Every month I write a local heritage-themed column, on behalf of The Treasury, for the Grahamstown Gazette. Here's my piece for the February edition.
A small scandal with a local connection rippled through the country’s newspapers in 1911. ‘Breach of Promise,’ shouted local papers near and far, as the story unfolded in Hamilton’s Supreme Court. The promise in question was between Alice Beatrice Barker, of Waihi, and Alexander Walter Bird, the foreman of Waihi’s Grand Junction battery. Miss Barker was claiming £551 in damages after breaking off the pair’s engagement, due to emotional stress caused by her fiancé’s negligence.
The Bird family were well-known and highly respected in Thames. William Zaccheus Bird had forty-two years’ experience as a miner on the Thames gold fields; and at the time of their son’s engagement, he and his wife Mary were living at Waiotahi Creek with Alexander’s younger siblings (Alex’s sister, Gertrude, is my great-grandmother). In 1908, Alex Bird was living in Waihi, and making the acquaintance of Alice Barker. However, their promising romance did not go as planned.
‘Love’s young dream had a prosaic termination at the Supreme Court,’ reported The Observer three years later in its Pars About People column. The paper called Alex a ‘dilatory wooer,’ recounting Alice’s frustration as Alexander spent nearly two and a half long years pursuing her, before finally proposing marriage in September. As soon as they were officially engaged, however, Alice claimed Alexander had almost immediately stopped showing interest in her. He rarely visited her at home, hardly ever wrote, and showed little interest in their upcoming January wedding.
In his own defence, Alexander claimed he had been extremely busy working at the Grand Junction in the months following the proposal, to the point where even taking time off for his own wedding would have been inconvenient. He’d written to his bride mere days before the wedding, asking to move the ceremony to a later date, but had subsequently ignored her letters for the next three weeks. He admitted to the court he had intended to break off the engagement on Christmas Eve, but had been too frightened to do so. When Miss Barker began legal action against him in February 1911, he had offered to marry her the next day, but she instead broke off the engagement and left town in distress.
The jury awarded Alice £251 in both special and general damages. ‘There’s money in breach of promise cases these days,’ noted the Observer, ‘and dilatory swains will have to watch themselves.’
The Observer ended their coverage of the case with a poem:
When Alexander Walter,
The jury’s verdict heard,
Let’s hope he’s no defaulter,
But cashed up like a Bird.