Wife selling began in the late 1600s when divorce was an impossibility. The practice continued into the 1700s and 1800s and generated the belief that if a man and his wife agreed to separate, the parting was valid if he sold her at public auction. However, if the wife protested the sale, it was said to be questionable whether the sale was legal. This idea that wife selling was legal, also encouraged some men to sell not only their wives but also their children. This was the case with a man who sold both at a Tuxford market for five shillings.
When wives were sold, many of the sales occurred at a town’s public marketplace, such as London’s Smithfield Market, a livestock market that occupied the site as early as the 10th century. In Sussex, sales didn’t occur at the marketplace but rather at inns or public houses. Wherever the sales took place the town crier usually announced the sale and then the husband paraded his “better half” around with a halter around her neck.
The art of wife selling began to be reported in newspapers as early as the mid-1700s. However, these reports were not necessarily common. This is indicated by the fact that newspapers mentioned the immensity of the crowds, which appears to show that such sales were still rare enough to warrant a write-up in newspapers.
Among the reports of wife selling published in the 1700s were several that offered some interesting details. For instance, there was a report of one haltered wife being sold in 1750 to a “grazier” in exchange for an ox. In 1766, a drunken Southwark carpenter sold his wife to a “brother-chip,” but once sober he regretted the sale, wanted her back, and when she refused, he hung himself in despair.
There were also several mentions of wife selling in the late 1700s. For example, in August of 1773 Samuel Whitehouse of Willenhall decided to sell his wife Mary. He sold her to Thomas Griffiths of Birmingham, who agreed to take her with “all her faults.” The men entered the sale in a toll book that was kept at the Bell Inn on Edbaston Street and in the book was a side note that stated all the parties were “exceedingly well pleased.”
Whitehouse’s sale of his wife was not the only one performed in the late 1700s. A man named Edward Hawker died in 1785, his house, land, coaches, stables, and wife were advertised for “let or sell.” The advertisement stated that interested parties should apply to an agent named Clacker. Another wife, described as “middle-aged, fair faced, proportionable in length to her bulk, and every way agreeable,” was sold on 6 April 1791 at a pig market. There was also another wife selling case in 1797, the same year that Eliza de Feuillide married Jane Austen‘s brother Henry. In the 1797 case a report was made on the sale of a wife at a Fittleworth auction in Suffolk. The woman was sold to a man she had a previous connection with for two shillings and a six-pence. “The marriage service was afterwards read by a merry … [auctioneer] who received half a guinea for his trouble.”
Reports of wife selling continued into the 1800s and were perhaps more common at this time than in the 1700s. One typical nineteenth-century sale reportedly took place on 7 April 1832 when Joseph Thomson sold his haltered wife. The bellman announced her sale at noon to a large and intensely interested crowd after Thomas placed his wife in a large oak chair with a halter around her neck. He then addressed the crowd as follows:
“Gentlemen, I … offer … my wife, Mary Anne Thomson … whom I mean to sell to the highest bidder … it is her wish as well as mine to part for ever. She has been to me only a born serpent. I took her for my comfort … but she became my tormentor; a domestic curse, a night invasion, and daily devil. Gentlemen, I speak truth from my heart when I say — May God deliver us from troublesome wives and frolicsome women … [Now] I will introduce the bright and sunny side of her … She can read novels … milk cows … laugh and weep with the same ease that you … take a glass of ale when thirsty … She can make butter … scold the maid … [and] make rum, gin, or whisky … I therefore offer her … for the sum of fifty shillings.”
Unfortunately, Thomson did not get what he wanted. He sold her for much for less. In fact, Thomson had to settle for 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog, which were offered by a man named Henry Mears.
One sale, described as “extraordinary,” occurred in 1822 but ended in prosecution of both the husband and wife. A man named Brooks advertised the sale of his young and beautiful wife of two years at a Plymouth cattle market. On the appointed day, hundreds of spectators appeared and watched as the husband acted as the auctioneer. The bidding rose quickly from five shillings to three pounds.
About that time the couple were arrested and hauled before the Chief Magistrate at Guildhall. The Magistrate learned three weeks after the couple married, a child was born, and, although Brooks was not the father and did not reproach his new wife for her conduct, she deserted him and went to live with the man who had gotten her pregnant. He was a man named Kane from Plymstock. He then got her pregnant again, but because of the second pregnancy and because Brooks learned he could sell his wife, he decided to advertise her for sale and she apparently agreed.
They couple then appeared at the Plymouth market to end their marriage. However, the woman thought Kane would buy her, but when he failed to appear, she employed the hostler of Lord Exmouth Inn to bid for her if the “price did not exceed 20l.” The Magistrate upon hearing the evidence bound the parties over to answer the charges at an ensuing session after which he explained the illegality of wife selling.
In 1869 the Morning Post reported on a wife being sold on the spur of the moment. The sale happened somewhere between Birmingham and Tipton with the Post correspondent reporting:
“[A] man named Cope having … sought and found his wife in a public house, began by abusing her ‘in the coarest and most violent language,’ and then, a crowd having collected, announced his determination to sell her. The bidding does not appear to have been very brisk, but the sale was without reserve, and ‘amid some confusion and violent behaviour, Cope knocked his wife down for 2s. 3.d.'”
As late as 1897, there was a newspaper report of wife selling. The Penrith Observer reported that the case happened in Irthlingborough, a shoe manufacturing village in Northamptonshire. According the paper:
“A party of shoemakers having spent all their money at a public house, and having nothing handy to dispose of to get more, one offered to sell his wife for 2s. A customer in the bar accepted the offer, and, to make the bargain complete, one of the men was induced to go through the street publicly announcing, on behalf of the husband, that he had ‘sold and bequeathed’ his wife to the purchaser, and giving the name of two companies as witnesses to the transaction.”
Despite British law clearly stating that wife selling was illegal, people attempted to legitimize it. This meant that often a bill of sale was included when a wife was sold. In addition, a certain amount of formality was also observed when selling a wife to legitimize the sale: the price could not be less than a shilling and the wife had to be delivered to her new purchaser with a halter around her neck. Yet, despite the formalities and the bill of sale, numerous prosecutions occurred, particularly from the mid-1800s onward and despite The Law Review, and Quarterly Journal of British and Foreign Jurisprudence noting in 1854:
“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.”
The Law Review was not the only publication that noted wife selling was against the law. The Lake’s Falmouth Packet and Cornwall Advertiser also noted that wife selling was illegal and claimed the practice was “considered … mere pretences [sic] to sanction the crime of adultery.” Yet, despite the laws and despite newspapers reporting that wife selling was illegal, many husbands who sold their wives were utterly surprised when they found that the law did not allow it.
There were also many misunderstandings about wife selling. One wife who was sold for 15 pounds in 1835, claimed she was entitled to her first husband’s property after he died. The man’s relatives insisted the sale had been valid and that he therefore died wifeless. However, the law thought otherwise, and the ruling favored the wife, which shocked the man’s relatives because they could not understand how wife selling was against the law.
Another misunderstanding involved a George Hitchinson who sold his wife Elizabeth in 1837. Moments after the bidding started she was purchased by Thomas Snape, a nailer from Burntwood, for the price of 2s 6d. Hitchinson erroneously thought “that because he had brought her through a turnpike gate in a halter, and had publicly sold her in the market before witnesses, that he [was] … freed from all responsibility and liability with regard to her future maintenance and support.” His belief was false.
Yet, that was not the last of the misunderstandings related to wife selling. During the early reign of Queen Victoria another incident happened, this time in the village of West Riding of Yorkshire. There 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.”
-  “Hereford, April 27,” in Hereford Journal, 27 April 1791, p. 3.
-  “A Wife for Half-a-crown,” in Worthing Herald, 18 July 1931, p. 3.
-  “Sale of a Wife at Carlisle,” in Carlow Sentinel, 13 December 1862, p. 1.
-  “Wife Selling Extraordinary,” in Morning Post, 23 December 1822, p. 4.
-  Ibid.
-  “Wife Selling,” in Penrith Observer, 16 March 1897, p. 7.
-  The Law Review, and Quarterly Journal of British and Foreign Jurisprudence, Vol. 20, 1854, p. 24
-  “Selling a Wife in 1869,” in Lake’s Falmouth Packet and Cornwall Advertiser, 12 June 1869, p. 2.
-  All the Year Round, Vol. 12, 1874, p. 583.