A Valentine's Day card became the poignant symbol of broken promises rather than a token of love when it was produced as evidence in a 19th Century court case.
In 1879, Mary Ann Lindsay began working in the shop of William Steel, wine and spirit merchant in Johnstone. It wasn't long before she caught the eye of her employer's son, William Steel junior, a student at Glasgow University, where he was studying for the ministry. He 'repeatedly took [Mary Ann] out walking and paid his addresses to her as if in honourable courtship with a view to marriage, and did all he could to insinuate himself into the affection of [Mary Ann], for whom he professed the warmest love'.
In January 1880, Mary Ann discovered that she was pregnant. At first, William appears to have accepted that the child was his and promised financial support if Mary Ann would 'keep the matter quiet', but by the time little Ann Lindsay was born on 27 October 1880, the relationship had turned sour.
Mary Ann goes to court
On 7 December 1880 Mary Ann and her father, David Lindsay, a mason, raised an action against William in Paisley Sheriff Court. They claimed that Mary Ann, by now 19 years old, was entitled to lying-in expenses and aliment as well as compensation because William, also 19, had seduced her by promising marriage.
William claimed that he had only walked out with Mary Ann twice, after a quarrel with his girlfriend Agnes Braidwood. He denied admitting paternity and alleged that 'during the time the pursuer was in the shop she did not conduct herself as an engaged person but on the contrary was over familiar with a number of young men...'.
Mary Ann produced correspondence from William to back up her claims - including the 1880 Valentine card. She claimed that she told William's father about the pregnancy in the spring of 1880. It appears that she lost her job at about the same time.
Evidence produced in the sheriff court case , 1881 (National Records of Scotland, SC58/22/630).
The fathers met to try to resolve matters, but their accounts of what passed between them differ. David Lindsay had wanted Mary Ann and William to get married, but William's father proposed that Mary Ann should be sent away until after the baby was born, after which she would get her job back. David Lindsay's brother in law, Joseph Fields, who accompanied him to the meeting, claimed that William Steel senior had said that his son 'was a poor useless thing on whose education he had spent £500' and that he could not support a wife. William Steel senior, on the other hand, denied this version of events and claimed that his son never admitted to him that he was the father of Mary Ann's child.
The court's decision
On 19 July 1881 the Sheriff Substitute found against William. In his summing up of the 'very painful case' he acknowledged that a verdict against William would be 'detrimental to the defender's prospects in the profession to which he purposed coming forward', but that on the evidence 'the Sheriff Substitute...cannot come to any other conclusion than that the defender is the father of the pursuer's child'. He awarded Mary Ann court expenses and the money she had claimed for the birth and the maintenance of the child. He did not, however, support her claim for damages for seduction, as there was nothing to prove that this case was any different to any other ordinary action of filiation and aliment (an action to determine the paternity of a child and to establish any money due by the father for its upkeep).
William appealed to the Court of Session on the grounds that Paisley Sheriff court had no jurisdiction over him because he had been lodging in Glasgow at the time of the allegations. However, the supreme court upheld the Sheriff Substitute's original dismissal of this argument. On 6 December 1881 they also upheld his verdict, awarding Mary Ann Lindsay expenses incurred by her in both the sheriff and supreme courts and ordering that William pay her a total of £55 6s 1d. (NRS reference: CS46/1881/12/69)
Detail of Interlocutor sheets, sheriff court process , 1880 (National Records of Scotland, SC58/22/630).
Thousands of single mothers like Mary Ann Lindsay took men to court to prove paternity of their children, usually in an effort to extract financial support. Most of these affiliation and/or aliment cases were heard in the sheriff courts and can be found in the NRS catalogue under the names of the parties. Where there is no separate entry it is worth searching the records of decrees issue in a particular court.
What the court records can tell us - social history
This case illustrates what a wealth of information can be contained in the papers of Sheriff Court civil processes, over and above the bare details of the legal action they record. As well as the account of the case itself, the surviving papers hold a great deal of detail about many aspects of 19th century life in a small Scottish town and about its inhabitants.
It is interesting that although they appear to have been from different backgrounds, Mary Ann and William mixed in the same social circles. Mary Ann's father was a mason and she worked as a shop girl for 9 shillings a week, 8am to 10pm each day, and 11pm on Saturdays. William was a university student, who, even after his father ceased funding his university studies, was able to secure a post in an engineer's office in Glasgow at a salary of £45 a year, pretty much double what Mary Ann earned. William Steel senior was a pillar of the local community: a shop owner, Sheriff's Officer and candidate in the municipal elections of 21 January 1880. He could afford to spend £500 on his son's education, despite having at least four other children to provide for.
We discover something about the social lives of teenagers at the time. There appears to have been a large amount of 'walking out' with friends, the 4 mile walk from Johnstone to Paisley, returning home by train, being a popular choice. Mary Ann and William mainly walked out on Sunday evenings, after he had finished teaching at Elderslie Sabbath School and she had finished attending Johnstone Parish Church Sabbath School.
Life in the wine and spirit merchant's shop is described, including the 'drinking box' or small room where customers drank their purchases. The train service linking the 13 or so miles between Glasgow and Johnstone allowed William to commute to Glasgow daily for during this period, returning to Johnstone to help in his father's shop or do his own studying there each afternoon.
We catch a glimpse of the high days and holidays which punctuated the late Victorian calendar. Mention is made of the municipal elections, Ayr Race Day and of Johnstone Fast Day. Scotland did not observe many national holidays until the 20th century, apparently because these tended to have Catholic origins in other countries. However, dissenters' 'fast days' began to grow in popularity during the 19th century, and came to form the basis for Scotland's present system of local holidays which can prove so confusing to visitors. (Callum G. Brown, 'Religion and Society in Scotland since 1707', Edinburgh 1997).
What the court records can tell us - family history
There is a lot of family information available in the records - names and addresses of witnesses are given, including Mary Ann's father, sister and uncle, and William's father and girlfriend. This information throws up more avenues for research in the statutory registers and census returns. For example, the space for Ann Lindsay's father in her 1880 birth entry was left blank, but in 1883, William Steel was recorded as her father in the Register of Corrected Entries. Why 1883? It was obviously not a direct result of the conclusion of the court case in 1881. Perhaps it was something to do with the fact that William married his girlfriend, Agnes Braidwood, in April 1882 and their first child was born in August the following year. Was he somehow prompted to set the record straight on learning that he was to be a father for the second time?
What became of Mary Ann is less clear. She does not seem to have married in Scotland. She and her daughter were living in her father's house at the time of both the 1881 and 1891 censuses but then disappear. Ann is described as 'Ann Lindsay Steel', 5 month old granddaughter of David Lindsay on the 1881 census, but as 'Annie Lindsay', 10 year old daughter of David Lindsay in 1891. Presumably, this was to protect her and Mary Ann from the stigma of illegitimacy, and one wonders whether Mary Ann and her daughter eventually travelled to her parents' homeland of Ireland for a fresh start sometime between the 1891 and 1901 censuses. Perhaps the Lindsays or Steels appear in your family tree?
Entry for Ann Lindsay in the Statutory Register of Births, 1880 (National Records of Scotland, 559/03 0388).
Entry for Ann Lindsay's birth in the Register of Corrected Entries, 1883 (National Records of Scotland, 559/03 0388).