The Ignominious Wife Sale

Who’d be plagued with a wife

That could set himself free

With a rope or a knife

Or a good stick like me

DIVORCE AND SEPARATION IN THE GEORGIAN AGE

Until the Divorce Reform Act of 1857, the only legal grounds upon which a divorce suit could be filed were adultery (generally by the wife) or impotence on the part of the husband. In the prior case, a judgment of criminal conversation had to first be obtained and then the case would proceed to the Ecclesiastical courts for divortiom a mensa et thoro, or legal separation from bed and board but this prohibited remarriage. A complete severance of marital bonds could only be obtained by divortium a vinculo which required a third step, the complex and costly procedure of a private Act of Parliament. In sum, divorce was virtually impossible for the poorer members of society.

THE WIFE SALE

For the lower classes, desertion or elopement was a frequently employed alternative to divorce, whereby the wife was either forced out of the home, or the husband simply set up a new abode with his mistress. Another method was the wife sale. Commonly practiced from about the end of the 17th century, the custom of “Wife-selling” was a public ritual used by many to recognize the dissolution of a marriage amongst the classes for which a legal divorce was exceedingly cumbrous, prohibitively expensive, and completely impractical. It was also an inventive means of dealing with the end of marriage because it mixed punitive ritual and social regulation with public entertainment. The wife sale was described by a number of 18th and 19th century newspapers as incorporating the symbolism of a livestock auction with the woman being led to the marketplace in a halter followed by a public declaration by the husband.

The Laws Respecting Women, As They Regard Their Natural Rights (1777) observed that:

“for the poor, wife selling was viewed as a method of dissolving marriage when a husband and wife find themselves heartily tired of each other, and agree to part, if the man has a mind to authenticate the intended separation by making it a matter of public notoriety”.

Wife- Sale advertisement:

“To be sold for Five shillings, my wife, Jane Hebbard. She is stoutly built, stands firm on her posterns and is sound in wind and limb. She can sow and reap, hold a plough, and drive a team, and would answer any stout able man that can hold a tight rein, for she is damned hard-mouthed and headstrong; but if properly managed, would either lead or drive as tame as a rabbit. She now and then makes a false step. Her husband parts with her because she is too much for him. All her body clothes will be given with her”

Historical documents suggest certain requirement to be met for a wife-sale and “re-marriage” to be considered legitimate by the rural communities:

  •             The woman had to wear a halter
  •             The sale had to be a public event either at a market square or fair
  •             The transaction had to have the semblance of an open auction
  •             Some manner of payment was required in the exchange (often involving alcohol!)

An eye-witness to such an event in says:

“The man led a woman by a rope. “Come up,” he said, and the lady came up accordingly. She was encouraged to this promptly by the presence of a man behind her armed with a stick and prepared to support her husband’s action by appropriate arguments. The husband, it appears, was not unmindful of the well known precept that wives were more easily led than driven; but in case the one method failed he had provided for the enforcement of the other.”

For the husband, the sale released him from his marital duties, including any financial responsibility for his wife. For the purchaser, who was often the wife’s lover, the transaction freed him from the threat of a legal action for criminal conversation, a claim by the husband for restitution or damage to his property, in this case his wife.

Although some 19th-century wives objected, records of 18th-century women resisting their sales are non-existent. With no financial resources, and no skills on which to trade, for many women a sale was the only way out of an unhappy marriage. On occasion, the wife even insisted on the sale.

A wife sold in Wenlock Market for 2s. 6d. in 1830 was quite determined that the transaction should go ahead, despite her husband’s last-minute misgivings:

“‘e [the husband] turned shy, and tried to get out of the business, but Mattie mad’ un stick to it. ‘Er flipt her apern in ‘er gude man’s face, and said, ‘Let be yer rogue. I wull be sold. I wants a change’.”

Primary Reference:

HUMOUR, HALTERS AND HUMILIATION: WIFE-SALE AS THEATRE AND SELF-DIVORCE BY Rachel Anne Vaesen, B.A., Simon Fraser University, 2003

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