – who had been head housemaid to Lady Mary Ann Carrington in Bath before returning to her parents’ home at Lynn Villa, Dulverton – brought a ‘breach of promise to marry’ action against Henry, whose father ran Streamcombe Farm on the outskirts of the town.
The case was heard before a High Court Judge – Justice Collins – at the Devon Assize Court. And 21-year-old Kate was represented by one of the country’s leading barristers, Lord Bernard John Seymour Coleridge (Queen’s Counsel).
The court was told that Henry’s offer of marriage came ‘very sudden’ upon Kate and ‘like a modest and prudent young lady, she did not accept the proposal then, as she told him she did not know him sufficiently well, but would give him an answer on the following Sunday’.
Lord Coleridge said that, after a week elapsed, Henry’s attraction to Kate became ‘warmer and warmer’ and the initial ‘indifference’ which had previously characterised her response to Henry changed to ‘warm feelings of affection’.
They met with ‘mutual happiness’, and found that ‘on the most important of all subjects, that of love and marriage, their minds were at one. Lovers’ vows were exchanged and the parents on each side appeared to sanction the engagement. They were filled with warm and ardent love.’
Henry took Kate to South Molton where he purchased an engagement ring which she wore. All was good between them until September 1894 when Kate went to Bristol for three weeks. ‘Where true love existed, it was said that absence made the heart grow fonder,’ said Lord Coleridge.
But in this case, it seemed to have had ‘a precisely opposite effect upon the mind’ of Henry. Kate wrote to him every week during her absence, but she was surprised to receive no replies. ‘His volatile fancy was now in a state of change and eventually the engagement was broken off,’ said Lord Coleridge.
He told the court that letters he had previously sent to Kate were very amusing, ‘speaking volumes for the warmth of the engagement’. Henry addressed Kate as ‘Dear Kate’ and generally concluded with ‘heaps of crosses (kisses).’
When Kate told him that she wished to seek a new job, Henry told her his father would soon be taking a farm for him to occupy and that he had saved several hundreds of pounds.
‘Dazzled by this prospect, and putting every reliance in his statements, she did not seek another situation,’ said Lord Coleridge.
‘On her return from Bristol he was very cool towards her and became indifferent.’ When her parents asked him what was wrong, he said he had changed his mind about marrying her. He said Kate did not suit him and ‘all must be considered to be over between them’.
This was a ‘summary and heartless announcement to make’, Lord Coleridge told the court. The engagement was broken off on October 14, 1894. Since the breach of promise action had started, Henry had offered to marry Kate to save himself from paying her damages.
Kate, asked if she would rather have the damages or marry Henry, said: ‘I would rather have the damages.’ Asked if she loved him, she said: ‘Yes, I do. But I would rather have the damages knowing how he has acted. His offer of marriage is now too late.’
Henry’s father, John Arscott, told the court that Henry worked for him on his 65-acre farm. Both of them were previously farm labourers. He gave his son board and lodgings, clothes and £5 a year pocket money. Henry, he said, was 33 years of age and had three suits of clothes.
Lord Coleridge asked: ‘A working suit, a Sunday suit and a lover’s suit?’ John told him: ‘No, the third suit is a market suit.’ Henry, he told the court, was ‘not the kind of man to make a big fortune’. He would not do it by farming.
Henry’s barrister, Mr P H Pridham Wippell, said Henry was an’ unsophisticated farmer’s son, so poor that he could not even pay for the extravagance of examining the letters produced in court’. He was not going to put him into the witness box to be ‘made a butt of’. Henry did not have much money – he had £20-£30 at the most.
Mr Pridham Wippell said: ‘No doubt Lord Coleridge would be able to speak to the jury about the disunion of two hearts, courtship under an umbrella, love in a railway train and other matters. But remembering Arscott’s circumstances, it would be difficult for the jury to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.’
It was a most trumpery case and ought never to have been brought into court. It was an attorney’s action to obtain a ‘good swinging bill of costs rather than come to an amicable settlement between the parties’. It would not benefit Kate to put Arscott into the bankruptcy court.
‘Were her charms so great that she could not be satisfied with anybody else?’ he asked. ‘There are plenty of fish in the sea and she might be able to land a much larger fish than the poor little sprat whom she had brought into court that day to sue for damages.’
The jury awarded Kate £50 damages, plus costs of about £51.
When Henry failed to pay the damages and costs, he appeared before Tiverton County Court on April 25, 1896. In October that year, bankruptcy proceedings were started against Henry when he was said to have liabilities amounting to £104.18s, and no assets. The debt was discharged in January 1897, subject to it being suspended for two years.
Henry, born on August 3, 1861 in Witheridge, was the son of John Arscott (1838-1897) and Susan Couch (1836-1896). John was the son of John Arscott (1807-1879), who was my great-great grandfather. Henry married Ellen Hill Blackwill (nee German) on June 21, 1899 at the Independent Chapel in Tiverton – and farmed at Streamcombe for the rest of his life. Ellen, born on October 20, 1857 in Dulverton, was the daughter of Henry German (1823-1893) and Elizabeth Hill (1822-1896). She had previously married farmer Thomas Blackwill on August 3, 1884 at Paul’s Church in Bristol. Thomas, born in 1892 in Dulverton, was farming at Rectory Farm, Raddington, near Wellington, when he died in 1892, aged 34. Ellen, who had three children from her first marriage, died on February 24, 1943 in Dulverton, aged 86. Henry died in 1946 in Dulverton, aged 85, and was buried in Dulverton.
Kate Southwood moved to London after the breach of promise case. In April 1896, when Henry appeared before Tiverton County Court for failing to pay her damages, she was unmarried and living and working at Hereford Gardens, Park Lane in London. It is not known whether she married.
A receipt for courtship – a picture published by Laurie & Whittle, of Fleet Street, London in 1805. It includes the following words:
Two or three dears and two or three sweets; two or three balls, and two or three treats; two or three serenades, given as a lure; two or three oaths, how much they endure . . . two or three messages sent in a day; two or three love letters, writ all in rhymes; two or three months keeping strict to these rules; can never fail making a couple of fools.
Henry and Ellen’s grave in Dulverton. Picture supplied with thanks by JimmerP.