From the late 18th up to the mid-19th century in England, there existed a strange custom of wife-selling. At the time, newspapers often carried stories of wives being sold to other men. In fact, between 1780 and 1850, about 300 wives were recorded as sold.
Divorce in England was not established until 1857, and before that, it was extremely costly and daunting to dissolve a marriage. The dissolution of marriage required a private Act of Parliament costing £3,000 (or £15,000 today) and the blessing of the church.
To avoid all this inconvenience, the average Englishmen turned to wife-selling.
The only alternative at the time was to separate from their wives through a public sale. In poor communities, wives were considered personal property that could be bought and sold.
Men would bring their wives to the marketplace or cattle auctions and register the women as goods for sale. A rope would be placed around the woman’s neck, waist, or wrist as she stood on an auction block. The practice was illegal, but the authorities turned a blind eye to it since it was the average man’s only choice.
Once a deal is done, the men would go to a local tavern and celebrate the successful trade.
Almost all wives sold went for sale or auction of their own volition and held a veto over to whom they went next. In many cases, the sale or auction would be announced in the local paper, and a buyer would already be arranged in advance. The process of selling or auctioning was more of a formality or symbol of separation. There were also cases when the women actually initiated the sale or auction because it was their only way out of an unhappy marriage.
One of the first recorded cases of wife-selling happened in 1733 in Birmingham. A man named Samuel Whitehouse sold his wife, Mary Whitehouse, to Thomas Griffiths for £1. The strange custom reached its peak in the 1820s and 1830s. At the time, the men came under extreme social pressure and so the practice waned. The most recent case of wife-selling was in 1913 when a woman claimed her husband sold her to one of his colleagues for £1.
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