Home Etcetera A War Leap Year. An Ancient Privilege for the Ladies.

A War Leap Year. An Ancient Privilege for the Ladies.


It is a somewhat remarkable fact that with the advent of 1916 we shall have already had in the twentieth century two war-time leap years. The last war in 1900, when Great Britain was engaged in the South African war. Leap year 1916 will be remembered in its association with the greatest war the world has ever seen.

Since the commencement of the conflict, war weddings have greatly increased the marriage rate of England; what will be the result in leap year when women have the time honoured privilege of proposing it is impossible to say. Anyhow the tradition remains, and no doubt the custom will be put into practice by the ladies who insist on exercising their rights!

Leap Year Ladies by Handy
Leap Year Ladies by Handy

Leap year, as everybody knows, comes every fourth year. The general rule is that a year has 365 days. The exception to that rule is that every fourth year whose number is divisible by four without a remainder, has 366 days.

The additional day appears on the calendar in February, which consisted this year of twenty-nine instead of twenty-eight days, which is always the length of the month except in a leap year.

A well known American sociologist has said that if every year were a leap year and women could pluck up sufficient courage to “pop” the question instead of leaving it for mere men to do we should be far along the road toward a regenerate society.

The present day bachelor may not agree with Doctor Denslow Lewis who has laid down this proposition, but he will at any rate have to bear in mind during 1916 that he is liable to be asked by his lady-love to marry her!

The legend that it was St. Patrick, the patriot Saint of Ireland, who bestowed upon women the matrimonial privilege which she is entitled to exercise every four years. And this is how it came about. Walking one day on the shore of Lough Neagh, in the province of Ulster, after having driven frogs out of the bogs. St. Patrick was accosted by a weeping woman destined one day to be known as St Bridget. In a sympathetic mood St. Patrick, so tradition says, inquired of the woman why she was in tears, and the reply she gave was that a mutiny had broken out because women claimed the right of proposing, just as they are claiming the right to vote to-day, and she was unable to accede to their request.

St. Patrick gravely considered the question – he does not seem to have received a deputation of the recalcitrant maidens – and decided that the right to propose marriage should revert to the feminine sex every seventh year. This did not satisfy his interlocutor, who urged St. Patrick to extend the privilege to every fourth year. The Saint, apparently moved by the woman’s tearful pleadings, agreed, and with Irish generosity declared that he would make the “ladies year” every leap year, because that was the longest of the lot.

And then to complete the legend it is narrated that the lady, emboldened by her success, and anxious to go down to history as the first woman to avail herself of the accorded privilege, proposed to St. Patrick there and then. It was impossible for the Saint to accept the offer of her heart and hand, and as solatium no doubt for her “wounded feelings” he presented the lady with a silk gown. That, according to Irish lore, is how the legend arose that women may propose to men during a leap year, and that if they are refused they may claim a silk dress.

An Old Scottish Law

History appears to have recognised what tradition established, and spinsters were given a rare opportunity in 1288, when, by a law passed in Scotland that was enacted:

“It is statut and ordaint that during the rein of hir maisr blissit Mageste, for ilk yeare knowne as lepe year, ilk mayden layde of bothe the highe and lowe estait shall hae liberte to bespeke ye man she likes albeit he refuses to taik hir to be his lawful wife, he shaall be muleted in ye sum one poundis or less, as his estait may be, except and awis gife he can make it appeare that he is betrothit one ither woman he shall then be free”

Shortly after this a similar statute passed in France was approved by the then King.

The effect of these laws is not known. Unfortunately no statistics are extant showing the number of spinsters in Scotland or France who availed themselves of the privileges this bestowed; nor is there any record of the number, if any, of fines imposed under Scottish law.

By 1906 the leap year privilege of women appears to have become a part of the unwritten law in England. A curious little book published at that date contains these words: “Albeit it now became a part of the common law in regard to social relations of like that as often as every leap year doth return, the ladyes have the sole privilege during the whole time to continueth of making love, either by swordes or lookes, as to them it seemeth proper and more over, no men will be entitled to benefit of clergy who doth in any wise treat her proposal with slight or contumely” But again we have no record of the extent to which the right was exercised.

Ancient Traditions

An ancient Leap Year tradition of whose origin no trace remains, decreed that a lady, who although “of feelings rather bashful yet could not make up her mind to express those in words” might convey the idea by disclosing the smallest glimpse of red petticoat to the object of her affections, while another superstition prevails in some parts of England to the effect that in leap year “beans grow on the wrong side of the pod”. The only use made of leap year privileges in modern times, except rare cases, seems to be at a ball when a “leap year dance” is introduced on the programme. On those occasions husbands or brothers come in for a quite unusual amount of attention from their wives or sisters and it probably is the only occasion on which women take up the position of “wallflowers” willingly.

The additional day which leap year brings into the calendar has some curious effects quite apart from the licence it is supposed to give to un-married ladies to “pop the question”. It influences business and financial matters in no small degree. The man for instance, who has investments at a fixed rate of interest gets nothing for the use of his money for the extra day. The owner of house property let on yearly, quarterly, or monthly tenancy receives nothing for the additional day. The tenant gets one day’s occupation of the premises for free.

How Salaries are Affected

Take again, the matter of salaries and wages. The employee on a yearly salary paid monthly or quarterly works the extra day for nothing, whereas the man receiving weekly wages gets an additional days pay in the year. In fact, the employee on weekly wages has one advantage over the man on a salary. The weekly servant is paid for the extra day; the official receiving his salary is not.

For the sake of illustration, we may take an official who is paid periodically at the rate of £6 per week. His income for the year is £312. The employee who is paid £6 weekly receives £313 for the year, because he has the advantage of the extra day. In 1916 he will receive £314. Strange as this may at first appear, the “weekly” servant may have fifty-three pay days in one year. How can that be when there is only fifty-two weeks in a year? Well, take 1910, for instance. That year commenced on a Saturday. The majority of workmen get their wages on that day and so in that year there were fifty-three pay days.

To the Chancellor of the Exchequer leap year is vastly important. It gives 366 days productive of revenue instead of the usual 365. The Customs and Excise offices, all the tax collecting departments, find their receipts swelled by leap year; the post office has an extra day of profitable working while the Government Telephone Department will have one more day on which to harass it’s subscribers.

That it is a distinct drawback to be born on February 29 is obvious, so far as receiving birthday presents is concerned, though as age advances it must be distinctly satisfactory to have a birthday only once in four years.

At one time leap year was placed before February 24, February 23 being reckoned twice over, so that prior to the revision of the Liturgy at the Restoration, the date when February 29 was introduced, the leap year child had nothing to fear in the way of loss of presents.

Via the Maldon News. 20th June 1916.


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