‘For my part I don’t see why men who have got wives and don’t want ‘em, shouldn’t get rid of ‘em as these gipsy fellows do their old horses…Why shouldn’t they put ‘em up and sell ‘em by auction to men who are in need of such articles? Hey? Why, begad, I’d sell mine this minute if anybody would buy her!’
So says the young farm labourer Michael Henchard, in one of the most arresting passages in Thomas Hardy’s 1886 novel The Mayor of Casterbridge. Near the beginning of the book, Michael gets drunk on rum-laced furmity (frumenty), and has an argument with his wife, Susan. He decides to auction off Susan and their baby daughter, who are bought by a sailor for five guineas. When Michael sobers up, the enormity of what he’s done hits home; he realises he cannot get his wife and daughter back, and swears off alcohol for the next 21 years as a result.
The scene is shocking, no doubt, what with Michael’s casual brutality, Susan’s misery, and the pervasive misogyny. Yet when it emerges that Susan is also quite keen to part ways with Michael, I am struck by there being something oddly progressive in what is essentially a quick no-fault divorce. Michael explains to the onlookers that:
‘It’s an agreement to part. She shall take the [baby] if she wants to, and go her ways. I’ll take my tools, and go my ways. ‘Tis simple as Scripture history.’
This brilliant scene raised a number of questions for me, which I set out to investigate. Did wife sales like this actually happen? If so, where and when were they taking place, and why?
The main issue was that before the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, which set up civil divorce courts, divorce was only for the wealthy few. A private bill had to be passed through Parliament before a couple could divorce, which was expensive and required the right political connections. For ordinary people, therefore, the main options after the breakdown of a marriage were limited to annulment, desertion, or separation (of which there were various types).
This is where the wife sale comes in. It was possible – though not really legal – for a man to sell his wife, thereby renouncing all responsibility for her. This method of separation was cheap, flexible, did not involve the courts, and allowed both parties to remarry, in practice if not in law.
There is a record from as early as 1302 of a man granting his wife by deed to another man, but wife sales seem mostly to date from the late 17th century. Wife sales could take place publicly at auction, possibly with a pre-arranged buyer. Wives might also be sold without auction, in which case the ex-husband and new husband would either proclaim the agreed sale in a public place (so as to create witnesses and let the community know of the change) or agree in private, perhaps culminating in a written agreement.
In the case of public sales and auctions, a wife would typically be led to a public place such as a market or an inn, with a halter around her arm or neck, just like a piece of livestock. The husband would display his wife, might enumerate her qualities, and, in the case of an auction, would call for bids from the assembled onlookers.
Wives might be sold for as little as a pint of beer (as at Selby in 1862), but could also fetch considerably more, as with a woman who was sold in 1865 for £100, plus £25 for each of her children. The average price was probably somewhere in the range of a few shillings. This was hardly a life-altering sum for the ex-husband; probably more important than the sum itself was the sense that exchanging money (or its alcoholic equivalent) made a wife sale legally binding – which of course, it did not.
Once someone had bought the wife, he and his newly acquired wife would generally walk off together. In some instances it is recorded that all parties retired to the pub for a convivial drink before moving on. The ex-husband might then put out an announcement via a newspaper to the effect that he wouldn’t honour any debts which his former wife might contract.
Wives probably objected less to being sold than we would assume, as the sale was usually agreed by mutual consent. In fact, sometimes matters were organised so that the buyer was the wife’s existing lover. In December 1849, The Times reported just such an incident in Yorkshire, describing how a man had arranged with his wife that she should be sold to her lover – presumably much to her satisfaction. At a public auction in the town marketplace:
‘After a little spirited competition she was sold to her lover for 5 shillings and 9 pence. Before leaving with her new husband, the wife snapped her fingers at her ex-husband and said ‘There, good-for-nought, that’s more than you would fetch’.
Even if a wife was reluctant, however, she generally had the power of veto over any particularly unsuitable buyers. Thus in Manchester in 1824, ‘after several biddings she [the wife] was knocked down for 5s; but not liking the purchaser, she was put up again for 3s and a quart of ale’. It would seem that the watching crowds were generally not prepared to see a woman sold off completely against her will. At one wife sale in Dublin in 1756, a group of women rescued the wife, then gave her husband a mock trial and placed him in the stocks until early next morning.
Of course, some unscrupulous husbands probably took advantage of this process. Spontaneous wife sales were particularly problematic in this respect because women could be sold on a whim to complete strangers, as in The Mayor of Casterbridge or an incident in March 1766, where a carpenter from Southwark sold his wife ‘in a fit of conjugal indifference at the alehouse’.
The upper and middle classes – with the possible exception of the 2nd Duke of Chandos, who apparently bought his second wife from an ostler – didn’t participate in or support wife sales. There was no right in English law to sell one’s wife. In fact, the 1861 edition of Burn’s Justice of the Peace and Parish Officer states that ‘publicly selling or buying a wife is clearly an indictable offence’. Nevertheless, it’s clear that some clergy and magistrates were prepared to turn a blind eye to wife sales, if only because the custom was so ingrained in everyday life. Many poorer, uneducated people sincerely believed in the legal validity of wife sales. Hence the case of a Stockport man taken up for bigamy in 1899, who believed his first wife had no claim on him as he had sold her 30 years previously ‘for 1s. 6d. to a chimney sweep at New Mills’.
And in fact, the custom wasn’t necessarily as bad for women as we might at first assume. It enabled a woman to escape a bad marriage without having to prove adultery or cruelty in the courts; and if a woman’s new husband was a decent man, her life was more secure than if the ex-husband had simply cast her out without a penny, as he was legally entitled to do.
Yet wife sales grew less common in the 19th century, as wider public opinion gradually turned against them. Probably this was in some part due to the greater availability of divorce. The last record of a wife sale was in 1913, when a woman in Leeds alleged that her husband had sold her to one of his workmates for £1.