The strange English custom of wife-selling

 
 
 
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Between the late eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth century in England, there was a strange and fascinating custom called wife-selling.

During this period there wasn’t a year without a newspaper report of a court case involving the sale of a wife. Between 1780 and 1850, around 300 wives were sold.

The first divorce was established in 1857 and before that it was very difficult and costly to dissolve a marriage.

In order to make a divorce legal, it required a private Act of Parliament and that would cost at least £3,000 (£15,000 at present day values) and in the end blessing of the church.

Selling a Wife (1812–14), by Thomas Rowlandson. The painting gives the viewer the impression that the wife was a willing party to the sale
Selling a Wife (1812–14), by Thomas Rowlandson. The painting gives the viewer the impression that the wife was a willing party to the sale

The average man could not afford an annulment and the only alternative to divorce was to separate through the process of a public sale. In poor districts, a wife was considered a chattel to be bought and sold like any other commodity.

The husband would take his wife to the marketplace or cattle auction and register his wife as a good of sale and a rope was placed around her neck, waist or wrist, and they were made to stand on an auction block.

A contemporary French print of an English wife sale.
A contemporary French print of an English wife sale.

It was an illegal practice but also the only alternative for the average man and the authorities turned a blind eye to it.

When the deal was done they would go to the local tavern to celebrate the successful transaction. Almost every single wife went on sale or to an auction of her own volition and held a veto over where she went next.

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.

One of the first reported cases of wife selling took place in 1733, in Birmingham, where Samuel Whitehouse sold his wife, Mary Whitehouse, in the open market to Thomas Griffiths for about one English pound.

A French depiction of Milord John Bull, heading to Smithfield Market to sell his wife
A French depiction of Milord John Bull, heading to Smithfield Market to sell his wife

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.

Wife selling reached its highpoint in the 1820s and 1830s and husbands who wanted to sell their wives came under extreme social pressure and the practice waned.

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This didn’t mean that there weren’t any more cases of wife selling and the most recent case was reported in 1913 when a woman claimed that her husband sold her to one of his workmates for £1.