Anyone who has read, or seen a TV adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge will remember the early scene where the main protagonist, Michael Henchard, sells his wife to a stranger after he gets drunk at a fair.
It is a powerful scene and enabled Hardy to construct a great story in his usual style, based on implausible coincidences and drawing on the folk traditions of the agricultural labouring class of the time. Like the later scenes in the novel depicting the “skimmity ride” where effigies of Henchard and his mistress are drawn through the streets in an act of ritual humiliation and moral indignation, the wife-selling incident was based on real events. The problem for a historian is that, being part of folk culture which by definition is not recorded officially, it’s quite difficult to find evidence to back up stories about such behaviour.
In his book Wives For Sale (1981), Samuel Menefee makes a compelling case for the historical reality of wife sales with plenty of actual and anecdotal evidence. I agree with his conclusion that the ritualistic nature of wife sales probably means that it was a labouring class form of divorce. Stories of such sales virtually disappeared as soon as the divorce laws were reformed to make them accessible to other people than the very wealthy. Its happier counterpart was “jumping over the broom” which was an unofficial form of marriage. Despite what I had been taught to believe about the Victorian era, I discovered by researching in documents like parish registers and census returns that unmarried couples frequently lived together in nineteenth-century England and illegitimacy was common. Of course, many of these relationships were hidden in official documents where a woman would be described as a “housekeeper” – even carpenters and agricultural labourers had “housekeepers” if the census is to be taken on face value. I did find one example of honesty in the 1851 census of Northamptonshire, where a woman’s occupation was entered as “fancy woman,” however!
The “ritual” of wife-selling consisted of an unwanted wife being taken into the market square of a town with a halter around her neck. Although it would appear that most of the sales had a pre-arranged conclusion (in that the buyer was often already the lover of the woman concerned), she was then auctioned off. A payment was made, usually cash, but it sometimes involved goods, or livestock. The husband would then hand the woman over to her new man. As Menefee writes: “The ritual was important: location in a public place, often a market; a formal announcement or advertisement; the use of a halter; the presence of an ‘auctioneer’; the transfer of money, and sometimes the exchange of pledges. The symbolism was derived from the market sale of goods and chattels, with which the participants were familiar, and intended to make ‘lawful’ what was essentially a form of divorce and remarriage.”
In Menefee’s view, wife-sales took place in a society in which women occupied an inferior position, but he thought that it would probably be wrong to assume that they were being represented as chattels. “The need to observe a ‘lawful’ procedure was the real significance of the ritual. In fact, the women may rarely have been victims. They knew their value and their rights in their society, and their consent was generally a necessary condition of sale.”
I’m not sure that I either agree with this or feel that it makes the custom and practice of wife-selling any less objectionable.
Wife-selling was less common in East Anglia than in other parts of the country, but here are a few examples of incidents in Suffolk:
Parham, 1764. Ipswich Journal, September 29th 1764: “Last week a man and his wife falling into discourse with a grazier at Parham Fair, the husband offered 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, accordingly they met the next day and she was delivered with a new halter round her neck and the husband received the bullock which he sold for 6 guineas, it is said the wife has since returned to her husband, they had been married about 10 years.”
Newmarket, 1770. Menefee cites a case of wife-selling that took place in Newmarket, Suffolk on Tuesday, 6 March 1770. However, it was not reported in the local press and it’s possible that, if it happened, it occurred in one of the several other Newmarkets in Britain and Ireland.
Baylham, 1783. Ipswich Journal, 21st June 1783: “Not long since a man at Baylham in Suffolk having had a disagreement with his wife sold her to a farmer, the fee was 1s and he delivered her with a halter about her.”
Stowupland, 1787. Enid Porter in Folk-lore of East Anglia (1974) writes that a wife-sale “took place in Stowupland in Suffolk in 1787 when a local farmer’s wife was bought by his neighbor for 5 guineas, wherewith to buy a new dress and then went over to Stowmarket and ordered the bells to be rung in celebration of his having parted with her for so handsome a sum.”
Blythburgh, 1789. The Ipswich Journal, 29th October 1789 reported the following story: “Samuel Balls sold his wife to Abraham Rade in the parish of Blythburgh in this county for 1s. A halter was put round her, and she was resigned up to this Abraham Rade. ‘No person or persons to intrust her with my name, Samuel Balls, for she is no longer my right.’ ” Then followed the names of 4 witnesses: Samuel Balls, M. Bullock (village constable), George Whincop and Robert Sherington (landlord of the White Hart).
A Samuel Balls, a single man of Holton, married Mary Bedingfield of Blythburgh by license on 6 August 1782, in the presence of Samuel Thrower and William Blowers. This may be the unhappy couple seven years before.
Other examples, for which I can find no evidence in the local press supposedly took place in Wrentham (1802), Sudbury, (1821), Bungay, (ca. 1877), the latter was mentioned in The Rabbit-skin Cap, the autobiography of a gamekeeper called George Baldry and it may well be apocryphal.