many rural areas
in the days before the first Divorce Court was established in 1857
the practice of selling a wife had
been looked at as an alternative way to end a marriage.
cases, he said, the wife knew and had a relationship with the man
to whom, by mutual agreement, she was going.
By this unofficial folk custom marriage could end by mutual consent
with a wife sale. The procedure was based on the way cattle were
sold. It was part of an old order in which a wife had been seen as
of her husband. This old order was winning social disapproval by
the early 19th century. In Staffordshire, for example, the custom
selling followed a fairly rigid pattern. A man in search of freedom
took his wife to market, with a length of rope attached to her neck.
He paid a toll that gave him the right to sell merchandise, then
paraded her around the market extolling her virtues. Interested males
then bid for her in a general auction. Once a bid was accepted the
husband would hand over the toll ticket as proof of ownership, and
the trio would then retire to the inn and seal the deal with a beer
or two. Despite the lowly position of the wives in these transactions,
most accepted the custom as a satisfactory way of ending an unhappy
marriage. In many instances the sale was agreed by mutual consent
before the auction commenced. However, it was accepted practice that
of the market place auction would always be conducted."
From the Registers relating to Bilston,
John, ye son of Nathan WHITEHOUSE, of Tipton, sold his wife to Mr.
Dated 1720 from an old magazine known as "Lloyd's,"
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."
The next is an
oft-quoted case, it having appeared in the well-known " Annual
Register," under date 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. "
Aris's Birmingham Gazette " of March 1st, 1790, was constrained
to publish a warning notice to the public :
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."
A County newspaper, issued March 1st, 1801 evidently referring to an
incident in the life of Stafford, said :
On Tuesday last HODSON a chimney sweeper, better known by the appropriate
nickname of Cupid, brought his wife into the Market Place of this town
and disposed of her by auction. She was put up at the sum of one penny,
but as there were several bidders, and of course a good deal of rival
ship, she sold for five shillings and sixpence. The usual delicate
of tying a rope round the woman's neck was dispensed with; but we could
mention a way in which a rope might very properly reward the persons
concerned in this disgraceful violation of decency and morality."
The county town, a third of a century later, certainly supplies the
next illustration, extracted from a Wolverhampton newspaper of 1832:
A disgraceful scene was exhibited in Stafford market on Saturday
week. A labouring man of idle and dissolute habits, Rodney HALL,
at Dustan Heath, near Penkridge, led his wife into the town with a
halter round her body, for the purpose of disposing of her in the public
market to the best bidder. Having taken her into the Market Place and
paid toll, he led her twice round the market, when he was met by a
man named BARLOW, of the same class of life, who purchased her for
eighteen-pence and a quart of ale, and she was formally delivered over
to the purchaser. The parties then went to the Blue Posts Inn to ratify
the transfer, followed by a considerable number of persons who had
been attracted by the disgusting proceedings."
The same newspaper records the following case as occurring in November
A strange and unwonted exhibition took place in Walsall market on
Tuesday last. A man named George HITCHINSON brought his wife, Elizabeth
from Burntwood, for sale, a distance of eight or nine miles. They came
into the market between ten and eleven o'clock in the morning, the
woman being led by a halter, which was fastened, round her neck and
the middle of her body. In a few minutes after their arrival she was
sold to a man of the name of Thomas SNAPE a nailer, also from Burntwood.
There were not many people in the market at the time. The purchase
price was two shillings and sixpence, and all the parties seemed satisfied
with the bargain. The husband was glad to get rid of his frail rib,
who, it seems, had been living with SNAPE three years, at any time
erroneously imagining that because he had brought her through a turnpike
gate in a halter, and publicly sold her in the market before witnesses,
that he is thereby freed from all responsibility and liability with
regard to her future maintenance and support."