That Surprisingly Recent Time in British History When Husbands Sold Their Wives at Market
Let’s say you’re an 18th-century British peasant, and you and your wife just aren’t getting along anymore. What do you do? Divorce her? Too expensive. Kill her? Too risky. Oh, well, looks like you’ll have to auction her off. Welcome to the wacky world of wife selling!
Hands up all of you who’ve read Thomas Hardy’s classic of 19th-century British misery, The Mayor of Casterbridge. You know, the one where everybody dies and life is shown to be a pointless parade of squalor, pain, and death? You haven’t gotten around to reading it yet? Well, it’s worth filling you in on a key plot point, namely, that the main character, Michael Henchard, sells his long-suffering wife at a public auction. Surely not, you cry! Not in civilized old England. Thomas Hardy must have made it all up. Well, we’re here to tell you that it’s all true. Right up until the early 1900s, husbands in Britain were able to offer their wives to the highest bidder.
The Golden Age of wife selling was between 1780 and 1850, when some 300 wives were sold (and that’s just those that appeared in the record books—doubtless many more spouses were gotten rid of more quietly).
One of the earliest recorded wife sales took place in 1733, in Birmingham, central England. The local paper of the day records how “Samuel Whitehouse…sold his wife, Mary Whitehouse, in open market, to Thomas Griffiths. Value, one guinea [about one English pound].” As part of the deal, the paper comments, Griffiths was to take Mary “with all her faults.” Another wife, in 1801, was put up for sale by her husband for one penny. Not surprisingly, this bargain sparked a frenzied bidding war among the locality’s lonely farmers, and Mary eventually went for five shillings and sixpence. One husband even managed to off-load his old lady for eighteen pence and a quart of ale. An even luckier chap managed to trade in his other half for a full barrel of beer!
As if the act of being auctioned off wasn’t bad enough, the method in which wives were sold really rubbed salt into the wound. Wife-selling deals always followed the same very public ritual. First, the wives were led to the local market square with halters around their necks, just like cattle for sale. Then they were made to stand on an auction block, while their husbands-not-tobe began taking bids. A crowd would usually gather, and proceedings would be accompanied by much jeering and joking from the local peasantry. Once a deal was struck, all the interested parties, and most of the crowd, would retire to the local tavern to celebrate the successful transaction.
PRETTY CIVILIZED AFTER ALL
It all seems pretty distasteful, doesn’t it? But it’s not entirely what it seems. Far from being ritually humiliated by the whole thing, most of the wives on sale were there willingly. As one wife who was sold in 1830 in Wenlock noted when her husband tried to back out of the sale after bidding was complete, “Let be yer rogue. I wull be sold. I wants a change.”
In fact, almost all sales took place with the agreement of both husband and wife. It was nearly impossible for ordinary folk in Britain to get divorced the traditional way. It was a difficult and expensive procedure—around $20,000 (16,256 euros) at today’s prices. So, instead, unhappily married couples had to find another way to legally untie the knot. Wife selling killed two birds with one stone—it was the quickest of quickie ways to legally absolve a married couple from their responsibilities to one another, plus it provided some live street theater for the local community. The authorities hardly approved of the practice, but they (mostly) turned a blind eye to it.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
In the vast majority of cases, the wife was sold to an existing lover for a nominal fee, which was agreed upon by all parties beforehand. At times the husband would even use this fee to buy drinks for everyone in the local inn—including his ex-wife and her new husband.
This article is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History (Again). In it, Uncle John goes back in time to bring fans more compelling, confounding, and fascinating peeks into the world’s past. International in scope, you’ll read about historical events, people, and places worldwide. As always, the slant will be on revealing what they didn’t teach you in history class–history unexpunged!
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