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The ancient and strange English custom of wife-selling

Between the late eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth century in England, there was a strange and fascinating custom called wife-selling. Married women in England were commonly bought and sold at village fairs. During this time, not a year passed when there was no court case concerning the sale of a wife. Between 1780 and 1850 the cases of sale of 300 wives were certainly recorded, free women treated as an purchasable good, in addition to the cases of many women who were not registered.

Selling a Wife (1812–14), by Thomas Rowlandson. The painting gives the viewer the impression that the wife was a willing party to the sale

Although it may seem brutal and disrespectful (of course), there were economic and social reasons behind the sale of wives. The first divorce recorded in England was in 1857, and previously it was a difficult and expensive practice. In order for the legal recognition of a separation or annulment of a marriage a private act of the Parliament was needed, which had a price of around 3,000 pounds, something like 15,000 pounds (probably also much more) today, in addition to a recognition of the cancellation by the Church.
For any British citizen really a substantially prohibitive sums, reserved only for a few nobles, and the only alternative to marriage annulment was to organize a public sale of the wife. In the lower classes of the population, a wife was regarded as a real good, which could be sold like any other commodity.

The husband would take his wife to the marketplace or cattle auction and register her as a good of sale. A rope was placed around her neck, waist or wrist, and they were made to stand on an auction block.
The auction then took place on the public square and the wife was sold. Fortunately it was a practice already considered illegal, but for the average man it was the only chance to separate from his wife without incurring prohibitive costs.
Although it was illegal, the authorities often turned a blind eye.
When the deal was concluded, buyer and seller went to the village tavern to celebrate the success of the transaction. It is good to specify that almost all the women sold through this system went to the auction on their own, and vetoed potential buyers.
In many cases the sale was announced in a local newspaper, in order to give potential buyers the time needed to prepare. The wife also had a way of deciding which of the potential buyers would be all right, and of vetoing others she didn’t like.

A contemporary French print of an English wife sale.

This was basically the divorce of the poor.
One of the first sales cases of wife took place in 1733, in Birmingham, where Samuel Whitehouse sold his wife, Mary Whitehouse, to Thomas Griffiths, for a pound. In many cases, moreover, it was precisely the woman who insisted on being sold, an operation that would have allowed her to leave a particularly unhappy marriage.
Sales of wives reached their peak between 1820 and 1830, only to be replaced by legalized divorce. The last sale, it seems, took place in 1913, when a woman claimed to have been sold by her husband to her own workmate for the modest sum of one pound.

Source: TheVintageNews and personal researches.

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