selling your wife

The Strange English Custom Of "Wife Selling," Which Was In Practice For Two Centuries!
For a long time during the 17th century and beyond, English men were selling their wives! It was one of the ways to end unsatisfactory marriages.
John Hobbs (a wife-selling song) (Roud 21966) | Jon Wilks
A wife-selling song from the vicinity of Birmingham, UK, 'John Hobbs' is unlikely to be a traditional folk song, having been collected in various broadsides and sung on the music hall stage.
An illustrated scene from Thomas Hardy’s novel “The Mayor of Casterbridge” of a man selling his wife to highest bidder. (Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Rowlandson Thomas Selling a Wife 1812-14
British Museum.
Lord Chief Justice William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, considered wife sales to be a conspiracy to commit adultery, but few of those reported in the newspapers led to prosecutions in court
The jurist and historian James Bryce reports an instance of wife selling in England, he claims that a woman in Leeds was sold to one of her husband's workmates for £1 in 1913!

A sort of ‘quickie’ divorce

George Wray tied a halter around his wife’s waist and headed to the nearest market. He wasn’t there to buy anything—he was there to sell his wife.

Onlookers shouted as he auctioned her off to the highest bidder, William Harwood. After Harwood turned over a single shilling to Wray, he put his arm around his purchase. “Harwood walked off arm in arm with his smiling bargain,” reported an onlooker, “with as much coolness as if he had purchased a new coat or hat.” It was 1847, and Wray had just gotten the equivalent of a divorce.

Erin Blakemore

 

200 yeas ago men could sell their wives in public auctions when they wanted a divorce. It wasn’t fully legal, but it was common.  It’s how Thomas Hardy starts his novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’.

 

‘For my part I don’t see why men who have got wives and don’t want ‘em, shouldn’t get rid of ‘em as these gipsy fellows do their old horses…Why shouldn’t they put ‘em up and sell ‘em by auction to men who are in need of such articles? Hey? Why, begad, I’d sell mine this minute if anybody would buy her!’

So says the young farm labourer Michael Henchard,  in Thomas Hardy’s 1886 novel.

Unsurprisingly Susan, Michael’s wife, is also quite keen to leave him and embark on a new life.

‘It’s an agreement to part. She shall take the [baby] if she wants to, and go her ways. I’ll take my tools, and go my ways. ‘Tis simple as Scripture history.’

In December 1849, The Times reported that a man in Yorkshire arranged with his wife that she should be sold to her lover.

‘After a little spirited competition she was sold to her lover for 5 shillings and 9 pence. Before leaving with her new husband, the wife snapped her fingers at her ex-husband and said ‘There, good-for-nought, that’s more than you would fetch’.

In 1800 at Stafford a man called Cupid Hodson sold his wife for 5 shillings and 6 pence (28p) after a spirited session of bidding that started at just one penny. When the bid was accepted, the husband handed over the ‘Toll ticket’ as proof of his ownership, and the three involved in the transaction went to the pub to seal the sale!

 

“After the sale, which could be vetoed by the wife, was agreed, lawyers sometimes drew up a receipt recording the exchange, transfer of rights and obligations,” explains Maggie Andrews. “They have come to be seen as a form of divorce for the poorer classes.”

The Practice

The format of these public auctions pretty much resembled the buying and selling of any other commodity. On arriving at the public market or local cattle auction, the husband would simply pay a market toll before placing his wife upon a stand, tethered to her seller from the wrist or waist by a thick strand of rope.

In Sussex, sales didn’t occur at the market place but rather at inns and public houses. The town crier usually announced the sale and the husband paraded his wife around with a halter on her neck.

Now displayed at the auction block for all to see, buyers would sometimes haggle with the seller until reaching an agreed upon price. And just like that, the unhappy couple was together no more.

In many cases, the sale would be announced in advance in a local newspaper and the purchaser was arranged in advance. The sale was just a form of symbolic separation.

 

The problem

Until the first Divorce Court was established in 1857, which set up civil divorce courts, divorce was only for the wealthy few.

In the 19th century it could cost at least £3,000,  as a private Act of Parliament was required to make the separation of man and wife legal. But in poor districts a wife was considered a chattel to be bought and sold like any other commodity.

 

The solution

Wife selling in England was a way of ending an unsatisfactory marriage by ‘mutual’ and ‘not so mutual’ agreement and became really prominent in the late 17th century, when divorce was a practical impossibility for all but the very wealthiest.

Selling the wife offered an easier and less costly alternative to a  divorce. Buyer, seller and wife agreed a price and struck a deal which they regarded as legal and binding, even if it wasn’t.

Wives might be sold for as little as a pint of beer (as at Selby in 1862), but could also fetch considerably more, as with a woman who was sold in 1865 for £100, plus £25 for each of her children. The average price was probably somewhere in the range of a few shillings.

Not as straightforward as it appears

The practice of wife selling began to be reported in eighteenth century newspapers as early as the mid 1700s and reports of wife selling increased in the 1800s.

The first recorded instance of wife selling comes from Bilstonnear Wolverhampton, Birmingham, in the 1690s, when “John, son of Nathan Whitehouse of Tipton, sold his wife to Mr Bracegirdle”. ( Some may challenge this.)

However the law frowned upon this illegal wife selling. The Law Review, and Quarterly Journal of British and Foreign Jurisprudence, published in 1854 noted, “It is…a vulgar error that a husband can get rid of his wife by selling her in the open market-place with a halter round her neck. Such an act on his part would be severely punished by the local magistrate.”

Yet, many of those who sold their wives were surprised when they found it was illegal to do so. In the West Riding of Yorkshire a man was sentenced to a month in prison for selling his wife even though he insisted he “had entertained…his right to do so.”

Wife selling didn’t always go according to plan. In Halifax in 1836,  it’s recorded that the wife was so incensed that she beat her would-be seller about the face “till the blood flew about”.

Chambers Book of Days claims there was a case in 1835 when a woman was sold, outlived both old and new partners and then successfully went to court to claim her first husband’s property as she was his widow.
There are also cases where the wife is sometimes reported as having insisted on the sale and for many women, this was the only way out of an unhappy marriage.
Although it  may seem pretty distasteful to us, in most cases it did not seem so to those involved. Far from being ritually humiliated by the whole thing, most of the wives on sale were there willingly. As one wife who was sold in 1830 in Wenlock noted when her husband tried to back out of the sale after bidding was complete,

“Let be yer rogue. I wull be sold. I wants a change.”

It would seem that the woman was at a disadvantage during a wife sale, but that wasn’t always the case. Since she was still married to her first husband under the law, he was technically entitled to all of her possessions (at the time, married women’s property all belonged to their husbands). The public nature of the sale, though, made it clear to one and all that the seller gave up his right to his former wife’s possessions. And the woman also sidestepped the very real threat of having her new lover sued by her first husband for “criminal conversation.”
Erin Blakemore

A welcome or not so welcome end to wife selling

Wife selling reached its highpoint in the 1820s and 1830s, however wife sales grew less common in the later 19th century, as wider public opinion gradually turned against them. Probably this was in some part due to the greater availability of divorce. The last record of a wife sale was in 1913, when a woman in Leeds alleged that her husband had sold her to one of his workmates for £1.
For those who see marriage first and foremost as an economic arrangement, the practice of wife selling appears to support their argument.

 

Wife selling songs

Her swears like a trouper
And fights like a cock
And has gi’n her old feller
Many a hard knock

So now yo’ young fellers
As wanting a wife,
Come and bid for old Sally
The plague of Lett’s life.

At 12 in the morning, 
The sale’ll begin;
So yo’ as wants splicin’
Be there wi’ yer tin

John Hobbs

A jolly shoemaker, John Hobbs, John Hobbs
A jolly shoemaker, John Hobbs
He married Jane Carter,
No damsel looked smarter;
But he caught a tartar,
John Hobbs, John Hobbs
He caught a tartar, John Hobbs

He tied a rope to her, John Hobbs, John Hobbs
He tied a rope to her, John Hobbs
To escape from hot water
To Smithfield he brought her
But nobody bought her
Jane Hobbs, Jane Hobbs,
They all were afraid of Jane Hobbs

“Oh who’ll buy a wife?” says Hobbs, John Hobbs
“A sweet, pretty wife” says John Hobbs
But somehow they tell us:
Those wife dealing fellas
Were all of them sellers
John Hobbs, John Hobbs
And none of them wanted Jane Hobbs

The rope it was ready, John Hobbs, John Hobbs
“Come give me the rope!” says John Hobbs
I won’t stand to wrangle
Myself I will strangle
And hang dingle dangle
John Hobbs, John Hobbs
He hung dingle dangle, John Hobbs

 

References:

www.danceshistoricalmiscellany.

Radhika Sanghani  BBC News

https://nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam

https://www.cotswolds.info

Geri Walton

Wife Selling: The 19th Century Alternative To Divorce By Krissy Howard

Regina Jeffers

https://www.historyextra.com

The strange English custom of wife-selling.   Goran Blazeski

How much is your wife worth? by Ellen Castelow

https://www.history.com/author/erin-blakemore

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