A police constable who sent more than 600 love letters and cards to Minnie Burnett found himself at the centre of an extraordinary court case more than a century ago. Here, I look at how Minnie – a niece of my great-grandmother – sued the officer for a breach of promise.
Dressmaker Minnie Burnett fell in love with Constable Charles William Rolls while living with her mother in Chiselhurst, near London in the early 1900s. Charles asked her to marry him. They exchanged rings. When he ended the relationship, Minnie sued him for a ‘heartless’ breach of promise.
The case, heard before London Sheriff’s Court on September 30, 1908, was reported in dozens of national, regional and local newspapers.
The court was told that Minnie and Charles became ‘acquainted’ when he worked at the same police station as her mother’s husband.
When Charles was transferred to the Metropolitan Police Dockyard Division at Devonport in 1906, he asked permission to write to her – and that permission was granted.
On January 26, 1907, he wrote to her offering to marry her. He said in his letter: ‘Dear Minnie, do you care to come and marry me down here, my love, and save me from going into the section house?’
She agreed to marry him but asked him to wait as she desired that they should be ‘married free of debt’. He agreed and wrote to her every day.
He sent to her no fewer than 480 love letters and 135 postcards.
In one he wrote: ‘I remain your own loving and true sweetheart’. The court heard that the letter seemed to ‘coruscate into a perfect pyrotechnical display, the kisses being worked into letters which read: My angel … sweetheart mine … between two hearts … two hearts are one, darling.’
Minnie went to Devonport to see him at her own expense to spend time with him. A few months later, he went to Chiselhurst to visit her.
He introduced her to all of his acquaintances – even his own family – as his future wife.
In the summer of 1908, the court heard, his love had apparently cooled, and he wrote a letter breaking off the engagement.
It read: ‘My only explanation of my coldness to you of late is that I am tired of only seeing you once a year and I wish you to set me free from the great trust which you put in me, and which I took a mean advantage of you.’
He said he had been ‘going with other girls’ and would continue to do so. ‘That being the case, your love for me must die, and you will soon forget the faithless lover that I am, because ours was only really love once a year when we met, and the rest is merely paper love, of which I grow tired, and I want somebody here to cheer me up instead of waiting a year for that comfort.
‘So please forget me, and I trust you will find some other companion who will not take advantage of your trust, as I have done … as a matter of fact you loved and trusted me far too much.’
The court was told that Minnie, a ‘smart-looking young woman’, was naturally upset and ill for some time afterwards.
In what was described as a ‘heartless case of breach of promise’, she was awarded £25 damages.
Minnie, who was born in Thelbridge in Devon in 1885, was the daughter of Emma Burnett, who married Constable John Slade, a Metropolitan police officer, in Bromley in 1892. Emma was the sister of Elizabeth Burnett who married my great-grandfather, Benjamin Roberts, in Barnet Register Office in 1893 while he was working in South Mimms.
PC Charles William Rolls, born in Lambeth on April 26, 1884, married Alice Mary Hawes in Devonport in 1909. In 1911, he and Alice – and their one-year-old daughter Olive Patricia – were living in West Norwood in Lambeth. He died in 1959, aged 75.
Minnie died in New Barnet, Middlesex on November 3, 1912 from pulmonary tuberculosis. She was just 28. Her identity (as the daughter of Emma Burnett) was not easy to determine. In the 1891 Census, she was described as the daughter of George and Amelia Burnett – parents of Emma Burnett – who were in their 50s and 60s at the time. In 1901, when living with Emma and her husband John Slade, she was described as their daughter. In 1911, she was described as Emma’s sister and the sister-in-law of John Slade.
Emma worked at Ash House (or Manor) in Rose Ash as a housemaid in 1881 when it was the home of Lt-Col John Tanner Davy (1828-1887) and his wife Charlotte (nee Shoolbred) Tanner Davy (1836-1895). Lt-Col Davy was born on June 29, 1828 in Rose Ash. The son of John Tanner Davy (1790-1852) and Elizabeth Cooke Stabback, of Knowstone, he was for many years an officer of the 1st Devon Militia, Deputy Lord-Lieutenant for Devon and a county magistrate.
Some of the newspaper headlines about the case