The Sale of Wives In England.
Now-a-days wives are occasionally treated with barbarity. When they are, however the husbands are severely dealt with by law. But at one time wives were considered as a mercenary commodity, and the disposal of them for a certain price was a not uncommon occurrence, being recorded in newspapers as " items of everyday news." During this period of dormant sympathy, it was generally considered as lawful for a husband to sell his spouse by auction to the highest bidder, "provided he delivered her over with a halter round her neck." Strange as it may seem, the wife was frequently found to be in favour of the transaction, probably agreeing with the adage that "changes are lightsome."
In July, 1797, The Times in reference to the price of wives, said— "By some mistake in our report of the Smithfield Market, we had not learned the average price of wives for the last week. The increasing value of the fair sex is esteemed by several eminent writers as a certain criterion of increasing civilisation. Smithfield has, on this ground, strong pretensions to refined improvement, as the price of wives has risen in that market from half-a-guinea to three guineas and a-half."
Even in the early years of the 19th. century, cases of the sale of wives in public are recorded.
A few instances of such sales, which appeared in a recent number of "All the Year Round," will be read with considerable interest and amusement:-
In 1750 a man and his wife falling into discourse with a grazier, at Parham, in Norfolk, the husband offered him his wife in exchange for an ox, provided he would let him choose one out of his drove. The grazier accepted the proposal, and the wife readily agreed to it. Accordingly, they met the next day, when the woman was delivered to the grazier, with a new halter round her neck, and the husband received a bullock which he subsequently sold for six guineas.
The first recorded sale after the accession of George III., occurred in the month of March, 1766 in this case a carpenter of Southwark, named Higginson, went into an ale-house for his morning draught: there he met a fellow carpenter, and their conversation turned to wives. The carpenter, whose name, history has not recorded, lamented that he had no wife. Higginson, on the other hand, lamented that he had, and expressed regret there was no way except murder by which he could rid himself of her. The carpenter assured Higginson that there was a way, — the old English custom had made it quite lawful for a husband to sell his own rib. " No one would be such a fool as to buy mine," sighed Higginson. "I would do so," the other promptly replied, "and would think I had made a good bargain, too."
"Done!" shouted the delighted husband, who clinched the bargain on the spot. Mrs. Higginson was duly claimed by her new lord, and went willingly enough and lived with him as his wife.
In a few days, however, Higginson either grew tired of his mateless home or suspected that he had not done right, and went to the other carpenter's house, demanding his wife back. Mrs. Higginson strenuously refused to leave her new lord. "A sale is a sale," said she, "and not a joke."
Higginson went again and again, but to no purpose, and after a week or two he ceased calling. His wife had just begun to conclude that he had at last quietly resigned his claim, when she was cited to appear before a coroner's jury and identify her husband who had settled the question by hanging himself. (The price paid for the woman is not recorded.)
Another sale occurred in the summer of 1767. In this case, however, the man selling the "chattel" had no legal right over it, she being simply a wife by courtesy. Her reputed husband was a bricklayer's labourer, residing at Marylebone, and the price at which she was valued was five shillings and three pence and a gallon of beer. Three weeks after the sale, when the lady was duly housed with her new lord, a wealthy uncle of hers, residing in Devonshire, died, and, quite unexpectedly, acknowledged the kinship by leaving her two hundred pounds and a quantity of plate. The new protector at once decided to sanctify the union by a ceremony of the Church, and so became her husband indeed, and of course, the possessor of the legacy, there being no Married Woman's Property
Act in those days.
Edgbaston, Birmingham, was the scene of the next sale of this character which had to be reeorded. It took place in the month of August, 1773, and the facts are these :—Three men and three women went into the Bell Inn. Edgbaston-street, Birmingham, and called for the toll-book, which was kept there. In this they made the following extraordinary entry: "August, thirty first, 1773. Samuel Whitehouse, of the parish of Willenhill, in the county of Stafford, this day sold his wife, Mary Whitehouse, in open market, to Thomas Griffiths, of Birmingham. Value one shilling. To take her with all faults. (Signed) Samuel Whitehouse, Mary Whitehouse. (Voucher) Thomas Buckley,
of Birmingham." The parties were said to be well pleased, and the purchase-money and the market toll, demanded for the toll, were both cheerfully paid.
This Ipswich Journal, January 28, 1737, states that : "A farmer of the parish of Stownpland sold his wife to a neighbour for five guineas, and being happy to think he had made a good bargain, presented her with a guinea to buy a new gown. He then went to Stowmarket and gave orders for the bells to he rung on the occasion."
The London Chronicle for the 1st of December, 1787, reported that : "On Monday last a person named Goward led his wife to the market place at Nuneaton, and there sold and delivered her up, with a halter about her, to one White, for the sum of three guineas. On their way Goward asked his wife if she was not ashamed of being brought to open market to be sold ; she said she was not, and was happy to think she was going to have another husband, for she knew well who was going to be her purchaser. When they came to the place Goward embraced his wife and wished her well, upon which she returned the compliment. White declared himself extremely well satisfied, and paid down the money, assuring the quondam husband it was good and full weight. The purchase being completed, White gave the ringers a handsome treat to ring a peal, and they spent the remainder of the day with the greatest joy imaginable."
A Case which occurred in 1790 is slightly different to the foregoing, for it is the record of a girl who
actually bought her husband. She was an Oxfordshire lass, and was on the eve of marriage to a young man of the same county, when the bridegroom elect would not consent to name the day unless her friends would advance fifty pounds for her dowry. Her friends being two poor to comply with this demand, the lass, who evidently thought a mercenary husband better than no husband at all, went to London and sold her hair, which was deli- cately long and light, to a chapman in the Strand for three pounds per ounce. As it weighed just twenty ounces, she returned with joy to Oxfordshire with sufficient money to buy her exacting husband, and ten pounds to boot."
It was not just in England where we have recorded the sale of wives but in New South Wales as late as 1803 we have early settler, Israel Rayner, selling his wife Catherine Carpenter. She walked out on Israel and went to live with her lover, Henry Baldwin and refused to return. When Henry Baldwin paid no heed to Israel's threats of legal action, a deal was struck and Israel sold Catherine to Henry for six bushels of wheat and a pig.
The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser
Tuesday 26 September 1893
Victoriavane Word Press
transcription, janilye 2012