Tag Archives: Edward Macdowell

The case of the disappointed lovers

We learn further details of the case of Miller v. Brett, in which the plaintiff sought compensation for breach of promise of marriage, by comparing the reports in the Sydney Gazette, which is the fullest, the Sydney Herald, which seems often to be too much of a paraphrase, and the Australian, which, though shorter than that in the Sydney Gazette, has the advantage of lucidity.

In arguing the case for the plaintiff, Mr. Wentworth accused the defendant of being a ‘fickle swain’ who was prepared to trifle with a girl’s affections. He called on the jury to award such damages as would discourage others from proceeding some way towards matrimony without fulfilling their promise and obligations.

Mr. Macdowell in reply called into question the motives of the plaintiff. A woman of delicacy would refrain from having details of her disappointment placed before a court, whereas a party keen on acquiring an ‘establishment’, a term fashionable in England for the financial gain possible in such cases, would be prepared to endure ignominy to get the money. As for the defendant, Mr. Macdowell argued that he had shown delicacy throughout the courtship and was to be commended for drawing back from a marriage which he was now convinced would not be successful.

The rumours and the resulting enquiry relating to whether the defendant was already married had obviously been significant factors in altering the situation for the defendant, but it appears from the newspaper reports that neither party in the court room was interested in bringing all the rumours and facts to the surface. We are therefore left with material for conjecture, without the satisfaction of being sure that we have gathered all the key details. From the Sydney Gazette we learn that the defendant apparently lived with a woman in England and had a child by her; from the Herald we learn that he was rumoured to have ‘a wife and family’ in England. That there was a malicious attempt to upset the marriage plans seems certain, and that the attempt was eventually successful seems certain as well, despite an intermediate phase when the Bennetts declared themselves content with the results of the enquiries that had been made.

Mr. Macdowell, in enlarging on the sentiments associated with love and marriage, shows an impressive acquaintance with Milton and Shakespeare. He admits that, ‘Probably he (the defendant) had never read Milton, or if he had, probably that passage describing the union of hearts as necessary to the Hymeneal Rite, and not hands only, had not occurred to him; yet had [the] defendant arrived at similar conclusions by a different process of thinking.’

It appears that the technicalities of the case were fairly clear from the outset. A promise had been made and (for whatever reason) broken. In these circumstances, in accordance with the law of that time, the judge directed the jury to find for the plaintiff and award reasonable and just damages. After about twenty minutes’ consideration the jury found for the plaintiff and set the damages at £100.

The reports of the case offer valuable insights into social and legal conventions in early nineteenth-century Sydney, and throw interesting light on questions of style and accuracy in newspaper reporting.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 21/6/1832, p. 3. Sydney Herald 21/6/1832, p. 2. Australian 22/6/1832, p. 3 (including the quotation concerning Milton).

A memorable December

In the early 1830s, walking along George Street from Sydney Cove, one soon came upon St. John’s Tavern, on the north corner of George and Bridge Streets. On the other side of Bridge Street and extending along that street was a Lumber Yard.

The Tavern was one of a number of buildings that stood on what used to be called the ‘Orphan Grant’ or the ‘Orphan House Ground’, which stretched between George Street and the ‘Stream of the Tanks’, and was bordered on the south by Bridge Street and on the north by the allotment of James Underwood. This ‘Orphan Grant’ was subdivided into six separate lots and sold off in 1827. Offered for sale at the same time was the Orphan School Grant at Cabramatta (6,000 acres), subdivided into lots, and offered for lease was farming land near Bathurst also known as the Orphan School Grant (1,000 acres, of which 20 were reserved for a possible church and school).

In October 1830 we find Thomas Brett advertising his recently opened ‘Wholesale and Retail Wine and Spirit Warehouse. St. John’s Tavern, Opposite the Lumber Yard, George-street.’ He acknowledged the ‘flattering patronage’ he had already received, and assured his friends and the public of ‘his determination to persevere in the sale of the finest articles that can be produced, and at such prices as cannot be undersold by any house in the trade.’

The name of St. John was appropriate to a tavern that housed Masonic Lodge Rooms where the Australian Social Lodge held its meetings. The feast-days of St. John the Baptist (24 June) and of St. John the Evangelist (27 December), six months apart, were particular occasions of celebration for the Masonic movement. In December 1831, for example, to honour the anniversary of St. John the Evangelist, the Australian Social Lodge ‘regaled their friends’ at ‘Brett’s, St. John’s Tavern’, while the Leinster Marine Lodge assembled at the Royal Hotel and the Military Lodge gathered in the Non-commissioned Officers’ Mess room at the Military Barracks.

December 1831 was a memorable month. On the 2nd General Richard Bourke arrived to become the colony’s eighth Governor, and on the 5th the town held an ‘illumination’, in which St. John’s Tavern took part. It was also a personally memorable time for Thomas Brett, but the outcome was not what he had originally intended. Nor was it the outcome expected by Rebecca Miller, whose guardian was Mr. William Bennett, baker, of Parramatta. Thomas met Rebecca at Mr. Bennett’s home, became an admirer, made frequent visits, wooed and won Rebecca, and received Mr. Bennett’s approval to marry her. The wedding was set down for around Christmas time, or New Year’s Day at the latest. Wedding clothes were prepared and guests invited.

However, there was a hitch. The Bennetts received warning that Thomas was already married. Enquiries were made and the family were able to satisfy themselves that Thomas had no wife in England, as had been rumoured. But by this time Thomas found himself no longer willing to proceed with the marriage, and he wrote to Mr. Bennett to that effect on 23 December.

We learn these details from the newspaper report of the court case which eventuated. The matter was heard before Justice Stephen and a common jury at the Supreme Court on 18 June 1832. Rebecca Miller, under age, through her guardian, was suing Thomas Brett for breach of promise of marriage, and seeking compensation of £1,000. William Charles Wentworth was counsel for the plaintiff, while counsel for the defendant was Mr. Macdowell, who professed himself in awe of the fame and ability of his learned colleague.

[To be continued.]

Orphan Grant land for sale: Australian 7/4/1827, p. 2. St. John’s Tavern, recently opened: Australian 29/1/1830, p. 1. Anniversary of St. John the Evangelist: Sydney Monitor 31/12/1831, p. 2. Court proceedings: Australian 22/6/1832, p. 3. Louis Green, ‘Macdowell, Edward (1798-1860)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 2, 1967, pp. 164-165, and online. Michael Persse, ‘Wentworth, William Charles (1790-1872)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 2, 1967, pp. 582-589, and online.