On the 30th April 1823 Mr Stebbings of Norwich was brought before the City Mayor to answer charges that he had sold his wife for £6.10s to a Mr Turner. Mr Stebbings thought he made a good deal when he took up with his ‘more favourable wife’, Turner having made a down-payment of £4 on the old Mr Stebbings.
Turner took the ex-Mrs Stebbings home and immediately turned his lawful spouse out of the house. When the now-destitute Mrs Turner applied to the authorities for poor relief, they were not satisfied with her story. Both husbands were ordered to appear before the Mayor, together with their rightful wives, to undergo investigations as to their legal marital position.
After listening to their individual versions at length, the bewildered Mayor finally ordered each husband to take only his original and legal wife back into her rightful home and support her. The unhappy four were subjected to a hustling from a jeering crowd which had gathered outside the Town Hall, and had difficulty in making their way home. Whether Stebbings ever returned the £4 down-payment to Mr Turner was never recorded.
Quite frequently, wife selling took place in public and involved an element of street theatre – as in the case at Thetford on Saturday, 17 September 1839, where a John Simpson of Brandenham sold his wife. Soon after, a broadsheet carried news on the sale:
“……. a man about 40 years of age, in a shabby-genteel dress, leading a smart-looking woman, with a handkerchief [halter} round her neck and shouting with a load voice. “Who’ll buy a wife?”. After arriving at the centre of the market, he mounted a chair and offered her for sale……. A young man of plausible appearance offered 10s for her, but he was immediately opposed by an old gentleman bidding 5s more. Afterwards, the young man became the purchaser for £5. The money was paid down and the husband, on handing over the handkerchief to the purchaser, began to dance and sing, declaring he had got rid of a troublesome noisy wife, which caused much merriment in the crowd. The young woman turned sharply round and said ‘you know you old rascal you are jealous – you are no man and have no need of a young wife, and that is the reason you sold me, you useless old dog’……The women began to clap their hands to him. He then said she was a gormandizing woman, and would eat any man’s substance up; and declared that if he had kept her another year, she would have eaten him out of the house and harbour……”
According to Peter Tolhurst, the use of a halter was, in this case a handkerchief, but more often a length of rope, the exchange of insults and payment of the agreed sum, all witnessed by the crowd, were essential elements in this ritualised drama sufficient to legitimise the transaction.
Wife selling in England was a way of ending an unsatisfactory marriage by mutual agreement that probably began in the late 17th century, when divorce was a practical impossibility for all but the very wealthiest. Quite often, a husband would tie a halter around his wife’s neck, arm, or waist, and publicly auction her to the highest bidder. Wife selling provides the backdrop for Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’, in which the central character sells his wife at the beginning of the story, an act that haunts him for the rest of his life, and ultimately destroys him.
Although the custom had no basis in law and frequently resulted in prosecution, particularly from the mid-19th century onwards, the attitude of the authorities was equivocal. At least one early 19th-century magistrate is on record as stating that he did not believe he had the right to prevent wife sales, and there were cases of local Poor Law Commissioners forcing husbands to sell their wives, rather than having to maintain the family in workhouses.
Wife selling persisted in England in some form until the early 20th century; according to the jurist and historian James Bryce, writing in 1901, wife sales were still occasionally taking place during his time.
Richards, D. & Rudderham, R., Strange Tales of East Angkia, S.B. Publications, 1998.
Tolhurst, P., The Hollow Land, Black Dog Books, 2018.