Selling a wife became a common practice in England and likely began in the late 1600s when divorce was an impossibility. The practice 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 or not 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 market place, such as Smithfield Market in London. 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 “better half” around with a halter on her neck.
A certain amount of formality was also observed when selling a wife so as 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. Although wife selling was illegal, people attempted to further legitimize wife selling and often times a bill of sale was included. However, despite the formalities and the bill of sale, numerous prosecution occurred, particularly from the mid 1800s onward.
The art of wife selling began to be reported in eighteenth century newspapers as early as the mid 1700s. Newspaper reports often mentioned the immensity of the crowds that attended such events, which may indicate they were rare enough to warrant a write-up in the newspaper. One report of a haltered wife being sold occurred 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 and wanted her back. When she refused, he hung himself in despair. After a man named Edward Hawker died in 1785, his house, land, coaches, stables, and wife were advertised for “let or sell.” The ad stated that interested parties should apply to an agent named Clacker. In 1797, one newspaper reported 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 six-pence. “The marriage service was afterwards read by a merry…auctioneer, who received half a guinea for his trouble.” 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.
Reports of wife selling increased in the 1800s. One typical sale took place on 7 April 1832 when Joseph Thomson sold his haltered wife. The bellman announced her sale at noon to an large and intensely interested crowd. Thomas placed his wife in a large oak chair with a halter around her neck and 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 [sic]…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 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 handsome 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, at which 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 a man named Kane, who then got her pregnant again.
Because of the pregnancy and because Brooks learned he could sell his wife, he decided to advertise her, and as she agreed to the sale, they appeared at the Plymouth market to end their marriage. Apparently, 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.
The law viewed wife selling as illegal, and 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.” One newspaper also noted that wife selling was illegal and claimed the practice was “considered…mere pretences [sic] to sanction the crime of adultery.” Yet, many of those who sold their wives were surprised when they found it was illegal to do so.
There were 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 died wifeless, but the law thought otherwise. They ruled in favor of the wife, which shocked the man’s relatives. George Hitchinson sold his wife Elizabeth in 1837 and 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.” There was also an incident in the early reign of Queen Victoria. It occurred 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.”
- —, in Hereford Journal, 27 April 1791
- —, in Staffordshire Advertiser, 28 October 1837
- All the Year Round, Vol. 12, 1874
- Andrews, William, The Derbyshire Gatherer of Archaeological, Historical, Biographical Facts, Folk Lore, Etc., 1880
- “County and District News,” Leamington Spa Courier, 12 June 1869
- “Laughables,” in Hampshire Chronicle, 12 August 1797
- “To be Sold or Let,” in Chelmsford Chronicle, 24 June 1785
- The Law Review, and Quarterly Journal of British and Foreign Jurisprudence, Vol. 20, 1854
- “Wife Selling,” in Lancashire Evening Post, 18 December 1909
- “Wife Selling Extraordinary,” in Morning Post, 23 December 1822