Sale of a Wife in Smithfield MarketNow is your time gemmen; here's my Fat Heifer and ten pounds worth of bad Halfpence, all for half a Guinea, why her Hide's worth more to a Tanner; I'll warrant She's Beef to the Heels, and tho' her Horns ben't Wisible, yet he that buys her will soon feel their Sharpness.--there han't been such a Beast in the Market for Years--Zounds says the Fool in Blue Apron, I think I'll take her of thee, She and the Halfpence, must be worth the Money, I have had two Wives, and wou'd have Sold 'em for half that Sum.
Published 25th July 1797 by Laurie & Whittle, 53 Fleet Street, London
Wife selling in England was a method of ending an unhappy marriage (probably by mutual agreement) which seemed to gain popularity in the late 17C, when divorce was a practical impossibility for all but the very rich. After performing the ritual of leading his wife with a rope halter around her neck, arm, or waist, a husband would publicly auction her to the highest bidder.
It is reported that there is an account in England from 1302 of a husband who "granted his wife by deed to another man." With the general rise in the ability to read & the increasing availability of newspapers, written reports of the practice become more frequent in the 2nd half of the 18C.
The 1832 Gentleman's Magazine reported several occasions of wife selling in the 17C. In November 1692 "John, ye son of Nathan Whitehouse, of Tipton, sold his wife to Mr. Bracegirdle," although the manner of the sale is unrecorded. In 1696, Thomas Heath Maultster was fined for "cohabiteing in an unlawful manner with the wife of George ffuller of Chinner ... haueing bought her of her husband at 2d.q. the pound"
Until the Marriage Act of 1753, a formal ceremony of marriage before a clergyman was not a legal requirement in England, & marriages were unregistered except those performed in parish churches & noted in church registers. All that was required was for both parties to agree to the union, so long as each had reached the legal age of consent, which was 12 for girls & 14 for boys.
Women were completely subordinated to their husbands after marriage, the husband & wife becoming one legal entity, a legal status known as coverture. As jurist William Blackstone wrote in 1753: "the very being, or legal existence of the woman, is suspended during the marriage, or at least is consolidated & incorporated into that of her husband: under whose wing, protection & cover, she performs everything." Married women could not own property in their own right, & were indeed themselves the property of their husbands. But Blackstone went on to observe that "even the disabilities the wife lies under are, for the most part, intended for her protection & benefit. So great a favourite is the female sex of the laws of England." (Poor, unintelligent women needed "protection.")
Along with other English customs, settlers arriving in the British American colonies during the late 17C & early 18C carried with them the practice of wife selling, & the belief in its legitimacy as a way of ending a marriage.
The Boston Evening-Post reported on 15 March 1736 an argument between two men "& a certain woman, each one claiming her as his Wife, but so it was that one of them had actually disposed of his Right in her to the other for Fifteen Shillings." The purchaser had, apparently, refused to pay in full, & had attempted to return "his" wife. He was given the outstanding sum by 2 generous bystanders, & paid the husband—who promptly "gave the Woman a modest Salute wishing her well, & his Brother Sterling much Joy of his Bargain."
In 1645 "The P'ticular Court" of Hartford, Connecticut, reported the case of Baggett Egleston, who was fined 20 shillings for "bequething his wyfe to a young man."
After the Revolution, American independence brought women several paths to freedom from husbands who were abusive, neglectful, or adulterous. In the pre-Revolution British American colonial society, divorce was nearly impossible under English precedent, but all of the newly independent "states" recognized the need to legally end unhappy marriages. The choice of appropriate remedies varied considerably.
Some of the new American states, particularly in the South, only allowed separate residence with alimony (called divorce from bed & board). Other states granted absolute divorce with the right of the innocent party to remarry. In matters of divorce, local social, & religious values affected the laws in different parts of the newly united country.
The conservatism of divorce laws in the southern states was probably related to the practice of chattel slavery in a variety of ways. Married women were seen by some as the chattel of their husbands. Southern lawmakers also seemed reluctant to grant women absolute divorces, because of the frequent occurrence of slave-owning husbands having sexual relationships with their slaves.
The more liberal New England divorce laws, in contrast, stemmed from a longstanding Puritan belief, that it was better for unhappy couples to separate & remarry than to be joined forever in a state of discord & temptation to sin.
An account in 1781 of a William Collings of South Carolina records a "Bill of Sale" of a "Wife and Property" for "Two Dollars and half Dozen Bowls of Grogg," the buyer "to have my said Wife for ever and a Day." According to Richard B. Morris, "although the administration of the law was in a somewhat unsettled state during this ["British"] military occupation [of Charleston], neither at common law nor under the marriage laws then in force in South Carolina would the sale of a wife have been valid." The document likely was a way, wrote Morris, for "dissolving the marriage bond" since the state forbade divorce "and the marriage laws of the Church of England were widely disregarded among the poorer whites and in the back country," but it could also have been intended to reduce the husband's liability for debts for support of the wife and her children and for her pre-marriage debts.
From the 1550s, until the Matrimonial Causes Act became law in 1857, divorce in England was only possible, if at all, by the complex & costly procedure of a private Act of Parliament. Although the divorce courts set up in the wake of the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act made the procedure considerably cheaper, divorce remained prohibitively expensive for the poorer members of society. An alternative was to obtain a "private separation," an agreement negotiated between both spouses, embodied in a deed of separation drawn up by a conveyancer.
In England, desertion or elopement was also possible, whereby the wife was forced out of the family home, or the husband simply set up a new home with his mistress. This tactic was also used in the British American colonies, especially before the Revolution.
Finally, the notion of wife selling was an alternative method of ending a marriage. The Laws Respecting Women, As They Regard Their Natural Rights (1777) observed that, for the poor, wife selling was viewed as a "method of dissolving marriage," when "a husband & wife find themselves heartily tired of each other, & agree to part, if the man has a mind to authenticate the intended separation by making it a matter of public notoriety."
In the following excerpt, originally published in 1808, Charles Fourier argues that French & English women of the period were treated little better than slaves & that social progress in both countries depended on granting women greater freedoms & rights. "Is there a shadow of justice to be seen in the fate that has befallen women? Is not a young woman a mere piece of merchandise displayed for sale to the highest bidder as exclusive property? Is not the consent she gives to the conjugal bond derisory & forced on her by the tyranny of the prejudices that obsess her from childhood on? People try to persuade her that her chains are woven only of flowers; but can she really have any doubt about her degradation, even in those regions that are bloated by philosophy such as England, where a man has the right to take his wife to market with a rope around her neck, and sell her like a beast of burden to anyone who will pay his asking price?" (Charles Fourier. "Degradation of Women in Civilization." Theorie des Quatre Mouvements et des Destinees Generales, pp. 131-33. Paris, France: n.p., 1841-48.)
Although the wife selling custom had no basis in law & sometimes resulted in prosecution, particularly from the mid-19C onwards, the attitude of English authorities was equivocal. At least one early 19C magistrate is on record as stating that he did not believe he had the right to prevent wife sales, & there were cases of local Poor Law Commissioners forcing husbands to sell their wives, rather than having to maintain the family in workhouses.
Wife selling persisted in England in some form until the early 20C; according to the jurist & historian James Bryce, writing in 1901, wife sales were still occasionally taking place during his time. In one of the last reported instances of a wife sale in England, a woman giving evidence in a Leeds police court in 1913 claimed that she had been sold to one of her husband's workmates for £1.
Another form of wife selling in England was by deed of conveyance. The practice became more widespread after the 1850s, as popular opinion generally turned against the market sale of a wife. The issue of the commonly perceived legitimacy of wife selling was also brought to the government. In 1881, Home Secretary William Harcourt was asked to comment on an incident in Sheffield, in which a man sold his wife for a quart of beer. Harcourt replied: "no impression exists anywhere in England that the selling of wives is legitimate" & "that no such practice as wife selling exists." But just 8 years later in 1889, a member of the Salvation Army was recorded selling his wife for a shilling in Hucknall Torkard, Nottinghamshire, & subsequently leading her by the halter to her buyer's house.
Selling a Wife (1812–14), by English artist Thomas Rowlandson
A Few Public Notices
November, 1692. "John, ye son of Nathan WHITEHOUSE, of Tipton, sold his wife to Mr. Bracegirdle."
1720 from Lloyd's Magazine, "We were lately witnesses of a case of wife-selling in an old town in South Staffordshire. It appeared that the husband had set his affections on another woman, and his wife hearing of it, had very justly showed their displeasure in a variety of ways; whereupon the husband, who was a collier, took her to the marketplace, and sold her to the highest bidder for five shillings. There was much excitement in the crowd which assembled to witness the act, and the affair ended with a good deal of drinking at the expense of the husband and the purchaser."
"Annual Register," August 3lst, 1733 "Three men and three women went to the Bell Inn, Edgbaston Street, Birmingham, and made the following entry in the Toll Book which is kept there: Samuel WHITEHOUSE, of the parish of Willenhall, in the County of Stafford, sold his wife, Mary WHITEHOUSE, in open market, to Thomas GRIFFITHS, of Birmingham. Value, one guinea. To take her with all her faults. (Signed) Samuel WHITEHOUSE / Mary WHITEHOUSE. Voucher: T. BUCKLEY."
Court record Bill of Sale of Oct. 24, 1766 "It is this day agreed on between John Parsons, of the parish of Midsummer Norton, in the county of Somerset, clothworker, & John Tooker, of the same place, gentleman, that the said John Parsons, for & in consideration of the sum of six pounds & six shillings in hand paid to the said John Parsons, doth sell, assign, & set over unto the said John Tooker, Ann Parsons, wife of the said John Parsons; with all right, property, claim, services, & demands whatsoever, that he, the said John Parsons, shall have in or to the said Ann Parsons, for & during the term of the natural life of her, the said Ann Parsons. In witness whereof I, the said John Parsons, have set my hand the day & year first above written. JOHN PARSONS.'Witness: WILLIAM CHIVERS."
World, June 21, 1788, "Not many days since a man publicly sold his wife for 12 shillings. In the payment he had insisted in having new shillings as he had never had had anything but what was bad in exchange for her and therefore must take more care."
Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, September 4, 1789 "On Thursday last at Yarlington fair, in this county, Ann Atwell wife of William Atwell was sold for five shillings to Thomas Wadman. The woman was delivered, as is customary with a large cord. He had promised her good keeping and six pence was paid in earnest."
World, September 22, 1789 "A man of the name John Petts lately sold his wife and three children for two shillings and six pence. He shewed her by leading her up and down the road in a halter in which she was delivered up to her new purchaser. She was thought to be no bargain."
Aris's Birmingham Gazette March lst, 1790 "As instances of the sales of wives have of late frequently occurred among the lower classes of people who consider such sale lawful, we think it right to inform them that, by a determination of the courts of law' in a former reign, they were declared illegal and void, and considered (a light in which religion must view them) as mere pretence to sanction the crime of adultery."
World, November 12, 1790 "A man at Nimfield stocks in Sussex last week sold his wife to another man of the same place for half a pint of gin; the purchaser being in liquor at the time the bargain was concluded, the seller in order that he should not complain of any unfair advantage having been taken of him took his dear spouse to bed and board until the next morning when the buyer attended and claimed his lady who was delivered by the husband in due form, having a halter round her neck, and two witnesses being present. The woman appeared overjoyed at the change, nor did the man seem less happy at their lots."
Oracle and Public Advertiser, March 31, 1796 "On Saturday evening last John Lees, steel burner, sold his wife for the sum of 6 shillings to Samuel Hall, fellmonger, both of Sheffield. Lees gave Hall one guinea immediately to have her taken off to Manchester the day following by coach. She was delivered up with a halter round her neck and the clerk of the market received 4 pence for the toll."
Oracle and Public Advertiser, July 18, 1797 "Smithfield Market. Another anti-matrimonial bargain has taken place in this mart of living stock. But whatever may be the cause, the fact is that the price of ladies has risen here; a man sold his wife yesterday for three guineas and a half."
The Times July 1797 "On Friday a butcher exposed his wife to Sale in Smithfield Market, near the Ram Inn, with a halter about her neck, & one about her waist, which tied her to a railing, when a hog-driver was the happy purchaser, who gave the husband three guineas & a crown for his departed rib. Pity it is, there is no stop put to such depraved conduct in the lower order of people."
Oracle and Public Advertiser, September 23, 1797 "The price of wives is no longer regulated by what the article brings to Smithfield. It has advanced considerably more than it was some months ago; for last week a wife sold for twenty five pounds at Towcester."
A Little Historiography
In her 2013 artlcle "The Moral and Legal Consequences of Wife Selling in The Mayor of Casterbridge" Julie C. Suk explores the tradition of wife selling in England at Oxford Scholarship Online. Her article appeared in Subversion and Sympathy: Gender, Law, and the British Novel, by Martha C. Nussbaum and Alison L. LaCroix.
Suk explains that there are 3 significant scholarly examinations of wife selling in 18C & 19C England: 1 by anthropologist, Samuel Pyeatt Menefee, & 2 by social historians, E. P. Thompson & Lawrence Stone. All these accounts have interpreted wife selling as a practice by which poor people got divorced, because the social & legal universe in these couples which lived lacked access to formal divorce.
According to Menefee, most wife sales were usually planned in advance, involved 3 parties who already knew one another, & was welcomed by all the parties involved. The typical wife sale of this period was one in which the husband would publicly sell his wife to a man with whom she was already having romantic relations.
Thompson interprets the sale of wives in 19C England as a ritual practiced by poor men & women who sought to improve their personal circumstances. Thompson identifies several features that were common to the wife sales that occurred during this period:
First, the sale took place in an acknowledged marketplace. It was public; there was an audience.
Second, the sale was usually planned, rather than spontaneous. It was sometimes announced publicly beforehand, either orally or through a public written notice.
Third, it was often the case that the wife was brought to the marketplace with a halter around her neck. The halter enabled a physical transfer of the wife from the husband to the purchaser.
Fourth, in the market, there usually was an auctioneer. Sometimes, the husband would act as auctioneer, but often, a 3rd party would do so.
Fifth, there was an exchange of money. The purchaser often agreed not only to pay the price of the wife but also to buy a drink & the price of the halter. The husband would frequently return some small portion of the money as “luck money” to the purchaser.
And finally, the actual moment of transfer was usually solemnized by an exchange of vows that resembled a marriage ceremony. The wife would then return her original wedding ring to her husband-seller.
These common components tended to make the wife sale a ritual in rural working-class life, one that involved active & consensual participation by the husband-seller, the wife being sold, & the new-husband-purchaser. This ritual allowed the participants to perform a public divorce & new marriage during an era when legal institutions did not provide a method.
Stone noted that the wife sale in 18C & 19C England enabled poor married people to formalize amicable separations usually by mutual consent. Some parties saw the wife sale as a method of obliterating the legal & financial obligations of traditional marriage in the eyes of the community. As husbands were responsible for their wives’ debts during this period, the wife sale was a public expression of the man's intention not to be liable for the future debts incurred by the wife. In addition, the wife sale gave the woman some assurance, that the former husband would not raid her new home & seize all her goods & earnings, which by law would be his, if they were still married. In addition, the public separation enabled by the sale might deter the former husband from suing the new husband for criminal conversation, a civil cause of action available in England to a husband to recover damages from his wife's adulterous lover. Through the public sale, the 1st husband extracted a bribe from the wife's lover in return for waiving his civil cause of action for criminal conversation.
Samuel Pyeatt Menefee, Wives for Sale: An Ethnographic Study of British Popular Divorce 5 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981).
Lawrence Stone, Road to Divorce: England 1530–1987 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990),
Lawrence Stone, Uncertain Unions: Marriages in England 1660–1753 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)
E. P. Thompson, Customs in Common (New York: New Press, 1993)
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