selling your wife
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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 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”.
“Let be yer rogue. I wull be sold. I wants a change.”
A welcome or not so welcome end to wife selling
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
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
Radhika Sanghani BBC News
Wife Selling: The 19th Century Alternative To Divorce By Krissy Howard
The strange English custom of wife-selling. Goran Blazeski
How much is your wife worth? by Ellen Castelow