Wife Selling as a Means to a Moral Divorce, but Not Necessarily a Legal One

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. 



Selling a Wife (1812–14), by Thomas Rowlandson.
I seriously doubt many women were such willing parties in this farce. 


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.]


‘Hay-trussing — ?’ said the turnip-hoer, who had already begun shaking his head. ‘O no.’ From Robert Barnes’s illustrations for the 1886 weekly serialised edition of Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge. This illustration, the first, depicts the protagonist, Michael Henchard, on the way to a fair to sell his wife and baby daughter. ~ Public Domain via Wikipedia


A contemporary French print of an English wife sale. (via https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/11/20/the-strange-english-custom-of-wife-selling/


41hh8Rr+l5L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg 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.

“The judge’s ruling was a wry acknowledgement of the dilemma faced by the man in the street, who was normally unable to obtain a divorce sanctioned by Church or State. For centuries such men resorted to informal means of slipping the knot of matrimony, one of which was selling a wife in the open market. Wives for Sale is a fascinating study of this practice, which developed its own traditions, rules and procedures. The author considers the causes and consequences of wife sales and the reactions to the institution of the courts, the press and the public. He draws parallels between wife-selling and other contemporaneous social practices and beliefs and considers the custom as it was reflected in popular culture.
“From this study the selling of wives emerges as a popularly accepted expedient, often welcomed by husband, purchaser and “merchandise” alike. The author argues that the institution was a conservative and traditional solution to the problems faced by communities denied the practical option of divorce, a solution rooted in the primary mechanisms of social interchange.”  
Menefee purports that the sales were planned in advance, meaning that the husband, wife and purchaser already knew one another and that the terms had been agreed upon before the public sale. Although it makes good drama, the spontaneous sale of a wife to a stranger was not typical of the transactions. 

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.”

A French depiction of Milord John Bull, heading to Smithfield Market to sell his wife
A French depiction of Milord John Bull, heading to Smithfield Market to sell his wife


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in Act of Parliament, book excerpts, England, Georgian England, Georgian Era, Great Britain, history, Living in the Regency, marriage, marriage customs, real life tales, Regency era and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Wife Selling as a Means to a Moral Divorce, but Not Necessarily a Legal One

  1. Gerri Bowen says:

    Years ago I read a book where a man bought a woman being sold by her husband to keep his younger brother from foolishly buying her. Can’t remember the name or author, but it was the first time I’d heard of wife selling.

    • I’d love to know the book’s title, Gerri. “Casterbridge” is the only one I read where wife selling was used as a plot point. If you think of the name, let me know.

  2. Time to bring that back; then again perhaps I’d have to pay for someone to ……… 😈

  3. nmayer2015 says:

    One regency romance has as a plot point a man buying a woman at such an auction. He was an educated man and knew that he couldn’t marry her while her husband lived. I think there was temptation to shorten the man’s life. In that book the man and the wife, at least were of a higher class than was usual in such sales.
    It has been a long time since I read Hardy and not sure I could now.
    I like to believe that most wives were “sold” to a man with whom she was either in love or who would treat her better.
    I don’t know about wife selling being more “moral” though it was certainly better than murder and wife beating or casting a wife out to survive in any way possible.
    I know I want to believe that the women generally had a choice and went to a man with whom they could have a better life.
    The class of men who generally were the ones to sell their wives were not men who would have the money for a regular divorce when it became available in the 1850’s

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