Breach of Promise to Marry

Bussell v Dennis 1851

COURT OF QUEEN'S BENCH. Guildhall London, February 21st. (Before Lord Chief Justice Campbell and a Special Jury.)


Bussell v. Dennis. This was an action to recover compensation damages for breach of promise of marriage. The young lady, Miss Adelaide Bussell, sued by her father and friend, who was solicitor in Exeter. The defendant was Mr. John Dennis, solicitor, of the firm Green and Dennis, in Austin-friars, London, but is better known to our local readers as the only son of the late Thomas Dennis, Esq., of Pilton-bridge, Barnstaple, who died in August last, bequeathing large wealth to the defendant and his sister. The damages were laid at £5,000. The defendant pleaded—first, that did not make the alleged promise; secondly, that he had not been requested to marry the plaintiff; and, thirdly, that a reasonable time had not elapsed to enable him to do so. Sir Frederick Thesiger, Q.C. and Mr. Montague Smith were counsel for the plaintiff. Mr. Montague Chambers, Q.C., and Mr. Taprell were for the defendant. (It is said that defendant had retained the Attorney-general, Sir Alexander Cockburn, who, however, declined appear in the case after he discovered that the young lady was his godchild, he having been on terms of great intimacy with her father at the time of her birth.) Sir Frederick Thesiger stated the case, This action was brought with considerable reluctance by the plaintiff's father, and not without very strong feelings of emotion by those of her relatives and connexions who felt a deep interest in her welfare. Nothing but an inevitable necessity could have induced the plaintiff s father and relatives to bring such a delicate question into court a matter of public investigation; and was in order to obtain reparation for very serious injury, and to prevent any imputation being cast upon the young lady's character, in respect of this matter, that her friends deemed it their duty to bring the present action. He would not exaggerate the incidents of the case, nor utter one word to prejudice the defendant The Learned Counsel then called the following evidence in support of his statement.


Mrs. Harriet Law, examined by Mr. Montague Smith:—l am the widow of Mr. William Law, who practised as a solicitor in Barnstaple for some years. The plaintiff is my cousin; she is in her 21st year, which she will complete in June next. She is the daughter of Mr. John Bussell, a solicitor Exeter.  In July last she came to me on a visit. I live at Newport, which adjoins Barnstaple. I know the defendant. He is a solicitor, and lives with his mother in Barnstaple, and sometimes in London. In October last he was staying at Barnstaple. The first time I saw the plaintiff and defendant together was at Mrs. Hooper Law's. It was in December last. The defendant paid particular attention to the plaintiff. Very shortly after he drank tea at my house —on a Saturday. He made the offer on the Monday after. About two days before the defendant's sister was thrown from her horse, and was taken into my house. The defendant followed her without invitation. He did not remain long. As his sister was not hurt, he returned in a phaeton, in which he took his sister, the plaintiff, and Miss Demay, to take a drive out into the country. On the Saturday when he took tea at my house he appeared as if he was courting her. He stayed only a reasonable time. (Laughter.) On the Monday after he called at three or four o'clock, p.m., and saw me alone. He said, I suppose, Mrs. Law, you are aware of the purport of my visit; and I now beg to ask whether you will approve of my paying addresses to Miss Bussell and becoming engaged. I said, "Before I answer you, I wish to know whether you are aware that Miss Bussell has no fortune, and in all probability never will have any, as her father, though once possessed handsome property, has become much reduced by speculations in building? I understand he has nearly ruined himself." He said, “Oh yes, but I never asked any questions about that; I have enough for us both." I said, "If that be the case I can have no objection." I then said, that having said so much on that subject, I could have nothing further do with money matters, and he must arrange about settlement with his own solicitor. I also said, “Though you will have no money with her, you will have a most amiable and well principled young lady, and descended from one of the oldest families in Devonshire. I said, “Have you given it very serious consideration?" and he said, "Mrs. Law, I never undertake anything without the most mature consideration." I asked him whether his mother and sister approved the engagement? He- said, " Yes, most cordially." On the evening of the same day he came again, his mother and sister congratulated him on his having obtained consent. Miss Demay and Captain and Mrs. Williams were present in the evening. She was first cousin to the plaintiff. Mrs. Dennis called with her son (defendant) the next morning, and expressed her approbation of the engagement. She said she admired Miss Bussell exceedingly, and hoped they would be happy. She said though she was so pretty she had not a particle of conceit in her character. She then asked Miss Bussell to take a drive with herself and son; which Miss Bussell did. The defendant after this continued to visit at house, and they were out daily riding and walking, and conducted themselves like engaged people, whose intentions are honourable. Miss Demay was always with them. At the end of the fortnight and four days—namely, on the 7th of November— I observed a change, He spent the evening with us on that day. We saw nothing of him after that till Wednesday the 13th. He then came with his sister, and a friend of his sister, and spent the day. His conduct to Miss Bussell was exceedingly cool and reserved. He never came to my house after that. Yes, he came on a Sunday morning, when he knew Miss Bussell would at the morning service. I told him that his extraordinary conduct had produced a great change in Miss Bussell. She seemed unhappy. I sent her to Mr. Robert Chichester, clergyman at Chittlehampton, for change of air. Mrs. Chichester is my niece. She remained there one week, and then returned. She was very low and unhappy. Cross-examined. —The defendant's father was a client of my husband's. He died on the 23rd of August, 1850. I had known the defendant by sight. He came to reside in the country after his father's death, and took that house. I thought him about 27 or 28 years of age. I did not know that he was only 24. The defendant's father had been a tanner. He had the character of being a niggardly man. The defendant served his clerkship to Mr. Hooper Law. I saw the defendant dance at Mr. Hooper Law's. There was dancing going on the time, and the defendant seemed to pay marked attention to Miss Bussell. The defendant told me he should write to Miss Bussell's father. I don't know that I told him that her father lived at Honeylands, near Exeter. Mr. Bussell had a large house there called Honeylands. I have known the plaintiff four or five years. She did not tell me that she had been engaged to Mr. Price. I knew she was engaged to him, but only conditionally. That was but for two months—in October and November, 1849. Her father did not approve of it. I saw his letter; that was in January or February, 1850. Mr. Price is a surgeon at Marlborough. In August and September, 1850, the plaintiff was residing with me. I had nothing do with breaking off the engagement with Mr. Price. Mr.Price visited at my house for about week. Mr. Bussell left Honey-lands and went to live in a small house. His furniture was sold. I never saw the defendant to speak to him after had broken off his engagement. Miss Demay is a niece to Mr. Bussell and a first cousin of mine.

Miss Frances Demay examined.—l am a cousin of the plaintiff's. The plaintiff and defendant first met in private parties and public balls in the year 1848. There was no particular intimacy at that time. The defendant's attention to the plaintiff afterwards became more marked. This was in September and October, 1850. He often joined me and the plaintiff in our walks, and also rode with us. At the dance which took place at Mr. Hooper Law's the defendant presented the plaintiff with a bouquet. I remember that upon one occasion he joined us, and asked us to accompany him to Bradiford to see the house which he had taken. The defendant asked how we liked it? We said, we liked very much. He said, if the plaintiff liked it, that was every thing. I constantly saw the defendant's mother, and the plaintiff frequently dined with her. The defendant's mother on these occasions always treated the plaintiff with the greatest affection. Recollect several patterns of carriages being sent to the plaintiff for her approval. Her wedding dress also was discussed. Mrs. Dennis wished the dress to be of white satin, but the defendant wished it to be a white glace silk. I was to be one of the bridesmaids. The wedding cards were also discussed. The defendant also sent to the plaintiff for her approval a horse, which was being trained for her to ride. The Defendant told me his means would very ample, and it would make them very happy. He said, had about £ 1,100 a year, and his mother would add £400 year, as she meant to reside with them. On the 7th of November, the defendant called in the morning, and again in the evening. He seemed rather cool in his manner. A few days after he walked with us to his house at Bradiford, but he did not appear as usual. The same evening the defendant came with his sister, by invitation, to take tea. He was then very rude to the plaintiff, and contradicted her in everything she said. The plaintiff was too good tempered to be irritated, and thought that he must have felt annoyed by some business. He discontinued his visits from that time. I slept for some time in the same room with Miss Bussell. In consequence of the defendant's breaking off the acquaintance the plaintiff passed sleepless nights; her appetite failed, and she became quite incapable of anything. She continued in the same state when she went to Mr. Chichester's, and after her return. She is now getting over it, but her spirits are not so good as they were.

Mr. Henry Shepherd Law, examined.—l am the attorney for the plaintiff in this action. I did not know the plaintiff until recently. The defendant, after his articles in Barnstaple, had been a clerk in my office in London for nearly two years. The witness then detailed the particulars of his interviews with Mr. Green, the defendant's solicitor, from which it appeared that the only excuses put forward by the defendant for the none fulfilment of his engagement were, that Miss Bussell had formerly been engaged to a Mr. Price; that her father had been unsuccessful; that his (the defendant’s) mother and sister, were opposed to the marriage; and that one of the young lady's brothers had enlisted in the Company's service.  To, those objections the witness replied, that Miss Bussell had never been engaged to Mr. Price; that Mr. Bussell, though unsuccessful, had never done anything dishonourable, not having been insolvent or a bankrupt, or compounded with his creditors; that he was assured that both the defendant's mother and sister had expressed their approbation of the match;- and that though the young lady's brother had enlisted he had seen a letter from an officer, stating that the young man had never forgotten the bearing or conduct of a gentleman. This explanation failing to produce alteration of the intentions of the defendant, who Mr. Green stated was determined not to marry the young lady, the interview terminated by the declaration that an action would be brought, and the threat being thrown out by Mr. Green that in that case Miss Bussell and her family must be prepared for thorough scrutiny.

Mr. Thomas Ley, one of the executors of the defendant's father, then gave evidence, from which it appeared that he received a legacy of £5,000 under his father's will, and that he also had a life interest in about £17,000 under the same, besides some freehold property, the value of which did not appear.  Cross examined—The defendant came down to Barnstaple for the benefit of his health. His mother lived where his father had carried on the business of a tanner.

This being the plaintiff's case, he Mr. Montague Chambers, Q.C., addressed the jury for the defendant – He did not wish to cast any imputation whatever on the young lady, and he should wish, in the course of his observations to avoid wounding her feelings in the slightest degree.

He laboured he said under great difficulty in this case, because had to oppose himself to all the gentlemanly sympathies and honourable feelings of the jury. The learned counsel then briefly ran through the facts connected with the courtship of the parties, and submitted that the allegation of "cruel, crafty, and heartless conduct," did not apply to the letters written by the defendant to the plaintiff. In this case there was not as in many others which had been brought before courts of law, any long connexion or attachment between the parties; but they had only known one another for a fortnight and four days, before the connexion they had formed had been broken off. The defendant, who was a young man of only 25 years of age, had been struck by the attractions of the young lady, and under the hasty influence of a first impression had offered her marriage. Mrs. Law, a very respectable gentlewoman, had managed this agreeable business for him very well, and when he spoke of it to her, had managed to instil but very small proportion of poison into the honey which she afterwards bestowed upon him. She had certainly spoke of the embarrassed circumstances of Mr. Bussell; but what could be expected would be the answer of young lover to such objection? He would naturally say—"l care not for the wealth of California: I love her for herself alone," as had been done in the present instance. The young man had been guilty of a great rashness, and had placed himself in a situation most difficult and embarrassing to an honourable man. He had to choose between two alternatives—either he must fulfil his promise and thereby make himself and the person whom he still respected wretched and miserable for life, or else he must tell her that his first impression was altered, and break off his engagement. Of the two difficulties he had chosen the least. He would not go to the altar and repeat the words of a service, which ought to be so sacred, knowing that service to be only mockery, and he therefore chose to tell the young lady the plain and simple truth. This was certainly the only thing that, under such circumstances, he could do. There was another circumstance, he thought, should be taken into their consideration, which was that a very short time before she became engaged to Mr. Dennis, her affections had been given to another person; and if she could have so soon forgotten this engagement, and entered into another so hastily with the defendant, he thought they (the jury) would be of the same opinion, as he (in justice to his client) felt bound to say he entertained, namely, that this engagement was not one of such affection and feeling on the lady's part as had been suggested by the learned counsel on the other side, but was, in fact, more like a matter of pounds, shillings, and pence. The very circumstance of the plaintiff's  father accepting the defendant as his intended son-in-law without troubling himself even to see him and ascertain if the reports he had heard of him were really true, and that he was really calculated to make his daughter happy, he thought confirmed his opinion. The engagement with Mr. Price was broken off because her father did not approve of it; and was more than probable that her heart had been engaged by a previous attachment, and that the intended marriage with defendant was only what was called a marriage de convenance, and therefore not calling for such serious damages as might otherwise be claimed. There was another point of view in which this case might be regarded. If a lady somewhat advanced in years, who had reached the meridian of life, met with an offer, perhaps that would be her last opportunity, and it would be a very serious matter to her to be disappointed in it. But the present plaintiff—far from being, as she had been designated by Sir Frederick Thesiger, "a weed that was cast away," was still, he begged to be permitted to say, without in the slightest degree wishing to treat the matter with levity, "a blooming flower." She was young and beautiful; and having been so lucky as in one year to have two offers, he trusted that in another year she would have two offers more. At any rate, he would not believe that the jury would give serious damages in a case where there had been only a fortnight's courtship, and in which the defendant had acted in the only manner that was open to him, by telling the honest truth, that he did not think the marriage would prove as happy as he at first anticipated.

Lord Campbell then summed up, and said that he thought the case was a very aggravated one the part of the defendant. The defendant had placed three pleas on the record; first, that he did not promise to marry the plaintiff, which was disproved; secondly, that she was not willing to marry him, which was proved not to be the fact; and thirdly, that a reasonable time had not elapsed to allow the fulfilment of the promise; that was also untrue, because he had positively refused to marry her. He (Lord Campbell) further thought , the case an aggravated one, because the defendant, through Mr. Green, had said that if an action was brought Miss Bussell and her family must prepare for a severe scrutiny, and now he had not been able bring anything forward to affect her in the slightest way. It was said that her former acquaintance with Mr. Price was a reason why the defendant should not marry her. But that was no reason, as that engagement was broken before the defendant knew her, on the ground that her father did not approve of it. The fancied engagement to some one else proved to be a mere proposal by some gentleman who had admired the young lady but whose proposals had, for prudential reasons, been declined by the young lady's father. Under these circumstances she appeared to ask for damages for breach of a contract deliberately entered into by the defendant, who, though he was a young man, was not so very young, and had been bred up an attorney, and therefore could not be considered as so wholly weak and unguarded as some other young men. He thought it a case of some considerable heartlessness. Mr. Law in his letter to the defendant had said he did not think the defendant himself had written the letter which the plaintiff had received from him breaking off the match. He (the learned judge) hoped he had not written it, for if he had, he designated him as a heartless and cool blooded man. He reminded the jury of the defendant's circumstances, that he was able to pay the damages which they might inflict on him; and he thought that the scrutiny which Mr. Dennis had anticipated would not in their opinion, or in the opinion of the world, have the effect of injuring in the slightest degree the character of the plaintiff. The Learned Judge then went through the whole evidence, and commented strongly on the letters--and conduct of the defendant. His opinion was, that the defendant had refused to marry this unfortunate young lady from mere caprice; and with respect to damages, the defendant was in a position which enabled him to pay, and this aggravated the case, the plaintiff had been deprived by his conduct of a comfortable settlement in life. The jury then retired, and after an absence of from 20 minutes to half an hour returned into court with a verdict for plaintiff —damages £ 800. Some applause was manifested in court on the delivery of the verdict, which, of course, was instantly suppressed.



 Back to Breach of Promise to Marry