by Joe Earp
The auction of a wife in the public market by her husband to us today appears to be a degrading and obscure act, to say the least. Thomas Hardy’s famous account of a wife being sold to a sailor for five guineas in the opening chapter of The Mayor of Casterbridge shows clear disgust at the practice.
It should be remembered, however, that divorce was only obtainable by private Act of Parliament until 1857. Even after that date, it remained extremely expensive. Ordinary people could have recourse only to the custom of wife selling, which was the poor man’s form of divorce. The buyer of the wife was prearranged, and the proceedings were by mutual consent. They were regarded as legal and binding (though they were not in fact so).
This obscure English custom probably began in the late 17th century, when divorce was a practical impossibility for all but the very wealthiest. After parading his wife with a halter around her neck, arm, or waist, a husband would publicly auction her to the highest bidder.
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. In one of the last reported instances of a wife sale in England, a woman giving evidence in a Leeds police court in 1913 claimed that she had been sold to one of her husband’s workmates for £1.
There are a couple of records of wife selling having occurred in Nottingham. J Holland Walker (1931) in his ‘An itinerary of Nottingham: The Market Place’ takes up the story:
“It seems almost incredible to think that in 1779 a man sold his wife and children in the Market Place. The woman was aged seventeen and she with her two children was put up for sale and sold for 27/6, but that is not the worst. In 1852, the year in which the Arboretum was opened, another similar sale took place. On April 25th a man named Stevenson living in Millstone Lane brought his wife into Nottingham Market Place with a new rope round her neck and standing near the sheep pens on Beastmarket Hill, offered her for sale: “Here is my wife for sale” he announced, “I shall put her up for 2/6, the rope is worth 6d.” Ultimately she was bought for 1/- by a man named Burrows, and they all went to the Spread Eagle which was in the old Sheep Lane which is modernised in the Market Street to sign the articles of agreement, the lady being the only member of the party who was able to sign her name”.