From the late 18th to the mid 19th centuries in England, divorce was expense—too expense for many of the populace. Divorce required a private Act of Parliament that could cost the petitioner somewhere around £3000. It also required the blessing of the church. The first divorce was not available until 1857. The sanctity of marriage evolved over 100 years from the period of the Marriage Act in 1753 to the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1857, which permitted a civil cause of action for divorce. So what was the solution for those who wished to shed himself of a wife in the late 1700s and early 1800s? WIFE SELLING became the customary mode of ending one marriage and beginning another. The practice became the means to end morally what could not be ended legally. A public sell of his Property (meaning his wife) provided a man with his only means to separate himself from his wife.
In the preface of The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy tells the reader, “The incidents narrated arise mainly out of three events, which chanced to range themselves in the order and at or about the intervals of time here given, in the real history of the town called Casterbridge and the neighbouring county. They were the sale of a wife by her husband, the uncertain harvests which immediately preceded the repeal of the Corn Laws, and the visit of a Royal personage to the aforesaid part of England.” [If you have never read this tale, I highly recommend it. At a minimum, have a look at the film by the same name in which Ciarán Hinds portrays Michael Henchard, the Mayor of Casterbridge, a man who sells his wife and child for five guineas to a sailor named Newson.]
From the front flap of Wives for Sale: An Ethnographic Study of British Popular Divorce by Samuel Pyeatt Menefee, we learn, “Addressing a bigamous and indigent hawker in the middle of the last century, Justice Maule declared: I will tell you what you ought to have done. … You should have instructed your attorney to bring an action against the seducer of your wife for damages … you should have employed a proctor and instituted a suit in the Ecclesiastical Courts. … When you had obtained a divorce a mensa et thoro, you had only to obtain a private Act for divorce a vinculo matrimonii … and altogether these proceedings would cost you L1000. You will probably tell me that you never had a tenth of that sum, but that makes no difference. Sitting here as an English judge it is my duty to tell you that this is not a country in which there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. You will be imprisoned for one day.
E.P. Thompson, a British social historian and political activist and author of The Making of the English Working Class and Customs in Common studied some 218 cases of wife selling from 1780 to 1880. He tells us that the sale was a public one, usually taking place in a marketplace. Therefore there were witnesses to the transaction. It was often announced beforehand. The halter or rope around the wife was not designed to degrade her, but as a public display of transferring her from one man to another. An auctioneer was employed for the purpose of appearing unbiased. The purchaser would not only be expected to pay the purchasing price for the wife, but also to buy a round of drinks at the tavern and purchase the rope. The husband would then provide the purchaser with a bit of coin as “good luck money” to secure the deal. At length, there would be an exchange of vows to represent a marriage ceremony.
Vintage News tells us, “One of the first reported cases of wife selling took place in 1733, in Birmingham, where Samuel Whitehouse sold his wife, Mary Whitehouse, in the open market to Thomas Griffiths for about one English pound. There are also cases where the wife is sometimes reported as having insisted on the sale and for many women, this was the only way out of an unhappy marriage. Wife selling reached its highpoint in the 1820s and 1830s and husbands who wanted to sell their wives came under extreme social pressure and the practice waned. This didn’t mean that there weren’t any more cases of wife selling and the most recent case was reported in 1913 when a woman claimed that her husband sold her to one of his workmates for £1.”