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Selling Your Wife in 19th-Century England
In 1869, Robert Chambers, publisher and writer, brought forth the interesting and peculiar Book of Days that collected miscellany from history and everyday life.
The excerpt below deals with the continuing practice of selling wives. In his own time this practice was being treated as apocryphal. Most urban, educated people assumed it had ceased. In this passage he collects examples drawn from contemporary documents like newspapers and court records to show that among rural people it not only continued, but that it was still considered somehow legally binding.
The Annual Register for 1832 gave an account of a singular wife-sale which took place on the 7th of April in that year. Joseph Thomson, a farmer, had been married for three years without finding his happiness advanced, and he and his wife at length agreed to separate. It is a prevalent notion amongst the rude and ignorant in England that a man, by setting his wife up to public auction, and so parting with her, legally dissolves the marriage tie, and escapes from all its obligations.
Thomson, under this belief, came into Carlisle with his wife, and by the bellman announced that he was about to sell her. At twelve o'clock at noon the sale commenced, in the presence of a large number of persons. Thomson placed his wife on a large oak chair, with a rope or halter of straw round her neck. (He gave a speech which, while humorous, I have edited out—MH). The account concludes with the statement that, after waiting about an hour, Thomson knocked down the lot to one Henry Mears, for twenty shillings and a Newfoundland dog; they then parted in perfect good temper—Mears and the woman going one way, Thomson and the dog another.
Of course an affair of this kind is simply an outrage upon decency, and has no legal effect whatever. It can only be considered as a proof of the besotted ignorance and brutal feelings of a portion of our rural population. Rather unfortunately, the occasional instances of wife-sale, while remarked by ourselves with little beyond a passing smile, have made a deep impression on our continental neighbours, who seriously believe that it is a habit of all classes of our people, and constantly cite it as an evidence of our low civilization. It would never occur to us as a proof of any such thing, for we recognise it as only an eccentricity; yet it may be well for us to know that it really does take place now and then,—more frequently, indeed, than almost any are aware of,—and is a social feature by no means unworthy of the grave consideration of educationists.
In 1815, a man held a regular auction in the market-place at Pontefract, offering his wife at a minimum bidding of one shilling, and 'knocking her down' for eleven shillings. In 1820, a man named Brouchet led his wife, a decent-looking woman, into the cattle-market at Canterbury, from the neighbouring village of Broughton; he asked a salesman to sell her for him; the sales-man replied that his dealings were with cattle, not with women, and he refused. The man thereupon hired a pen or stall, for which he paid the usual tollage of sixpence, and led his wife into it by a halter; and soon afterwards he sold her to a young man at Canterbury for five shillings. In 1834, a man led his wife by a halter, in precisely a similar way, into the cattle-market at Birmingham; but the local journals did not report the sum at which the unfortunate 'lot' was knocked down.
A case occurred in 1835, in which a woman was sold by her husband for fifteen pounds; she at once went home with the buyer; she survived both buyer and seller, and then married again. Some property came to her in the course of years from her first husband; for, notwithstanding claims put forth by other relations, she was able to maintain in a court of law that the sale did not and could not vitiate her rights as his widow. A good deal of surprise was felt in many villages of ignorant peasantry, in 1837, at the result of a trial at the West Riding Sessions in Yorkshire, where a man was committed to a month's imprisonment and hard labour for selling, or attempting to sell, his wife: the right to do this being believed in more extensively than we are apt to imagine.
In 1858, in a beer-shop at Little Horton, near Bradford, a man named Hartley Thompson put up his wife, described by the local journals as a pretty young woman, for sale; he even announced the sale beforehand by means of a crier or bellman; he brought her in with a ribbon round her neck, by way of halter. These two persons had lived unhappily together, and both entertained a belief that by such a process as this they might legally separate for life. It is difficult, indeed, to credit how such things can be, unless the wife be more or less a consenting party; this supposition once made, however, so cheap a substitute for the Divorce Court becomes intelligible. Doubtless, in some cases the husband acts wholly for himself in the matter; as happened in 1859 at Dudley, where a man sold his wife for sixpence, under the full belief that by so doing she would have no further legal claim on him for support.
from Robert Chambers, Book of Days, 1869 (day: April 7)
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