Between the late eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth century there was a strange and fascinating custom called wife-selling. During this period there wasn’t a year without a newspaper report of a court case involving the sale of a wife. Between 1780 and 1850, around 300 wives were sold in England.
In Lanark County and surrounding area a few men did not think their wives worked hard enough, or were tiresome, and exchanged or bartered them at the local fairs or in private. Since the sheriffs were in charge of these events, they were either done in secret or they looked the other way. I wrote a story about a woman and her children in Drummond who was sold by her husband to the neighbour and I can’t find it. The woman ended up being happier with her neighbour as her previous husband had been a piece of work. It is bad enough trying to trace folks with wives dying early from childbirth and the widower remarrying 3 or 4 times, but this gets to be a tad confusing.
The first divorce was established in 1857 and before that it was very difficult and costly to dissolve a marriage. The average man could not afford an annulment and the only alternative to divorce was to separate through the process of a public sale. In poor districts, a wife was considered a chattel to be bought and sold like any other commodity.
The husband would take his wife to the marketplace or cattle auction in England and register his wife as a good of sale and a rope was placed around her neck, waist or wrist, and they were made to stand on an auction block.
It was an illegal practice but also the only alternative for the average man and the authorities turned a blind eye to it. In most 18th- and early 19th-century sales, the woman usually was sold in a cattle market. Payment often was based on her weight.
When the deal was done they would go to the local tavern to celebrate the successful transaction. Almost every single wife went on sale or to an auction of her own volition and held a veto over where she went next. In many cases, the sale would be announced in advance in a local newspaper and the purchaser was arranged in advance. The sale was just a form of symbolic separation.
Have you read?
- 30 Dec 1903, Wed,
- Page 5