A Wife for “Let” in Georgian England

In the 1700s, in certain areas of Cumberland, the custom called a wife for “let” or “letting a woman” was adopted. It was somewhat similar to wife selling, but letting a wife meant that instead of buying a wife, a man leased a wife, or in other words, took her for a trial run. Ads in several newspapers announced the practice under such titles as “Wife to Let” and the terms of these agreement varied.

Smithfield Market. showing the selling of a wife in 1812. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

This custom of “letting” was described after a resident of Whitehaven called upon a Ulpha resident only to discover the man had gone to church for “a woman to let.” When the Whitehaven gentleman inquired what that expression meant, he was told:

“When any single woman belonging to the parish has the misfortune to prove with child, a meeting of the parishioners is called, for the purpose of providing her maintenance in some family, at so much per week, from that time to a limited time after delivery; and this meeting—to give it the greater sanction—is uniformly held in the church; where the lowest bidder has the bargain!”[1]

Not all examples of letting involved a single pregnant woman. Sometimes letting of wives occurred with relatives and had nothing to do with the woman being pregnant. One example of such an instance is a manufacturing worker in Midland County in 1788. His wife died and he took a lease on his deceased wife’s sister. If he had intentions of marrying her it is unknown, but she did live with him and also assumed the rank and position of wife.

The same year that Napoleon Bonaparte lost at Waterloo and abdicated in favor of his son, was the same year that a Birmingham carpenter, after ill-treating his wife, decided to lease himself to another woman. To accomplish this he paid an unscrupulous lawyer thirty-five shillings to draw up the document that “bound the man and the woman to live together permanently, and to support and succor each other to the utmost of their power.”[2] Of course, his old wife, who had not consented to such an arrangement, appealed. When it came before the judge, “the man was brought to his senses … and the attorney received a severe rebuke.”[3]

This idea of letting was also sometimes seen in a humorous light. One funny story involves a masquerade ball. Apparently, in the late 1700s, masquerade balls allowed women freedoms not usually afforded to them. When one young recently widowed woman attended a fashionable masquerade ball in Bath, she decided to advantage of the opportunity and wore an outrageous note attached to her breast that read:

“To be let on a lease for the term of life,

I, Sylvia J–, in the shape of a wife;

I am young, though not handsome; good natured, though thin;

For further particulars, pray apply within.”[4]

Eighteenth century masquerade. Public domain.


  • [1] Sporting Magazine, Vol. 28, 1806, p. 20.
  • [2] All the Year Round, Vol. 12, 1874, p. 582.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.

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