This is a repost of an article I wrote for the marvelous Barbara Bettis. I’ve decided to republish it here, because the subject horrifies me. I feel for the women who suffered the humiliation of wife selling and am grateful that I live in an enlightened society where women are no longer seen as property.
In my novella, A Woman of Love, Annabel’s husband gives her to another man after losing a hand of cards. Would this really happen? In my opinion, yes, especially if the husband has no regard for his wife.
Women in this period did not exist in the eyes of the law. To make matters worse, once a woman was married she, along with all her possessions, and her earnings, belonged to her husband. This made women property rather than people. Which leads me to the shocking subject of wife selling. Yes, there were men in England who thought that they could sell their wives, and in some cases their children too.
Wife selling was a custom that took place, in England, between the late 17th century and the early 20th century. The husband would lead his wife, using a rope around her neck, waist or wrist, to the market place or cattle auction, as if she were livestock. Once there he would sell her to the highest bidder.
Many believed wife selling was a legal way to dissolve a marriage. To understand this you have to understand that until the Marriage act of 1753 all a couple had to do to be legally married was to agree to the union in front of witnesses. As long as they had reached the age of consent, twelve for girls and fourteen for boys, the marriage was legal. (Scary isn’t it.) So if it was that easy to get married it must be just as easy to get divorced, right? Wrong. Divorce was a legal procedure that involved an act of parliament, the blessing of the church, and a lot of money. It was something well beyond the reach of the average man.
The first reported case of wife selling, I can find, was in November 1692 when John Whitehouse of Tipton sold his wife to Mr. Bracegirdle. But it’s hard to believe that this custom didn’t exist before this date. Women had long been viewed as property under English law. I have read of an instance where a woman was deeded to another man as early as 1302, and although I haven’t been able to corroborate it, it wouldn’t surprise me to find it was true.
At the turn of the nineteenth century there were judges who opposed the law. But they seemed to be confused as to whether they had the right to prevent it. The magistrate for Ashbourne, Derbyshire called wife selling scandalous, but in the next breath said,
“As to the act of selling itself, I do not think I have a right to prevent it, or even oppose any obstacle to it, because it rests upon a custom preserved by the people of which perhaps it would be dangerous to deprive them by any law for that purpose.”
In fact, there were Poor Law Commissioners (These were local officials who were responsible for the workhouses.) who took advantage of it and forced husbands to sell their wives and children, so the family could be expelled from the workhouse. In one such case, in 1814 the wife and child of Henry Cook, who were living in Effingham workhouse, were sold at Croydon market for one shilling, the parish paid for the cost of the journey and a "wedding dinner". (This breaks my heart.)
Wife selling jumped in popularity reaching its highpoint in the 1820’s and 1830’s. When it was at it’s most popular there was a backlash of public opinion. Husbands wanting to sell their wives came under extreme social pressure and the practice waned, but it didn’t disappear completely. Newspapers in England reported ten cases of wife selling in the 1890’s, according to a research paper, Wife Sales written by Peter T. Leeson, Peter J. Boettke, Jayme S. Lemke.
The fact is that once women were granted property rights under the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, and then the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, wife selling declined. I should point out that from 1730 and 1900 newspapers reported only 192 wife sales. (Newspaper accounts are the best way to gage this subject as husbands were rarely prosecuted for this crime.) This seems a relatively small number compared to the number of marriages and how many of those marriages would have been unhappy.
This is undoubtedly one of the most deplorable, disgusting customs I have researched, but I will leave you with a true tale of wife selling that does have a happy ending.
Henry Bridges, 2nd Duke of Chandos, while on his way to London, dined with a companion, at the Pelican Inn in Newbury. A commotion in the courtyard caught their attention and upon further investigation they discovered that a man was going to sell his wife, Anne. They went to see. The duke was instantly taken with the poor young wife. He purchased her and brought her home where he educated her. The pair fell in love and were married On Christmas Day in 1744. They remained together until her death in 1759.
If that isn’t inspiration for a romance novel I don’t know what is.