(Note: This is a slightly edited copy of an article I had published on the Gazette website a few months ago. I am now part of the ‘official public record’! I post it here so place it in my personal record, and because it discusses the consequences of the law of coverture in regards to debt.)
As the official journal of record, the bulk of the London Gazette is taken up with Royal proclamations and political appointments, court arrangements and military engagements, financial affairs and foreign intelligence. But amongst these matters of high state, there are also advertisements taken out by private individuals concerning more personal dramas. For example, one finds such items as this, 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.
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.
In all, a search for ‘eloped’ returns 73 relevent items, all published in the early 1710s. The earliest I have found was published on the 1st of January 1711 and the last in October 1714. They continued to appear in local newspapers throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but not in the official record. For despite the Gazette’s undoubted authority, such advertisements did not take on that lustre. Early in the eighteenth 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, publishing in a local paper 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 nineteenth century – 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. And so these notices were taken out in a bid to restrict the credit the absconding wife could muster.
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 even 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 thus:
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.
Exeter Flying Post – Thursday 10 September 1807 (paywalled)