Wednesday 21 August 2019

Husband's 'chattel case' court victory was turning point in women's rights

A tycoon helped turn the tide for women's lib when he sued a store boss for taking his wife, writes Liam Collins

LOVE STORY: Heide and her affair with tycoon Stanley Roche made headlines in the ‘Irish Independent’ in 1972, when her aggrieved husband Werner Braun won £12,000 damages
LOVE STORY: Heide and her affair with tycoon Stanley Roche made headlines in the ‘Irish Independent’ in 1972, when her aggrieved husband Werner Braun won £12,000 damages
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Werner Braun was sitting on the bed waiting for his wilful wife Heide when she returned to her bedroom in the Imperial Hotel, Cork, where she had hid for a week to escape their crumbling marriage.

She was shocked to find him there, half-dressed, and her jewellery, clothes and underwear scattered around the room.

A breadknife lay menacingly on the bedside locker.

"I won't tolerate it - you behaving like Stanley Roche's whore," he roared.

"I'll do whatever I want, I'm not married to you any more," she replied with equal vehemence.

It was St Valentine's Day, 1971, but there was nothing romantic about this particular Sunday hotel encounter.

"You will sign this document saying you are my wife," shouted the German businessman, waving a piece of paper in the air.

"If you don't, I will kill you," he threatened.

"I'll sign nothing," she replied with disdain.

Their shouting had roused the hotel porter from the front desk at the hotel's Victorian foyer and he was pleading with the warring couple to open the door, when the gardai arrived.

MAN OF MEANS: Stanley Roche ran the family empire
MAN OF MEANS: Stanley Roche ran the family empire

They burst in to find Heide unhurt and Werner cowering in a corner of the bedroom - his eyes bulging from the sleeping pills he had swallowed.

He was bundled quietly out of the hotel, into a Garda car and driven away. Despite his violent threats no charges were pressed.

In the early 1970s a man of Stanley Roche's standing in Cork society commanded respect.

He was, after all, the eldest son of William Roche, founder of Roches Stores, and ran the retail empire that bore the family's illustrious name.

If he was having an affair, and it was well-known in the tight-knit Cork society that he was, the authorities could be counted on for discretion in such matters.

But Werner Braun was not so easily silenced.

He was aware from newspaper reports two years earlier that Senator Patrick McGowan had been sued for enticing another man's wife from her husband, invoking the ancient law of Criminal Conversation.

Using this statute a man could sue another for compensation for the "loss" of his woman.

So Braun embarked on a civil case against the millionaire retailer, seeking financial compensation from Stanley Roche for enticing his wife or as she was later described by the judge, his "chattel", to desert him.

He even employed the same barrister who harried Senator McGowan, Ernest Wood SC, described as "a tremendous advocate who relished the task of acting for the small man against powerful and wealthy interests".

When Heide [formerly Braun] Roche died in Cork last month at the age of 75 the link to a not-so-distant past - when a man could sue another because he had "debauched" his "property" - was finally broken.

The case, which caused a sensation when it came to the High Court, sparked fury among women's rights campaigners.

Heide first met Werner when she was a 15-year-old schoolgirl in Ladenburg, Germany. She later became his secretary and then his lover. It led to a volatile marriage, plagued by affairs on both sides, but gave them two children.

In 1963 the Brauns moved to Ireland for a fresh start and Werner set up an import agency in Cork. Heide, glamorous, stylish and ambitious, got involved in various fashion ventures, including Blarney Woollen Mills and became friendly with Cary Roche, who was then married to Stanley.

The Roches were very 'Cork' in their outlook and demeanour. They enjoyed pottering about in boats and the social life that revolved around the yacht clubs along the coast.

Even if they were part of the city's 'merchant princes' class they didn't flaunt their wealth. Stanley's 500 acre estate near Kinsale was known as 'The Cottage' although it was far from that.

They avoided ostentation and publicity.

In April, 1970 Heide gave birth to a third child who only survived a few hours.

It was a traumatic time for the young mother. "It may have been the loss of this child that left her in an unsettled state," Mr Wood would later tell the High Court.

Three months after the tragedy, Heide met Stanley - whom her husband knew casually - one evening.

Stanley's wife was staying at their holiday home in Spain for a month and he invited Heide out for a drink.

They met at a pub in Tower, near Blarney, and as the evening wore on Heide expressed her dislike of the outdated decor and the cheap look of the place.

Stanley revealed that he had a financial interest in the premises and said he would give her a free hand to do it up, no expense spared.

She took on the challenge and he was so happy with the result that he employed her as a fashion consultant with Roches Stores.

Soon they were going away on 'business trips' together. When Stanley Roche bought her a gleaming new bright yellow Triumph Spitfire, alarm bells began to ring for Werner. "It's essential to have a good car to impress clients in the places I am going to," she insisted.

She dismissed the Mini that Werner bought her the previous Christmas, telling him he could sell it and keep the money.

After receiving an anonymous Christmas card alleging his wife was having an affair with Stanley and calling him a pimp, Werner confronted the lovers with his suspicions. They denied everything.

"Not only at that stage was he [Roche] a liar, but he was too cowardly to admit his guilt," Mr Wood would tell the court. Around Christmas Werner decided to play private detective, clandestinely following Heide and discovering that instead of going to Cork on business, as she had told him, she was spending much of her time at Roche's 'Cottage' on the coast.

"If I want to see my wife I don't want to have to come to your cottage," Werner told Stanley Roche when he found them. "I know what is going on. I won't tolerate you carrying on with my wife."

"I love Stanley," Heide told her husband.

She went away to think things over and it was while hiding out in the Imperial Hotel that Werner tracked her down.

While he was still in custody Heide went to their home in Killowen, collected her belongings and moved into her lover's estate at Oysterhaven, near Kinsale.

Werner Braun's case for Criminal Conversation was heard on June 21, 1972.

Mr Wood summarised: "It is an action by an outraged husband against his wife's lover because Mr Roche has admitted having debauched Mrs Braun... he could hardly do otherwise, since Mr Roche has set up in style with her... he has lived with her and called her Mrs Roche... and she has borne him a child."

Pointing to Stanley he continued: "This man with his wealth has not merely debauched Mr Braun's wife, but he has corrupted her. Mr Braun's only vindication is the damages at your hand."

Much of the evidence centred on the Brauns' stormy marriage, their infidelities and the night Werner went to bed with Heide and her friend Ans. "What do you mean you were there?" Judge Butler asked, incredulously, when Heide told the court she had seen her husband having sex with her friend.

"I was in the room," she answered. "Did you mind?" asked the Judge. "Not very much," she replied.

She said her affair with Stanley Roche began in June, 1970, but she had insisted that Stanley deny it for the sake of their children as she didn't know how it was going to end.

Asked about the effect the affair had on her husband she said, "it was his own fault", and those were her last words on the subject.

Giving evidence, Stanley Roche replied briefly and truthfully about his relationship with Heide Braun, hiding nothing. Asked if he was ashamed of his behaviour he answered, "I am not".

However, it was the summing up by Judge Butler that led to a national outcry, although he was only explaining the meaning of the law of Criminal Conversation.

"In this country a wife is regarded as a chattel, just as a thoroughbred mare or a cow and you are concerned merely with compensating Mr Braun for the value of the loss of his wife and the damages to his feelings," he told the jury.

He also cautioned them that just because Mr Roche was a very wealthy man it did not mean they should penalise him unduly. It took only 90 minutes for the jury to find that Stanley Roche had indeed "debauched" Heide Braun by taking her away from her husband and they awarded the "injured party" Werner Braun £12,000 - the price of a decent house in Cork at the time of the hearing.

Shortly afterwards Stanley Roche and Heide Braun married and sank back into the obscurity they had enjoyed before the scandal broke.

They went on to live happy, fulfilled lives together, running a business and property empire, with major department stores in Dublin and Cork which were eventually sold to the British retailer Debenhams.

The case had led to such publicity and caused such a kerfuffle that the law of Criminal Conversation was never invoked again.

However. it remained on the statute books for almost a decade until 1981 when TD Sean Doherty, as Minister for Justice, revoked the ancient statute.

Stanley Roche died in July, 2008. When his wife Heide passed on last month her death notice ended with the romantic line, "dance with me until the end of love".

Sunday Independent

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