Elopement notices in The Gazette

roseAs the official journal of record, much of The Gazette is taken up with royal proclamations, political appointments, court arrangements, military engagements, financial affairs and foreign intelligence.

But among these matters of high state, there are also advertisements taken out by private individuals, concerning more personal dramas. Here is an example from July 1714:

‘Whereas Elizabeth, the Wife of Edward Game, of Bruges in Flanders, Merchant, lately come to England with her said Husband from Bruges, hath eloped from him, and carried away his Papers, Writings, and a Sum of Money; she went away with one Darby Ressell, Mariner. The said Edward Game doth hereby give notice to all Tradesmen, Shopkepers and others, that they do not receive or entertain the said Elizabeth Game, or give her any Credit for any thing whatever, for that he will not pay any debts she shall Contract after the Publication hereof.’ (Gazette issue 5242)

More frequently, such advertisements are terser, giving less surrounding detail, so as not to detract from the point:

‘Whereas Jane, the Wife of Francis Fry, of Barnaby Street in Southwark, Baker, hath Eloped from her said Husband, and run him into Debt; these are to give notice to all Persons not to Trust or give Credit to the said Jane Fry with Mony or Goods on Account of her said Husband, for that he will not pay any Debts she shall Contract after the Publication hereof.’ (Gazette issue 5059)

In all, a search for 'eloped' returns 73 relevant items, all published in the early 1710s.The earliest I have located was published on 1 January 1711 (Gazette issue 4947), and the last was published in October 1714 (Gazette issue 5272). They continued to appear in local newspapers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but not in the official record. Despite The Gazette's undoubted authority, such advertisements did not take on that lustre.

At the start of the 18th century, that curious forerunner of the advice column, the Athenian Mercury, recommended to a man whose wife had absconded with the silver plate:

‘The first thing you do, put her into the Gazette, declaring for Reasons best known to your self, that no one give Credit to her, either as to Money or Commodities…’

But by 1736, it was advised that it had no standing in law, Giles Jacob's handbook, Every Man his own Lawyer, stating firmly:

‘But on an Elopement, the putting a wife in the Gazette, or other News-Papers, is no legal Notice to Persons in general not to trust her; tho' personal Notice to particular Persons given by the Husband will be good not to be chargeable to them.’

In other words, publication in a regional journal could be seen as a communicating to a more specific audience.

But why were such notices felt to be necessary, and why the stress on credit and debts? At this time – and until the Married Women's Property Acts of the late 19th century (royal assent 1882, Gazette issue 25140) – married women were governed by the doctrine of feme covert,by which her legal rights were subsumed into those of her husband. She could not own property, or enter into contracts in her own name.

The converse of this was that the husband became responsible for his wife's financial obligations. Consequently, any debts she incurred were laid at his door. So these notices were taken out in a bid to restrict the credit the absconding wife could muster.

Of course, these adverts only give the man's side of the story. We don't know the woman's reasons for leaving her home and husband, nor if the silver plate she took was not brought by her into the marriage. But in 1807, one Mary Hoof responded to a similar notice in an Exeter newspaper (Exeter Flying Post, 10 September 1807) as follows:

’Now I do hereby solemnly inform the public, that I never gave my said husband any just cause or provocation for such illiberal treatment towards me, but, on the contrary, have borne his ill usage with silence and resignation; nor should I now complain, but with a view to justify my character, which might otherwise be injured.’

About the author

John Levin is a postgraduate student at the University of Southampton, and is currently writing a thesis on debtors in prisons and in sanctuaries. He blogs about his research at www.alsatia.org.uk.