Leap Year Marriage Proposals that Turned Tradition on Its Head

No, you’re not imagining it. This year, there really are 29 days in February. Every four years, a phenomenon occurs in our calendar in the form of a leap year, meaning February has an extra day.

It gives you a great story for parties if you’re born on the 29th of February, but have you heard of a leap year proposal?

Leap Year Day

Leap Year Day, as the 29th is known, is said to offer women a unique opportunity to turn tradition on its head. It’s long been held that Leap Year Day is the date women can break from tradition and propose to their partners. 

A cartoon published in the Evening Express in 1932 suggests that leap year proposals originated in the 13th century. Apparently, any man who rejected a proposal from a woman during a leap year had to pay her a sum of money. There were also theories replacing the sum of money with a silk dress. 

05 Apr 1932, Tue Evening Express (Liverpool, Merseyside, England) Newspapers.com

Interestingly, our research revealed proposals occurring throughout a leap year. Not to be restricted by the confines of Leap Year Day, many women took it upon themselves to propose during a leap year, which was also deemed ‘acceptable’ by the conventions of the day.

While the tradition is well and truly outdated at a time when anyone should be able to propose to whoever they like, whenever they like, we were curious as to how British newspapers of the past reported on leap year proposals.

Never too old for a leap year proposal

One person who took advantage of the reversal of traditions was 72-year-old Lavinia Young, who proposed to 70-year-old Robert Maxwell in 1924. The couple met at Christmas time, and Mrs Young ‘took a notion’ to Mr Maxwell. They tied the knot at Belfast Cathedral in January 1925, and the press reported that the best man was 74 and the bridesmaid was 63. 

10 Jan 1925, Sat Daily Mirror (London, London, England) Newspapers.com

Leap year proposals in high places

In January 1913, the British press reported on a curious story from the Continent involving a leap year proposal in a very unique place. 

Atop the Col d’Anterne in the French Alps, a French lady, ‘Mademoiselle B.’, proposed to her partner. Our protagonist wished to pop the question before the 1912 leap year ended and before the entrenched tradition of non-leap years hampered her efforts.

Buoyed by the knowledge that her partner’s affection was reciprocal, through the discreet enquiries made by friends, Mademoiselle B. proposed 7,410 feet up. Proposal accepted, the happy couple descended amidst congratulations from their friends. Whatever you do, don’t look down. 

06 Jan 1913, Mon The Western Times (Exeter, Devon, England) Newspapers.com

Man waiting on fortune receives proposal

The Western Daily Press reported on an early leap year proposal in January 1932, delivered in the mail.  

The subject of the proposal was John James Latham, an inmate of the Barnstable Poor Law Institution in North Devon. It was reported that Mr Latham was waiting on a cheque for a staggering £1,000 (over £57,500 in late 2023) in back wages from a former employer now living in Philadelphia, USA. National newspaper reports in 1932 suggested the sum was £600. Either way, the cheque was still pending in early January 1932. 

However, the Guardians Committee, who administered the institution Mr Latham was an inmate of, revealed they had received correspondence relating to the man himself of a very different nature. A widow of 27 years living in Birmingham had read in the paper that Mr Latham had ‘received a fortune’. The letter, published in the Western Daily Press, mentions the leap year, the writer evidently aware of the opportunity the every-four-year phenomenon provided. Our proposer from Birmingham enquired whether Mr Latham had a wife or ‘anyone to look after him’.

09 Jan 1932, Sat Western Daily Press (Bristol, Avon, England) Newspapers.com

Sadly for our Birmingham resident, Mr Latham was married, but further newspaper research reveals he did not spend his eventual windfall wisely. 

A well-known face receives a Leap Year Day proposal

Long before the scandal that rocked his career, John Profumo was in the papers, but for different reasons. 

In 1940, 25-year-old Second Lieutenant Profumo of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry received a Leap Year Day proposal via telegram: ‘Feel unable to wait another four years. Will you marry me? Love Fifi.’ Profumo regarded the telegram as a joke: ‘He has no knowledge of any person of that name’, reported the Daily Mirror. Surely, others fell victim to practical jokers taking advantage of the circumstances offered by leap years.   

Leap year proposal offer: a misunderstanding 

Weddings are expensive affairs. It costs a pretty penny, from the table decorations to the food and venue. Who, then, could turn down the offer from the Ashington Ballroom manager Alf Shepherd in January 1932 (a leap year) when he promised free use of his ballroom for a wedding? He even included a cake and the use of the ballroom orchestra, all for free. The catch? A woman had to propose in the ballroom in Northumberland by the end of 11 January. No proposal was forthcoming, and as a result, the invitation was extended to 29 February, Leap Year Day. 

Believing the fear of publicity possibly hindered acceptance of the leap year proposal, Mr Shepherd introduced valentines to ‘overcome the shyness of probable acceptors.’ This was, however, to backfire for the ballroom manager. 

19 Feb 1932, Fri The Journal (Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, England) Newspapers.com

Fast forward to 19 February, and The Journal reported a huge twist in the tale. Contrary to his intentions, Mr Shepherd, not looking for love, was now being considered a candidate for marriage by single women across the country. A woman from Liverpool wrote the following:

‘I hope you will pardon me for taking this liberty. Having read of your sporting offer I think you are in the field as you are a bachelor and I am a widow, considered attractive, and I should like to meet you very much. Cheerio! Hoping to hear from you.’ 

Mr Shepherd told a journalist that the letters were ‘too realistic’ and that he was afraid that what he felt like saying might plunge him deeper into the risk of matrimony. ‘I am staggered’, he added. 

Mr Shepherd’s offer was never taken up, and the deadline expired on 29 February. An enterprising 57-year-old widower from Cullercoats, North Shields, suggested that the proposals made to Mr Shepherd should be passed on to him as he was ‘interested in marriage’, but the ballroom manager refused to act as a matrimonial agent. And who said romance was dead? 

01 Mar 1932, Tue The Journal (Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, England) Newspapers.com

Leap Year Day anniversaries: when to celebrate?

Were there advantages to marrying on Leap Year Day? The Pall Mall Gazette suggested in 1891 that some cynics choose to marry on Leap Year Day because ‘it only involves the celebration of a silver wedding day a century afterwards, and the usual anniversary wedding-day party once every four years.’ We think 28 February or 1 March may have something to say here.

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