Tag Archives: John Stephen

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).