THIS week 150 years ago, the rector of Romaldkirk found himself catapulted into the national headlines for daring to stand-up to the silly, giggling extravagance of the “ton of daughters” he had had the misfortune to father.

In a court case that could have come from the pages of Pride and Prejudice, the Reverend Henry Cleveland was in the dock, cast as the Mr Bennet character.

The Northern Echo: Extraordinary goings-on on the pump in Romaldkirk in October 1960, with the Reverend Cleveland's church in the background

He was refusing to pay a £155 bill to William Whiteley, founder of a fashionable Bayswater drapery store, which his daughter, Mary Louisa, 27, had “recklessly incurred” by ordering items for her wedding.

Mary had married Captain Henry Young, of the Royal Artillery, in Romaldkirk church on September 27, 1870, and the whole village had celebrated as they were entertained by the rector to a sumptuous breakfast in the rectory.

As Mr Cleveland, who was rector of the Teesdale village from 1850 until his death in 1889, waved Mary off on her honeymoon, he must have felt a weight lifting from his shoulders. Of his six matrimonially expensive daughters, he now only had one, Isabella, left at home, and he could look to spend his modest £750-a-year salary on less girlish things.

But then came a “thunderbolt”. Mr Whiteley’s bill arrived. Mr Whiteley had supplied a wedding trousseau – a collection of bridal items – and an Indian going away outfit all to Mary’s instructions.

He still had all the letters she had written. “I always like my dresses stylishly made as I am very tall,” she said in one of them. “You will know the length of the dress when I tell you I am 5ft 10 inches high.”

The Northern Echo: Ladies of Romaldkirk planting bulbs in October 1969 with the church behind them

Mr Cleveland refused to pay. “I am perfectly astonished at the amount of the bill which you have sent to my daughter,” he thundered in his letter to the draper. “She chose to forget, and you were not aware, that she is one of ten children of a country parson.

“On her return from her wedding tour, she will examine the items of your account.”

In a second angry letter, Mr Cleveland fumed that he was not responsible for costs she had “recklessly incurred” but offered to settle the bill if there were “a liberal discount”.

Mr Whiteley took him to Durham Crown Court 150 years ago this week. The Northern Echo didn’t bother squeezing the story into its four small pages – there was also an extraordinary Darlington divorce case going on, which we hope to return to in the near future – but its weekly sister, the Darlington & Stockton Times, devoted dense columns to the remarkable detail, as did scores and scores of newspapers across the country.

Mr Whiteley explained to the court that he couldn’t possibly have gone behind Mary’s back to check that her father really was sanctioning the expenditure and, anyhow, “for a lady in the position of the defendant’s daughter, he considered the trousseau was an unusually moderate one”, said the D&S.

The Northern Echo: A fabulous, if undated, photo from the D&S archive taken from Romaldkirk church looking across the Kirk Inn towards the Reverend Cleveland's rectory, which is hidden behind the pub. The picture was probably taken in the early 1930s. If our old car

He said he’d only made about £5 profit on the deal.

Mr Cleveland disagreed. He thought the wedding dress was “a ridiculous production more suited for a Duke’s daughter".

“He thought everybody would agree that £130 – one sixth of his annual income – would provide an exceedingly handsome outfit for his daughter on her marriage,” said the D&S. “Without consulting her father and, unknown to him, she had ordered things to the amount of £155 from the plaintiff. She had ordered the goods in her own name. Mr Cleveland had denied the responsibility and objected to pay the amount, but made proposals towards a compromise.”

Indeed, poor Mr Cleveland felt driven to the doors of bankruptcy by the whole nuptial process. “He was sorry to say bills incurred by her (Mary) in the neighbourhood before her marriage for articles purchased by her had come into him to the amount of £300 by which he had been nearly ruined,” said one report.

The trousseau came on top of that. It included a £7 13s wedding dress, a £9 16s 9d velvet mantle, a £2 7s 10d bridesmaid’s dress for Isabella, plus all manner of “petticoats, jackets, mantles, veils, head-dresses, embroideries, trimmings, laces, etc.”

Mere mention of the word “veil” caused Mr Cleveland to explode. The one his daughter had worn he thought had been “particularly too long”, and here the crusty clergyman had the support of the judge, Mr Justice Willes, who said wearily: “I have always been astonished how women would deck themselves out with those absurd veils when they are married.

“But they will do it, and we must take them as they are.”

The Northern Echo: Romaldkirk archive

But his lordship did not seem to believe that Mary had been spending without any guidance from her parents. He said: “If the daughter did not talk with her mother about her trousseau, the world was going in the wrong direction.”

In summing up, the case became about more than just one tight clergyman incensed by his spendthrift daughter. The judge asked the jury to consider whether the order had been placed with Mr Cleveland’s authority “expressed or implied”. If the jury found for the rector, it would have had profound implications for retailers who took so much on trust when fulfilling their customers’ orders.

It took the jury three hours to decide that the rector should pay the draper the full £155 2s 8d.

Newspapers across the country lampooned Mr Cleveland although there was also an element of sympathy for the unfortunate fellow who had worked all of his life to provide for his “ton of daughters”.

A columnist in the Newcastle Courant said: “I suppose your readers, particularly those who happen to have marriageable daughters, will heartily sympathise with the Rev Henry Cleveland under his present painful, though, at the same time, somewhat amusing, circumstances.

“A jury composed, I fancy, of a set of heartless bachelors has compelled payment. No doubt the bill seems heavy, but then, the bride was “so very tall” and people having made up their minds to do such things in an impressive grand style there is no reason, of course, why tradesmen should suffer even when dealing with “country parsons” with no fewer than “ten children”.”

Mr Crector said the issue had caused a great deal of “heart-burning” between himself and his daughter, but it is not known whether she ever returned to Romaldkirk for a fiery reception.

The Northern Echo: Romaldkirk archive

Instead, there is a plaque dedicated to her in the village church. It says that she died aged 29 on July 5, 1872, in Mussoorie which is in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India. The plaque says it was “erected by her brothers and sisters” – so perhaps her father hadn’t forgiven her enough to contribute.

However, the contretemps seems not to have worried Mary’s husband, Capt Young, because he fished in the same pool to catch his second wife. According to Victorian Clerical Errors, a blog which charts the misdeeds of 19th Century clergymen like Mr Cleveland, he then married Mary’s older sister, Charlotte. There were no traumas over trousseaus at this marriage, though, as it was conducted overseas as it was illegal in England to marry your deceased wife’s sister.

Isabella, who said she had enjoyed wearing her bridesmaid’s dress, never got to have a wedding of her own as she was still living in the rectory with her father when he died in 1889.

Mr Whiteley, though, prospered. His drapery and dress-making business grew into a department store which traded under his name in London until 1981.

However, in 1907, Mr Whiteley, 75, himself was murdered by a man who claimed to be his own illegitimate son.

Horace George Raper, 27, was sentenced to death for shooting his father in his shop office. Raper’s defence was that Mr Whiteley preached moral virtues to his staff while covering up his own affairs – Raper’s mother’s sister also claimed she had had a child by the dynamic draper. With public feelings running high, the Home Secretary commuted Raper’s sentence and he served 12 years in jail.

Jane Austen never came up with such an extraordinary plot in any of her novels.