19th century wife selling

Divorce as we know it was not permitted until the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act which allowed newly formed civil Divorce Courts to litigate divorce cases. Prior to this, there were other legal and illegal methods of ending marriages: separation mense et thoro (from bed and board), annulment, priva​te separation, an expensive private Bill and desertion. Another method was wife-selling.

The origins of wife-selling in Britain are debated. Lawrence Stone dated it back to the sixteenth and seventeenth century, with the first recorded case occurring in 1553. [1] Samuel Pyeatt Menefee, on the other hand, believed this 'established British institution' to be Anglo-Saxon in origin, practiced as early as the eleventh and twelfth century. [2] Many saw this custom as a legal method of 'public self-divorce' and marriage. Wife-sales are associated with the 'plebeian' class, particularly those in rural communities and small towns, according to John Gillis. [3] Despite the 1857 Act, which made divorce more accessible for the lower classes through Divorce Courts, wife-sales still occurred into the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In fact, one of the last ones was in 1913 in Leeds. [4] 

Wife-sales occurred by either:

  • public auction in a public place with fake and genuine bidders, but usually a pre-determined buyer;
  • public sale with an agreement between the involved parties in a public place to create witnesses;
  • private agreement, conducted with privacy, witnesses and/or written agreements.

To sell a wife by public auction or sale, a husband would bring his wife, often with a halter around her to resemble livestock, to a communal location, commonly a market-place or public house. Public auctions and sales were ritualistic and symbolic. The public arena created witnesses to the transaction to let the community know that one marriage had ended and another begun. Generally, wife-sales occurred with the consent of both the husband and wife, with a buyer (new husband) in mind, who was often the wife's lover if there had been an affair.

The price of wives varied from meagre amounts to quite high sums. Goods as well as money were exchanged. In 1832, a wife in Carlisle was sold for £1 and a Newfoundland dog! [5] If we go back to our previous image, this may be what it's depicting. At Selby in 1862, a wife was sold for a pint of beer which would have cost only 3½ pence. [6] At the other end of the spectrum, a Ripon wife was sold for the high amount of 25 shillings or 300 pence. [7]

It is no surprise that the folklore custom of wife-selling appeared frequently in nineteenth century literature. Thomas Hardy's novel The Mayor of Casterbridge gave us the most famous literary wife-sale as the main character Michael Henchard auctions off his wife Susan and their child; the legitimacy and validity of the wife-sale is later questioned by both parties. [8]
Michael and Susan Henchard on their way to the market where Susan will be sold along with their child. Illustration by Robert Barnes for the 1886 serial of 'The Major of Casterbridge' by Thomas Hardy in The Graphic, online at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mayor_of_Casterbridge#/media/File:TheMayorofCasterbridge1.png (Wikimedia Commons) (used in accordance with copyright usages) 
Wife-selling was also a theme of some folk ballads, some of which have survived in print form. John Ashton's collection of folksongs, Modern Street Ballads (1888), interestingly starts with two ballads about wife-sales. 'Sale of a Wife' is about the sale of a wife to a sailor. To close the deal, the sailor '. . . shook hands with Betsy, and gave her a smack, / And she jump'd straddle-legs on to his back'. [9] 'John Hobbs' is about a wife that no other man wants to buy as 'The wife-dealing fellows / were all of them sellers. . . And none of them wanted Jane Hobbs'. [10] This drives the husband to attempt suicide. After the wife cuts him down:
They settled their troubles, 
Like most married couples,
John Hobbs, John Hobbs,
Oh, happy shoemaker, John Hobbs!
The woodcut illustrations accompanying the ballads are interesting in terms of their iconography. An image of a bird is used to illustrate one broadside of 'John Hobbs'. The bird icon is common in medieval folklore and iconography as a symbol for the cuckolded husband. If we consider the cuckoldry iconography a bit further, the illustration accompanying the ballad 'Poor Will Putty', another wife-sale ballad, gives the illusion of the wife-selling husband having horns, a common symbol in Western tradition of the cuckolded husband. This emphases the wife's infidelity in the ballad as the wife-sale is due to her affair. It was not just ballads that have left us with illustrations of this folk custom. Other forms of publications, such as newspapers, provided pictorial evidence. For example, this 1820s satirical caricature of a wife-sale repeats the cuckoldry imagery and states with a double entendre in French that it is a 'Market of horned beasts'. 
'John Hobbs', 1807 – 10, printed and sold by T. Batchelar, London. Taken from Broadside Ballads Online, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, online at: http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/view/edition/17868 (broadside page cropped) (used in accordance with copyright usages) 
'Poor Will Putty', authored by Charles Dibdin, printed by T. Evans, London, between 1790 and 1813. Taken from Broadside Ballads Online, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, online at: http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/view/edition/2653 (broadside page cropped) (used in accordance with copyright usages)
A.H. Phillips, Georgian Scrapbook, 1949, p. 123, online at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wife_selling_(English_custom)#/media/File:Contemporary_wife_selling_print_georgian_scrapbook_1949.jpg (Wikipedia) (used in accordance with copyright usages) 

While these ballads and illustrations paint a particular picture of 19th century wife-selling, with the unfaithful wife and deceived husband, what was wife-selling really like in the 19th century? My research has focussed specifically on Victorian wife-sale cases in Yorkshire. In terms of statistics, I've been drawing on data compiled by Menefee who extensively surveyed wife-sales in Britain. According to his data, 108 known wife-sales occurred between 1837 and 1901, the Victorian period. 27 of those cases (25%) occurred in the Yorkshire region. [11] I found two more which Menefee did not document which brings the total to at least 29 known Victorian wife-sales in Yorkshire.

E. P. Thomson as well as Menefee noted a high occurrence of wife-sales in the Yorkshire region compared to others. Menefee stated that 'by the late 1880s the institution seems to be confined largely, although not exclusively, to the industrialized north of England'. [12] He attributed this 'to the tenacity with which Yorkshiremen are said to cling to old ways'. [13]

A peculiar wife-sale took place in May 1837, possibly in Halifax. A husband, a blacksmith called Garth, 'first sold [his wife] for a shilling, then bought her back again, and resold her to a married man for half-a-crown'. It seems that these sales were conducted behind the wife's back as when she 'came in on learning the fact', she 'amused a company of fellows of low character who were present by mauling her faithless spouse rather severely'. [14]

The Times reported that 'One of these no less rare than disgusting exhibitions' occurred in Goole in December 1849. A man, called Ashton, had been receiving medical treatment at Hull General Infirmary. Whilst in hospital, his wife (described as a 'buxom young woman') eloped with a 'paramour', 'taking with her a great part of the husband's effects'. When cuckolded Ashton discovered what had happened, he tracked the two lovers down and after negotiations, all parties agreed to a sale. A public auction took place in Goole market-place. After 'a little spirited competition' she was sold to her lover for 5 shillings and 9 pence. Before leaving with her new husband, the wife snapped her fingers at her ex-husband and said 'There, good-for-nought, that's more than you would fetch'. [15]

The Times, also detailed how a haltered 'women, respectably dressed, was offered for sale in Rotherham market-place' in October 1839. Bidding commenced and reached 4 shillings and 10 pence. At this point, the police constables arrived and the wife, fearing an arrest, 'fled and took refuge in a house'. In her absence, the auctioneer sold her to the last bidder who had come 'from Sheffield to make the purchase'. When reassured that the police were there to 'prevent a disturbance of the peace' only, she 'surrendered herself to her new master, and they proceeded together by the railway to Sheffield'. [16]

Arthur Munby witnessed what he referred to as 'The fine old custom' in an unnamed North Yorkshire village in February 1860. The husband (described as a 'old man') sold his wife, 'a good deal younger than her husband', to a 'middle aged' purchaser after 'The purchaser had thought about​ making a bid, and at length decided that the act was proper and lawful'. She was purchased for 18 pence. It seems that the villagers, unlike the purchaser, did not think it was 'proper'; the villagers 'burnt the pair in effigy on the green'. [17] As the Latin motto warns: Caveat Emptor – let the buyer beware!

Header Image

Thomas Rowlandson, Selling a Wife, 1812 – 1814, pen and Indian ink, brown wash and watercolour over pencil sketch, online at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rowlandson,_Thomas_-_Selling_a_Wife_-_1812-14.jpg (Wikimedia Commons) (used in accordance with copyright usage)


[1] Laurence Stone, Road to Divorce: England 1530 – 1987 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 142 – 4.

[2] Samuel Pyeatt Menefee, Wives for Sale (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher, 1981), pp. 1 – 3.

[3] John Gillis, For Better, For Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985) p. 212 and p. 218. 

[4] E. P. Thompson, 'Sales of Wives', Customs in Common (London: Merlin Press Ltd, 1991), pp. 404 – 66 (p. 408).

[5] 'Sale of A Wife', Huddersfield Chronicle and West Yorkshire Advertiser, Saturday 19 October 1861, p. 3.

[6] John Ashton. 'John Hobbs', Modern Street Ballads (London: Chatto & Windus, 1888), pp. 4, online at: https://archive.org/details/modernstreetbal03ashtgoog (Internet Archive)

[7] Menefee, p. 254 (case 343).

[8] Thomas Hardy, 'The Major of Casterbridge', serialised in The Graphic in 1886.

[9] Ashton, 'Sale of a Wife', Modern Street Ballads, pp. 1 – 3, online at: https://archive.org/details/modernstreetbal03ashtgoog (Internet Archive). 

[10] Ashton, 'John Hobbs', Modern Street Ballads, p. 4, online at: https://archive.org/details/modernstreetbal03ashtgoog (Internet Archive).

[11] For Menefee's list or index of wife-sale cases, see Menefee, pp. 211 – 259.

[12] Menefee, p. 31.

[13] Menefee, p. 3.

[14] 'Artists' Benevolent Fund . . .' [One of those disgraceful exhibitions . . .], The Times, 8 May 1837, p. 3, Issue 16410 [quoting the Halifax Express].

[15] 'Sale of a Wife. – One of these no less rare . . .', The Times, 15 December, 1848, p. 7, Issue 20360.

[16] 'On Thursday last, about 12 o'clock . . . ' [On Monday a woman, respectfully dressed . . .], The Times, 9 October 1839, p. 7, Issue 17168 [quoting the Rotherham Independent].

[17] A. J. M., 'Wife Selling', Notes and Queries, 4 February 1882, series 6, vol. 5, 98​

​​This is adapted from a​​ paper that Dr Lauren Padgett, a former Leeds Trinity University PhD student, read at a 'Women in Print' network conference at Manchester (later repeated for her LTU Explorer blog and seminar)​​. Her side research project into Victorian spouse-selling centred on wife-sales in Victorian Yorkshire; she is particularly interested in tracing the aftermath of these sales. This rese​arch strand forms a paper in the 2016 Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies by Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies/Leeds Trinity University.


< PreviousNext >