The absurdities of the lawmakers in England never cease to amaze. Until 1753 when the marriage act was introduced, ensuring a marriage ceremony took place in a church, selling your wife in this and some other countries was legal and socially acceptable.
Even then, the practice carried on, often with a nod and a wink from magistrates until 1926. Further on still, although he was punished for it, a husband in 1960 tried it on, but society was having nothing of it.
A magistrate in the mid-1800s is on record as saying he did not have the right to prevent wife sales and Poor Law Commissioners were known to force husbands to sell their wives to avoid the cost of keeping them in the poorhouses.
The practice of selling wives and husbands was first recorded in England in 1302. Records back then were a bit scarce, so the details are a bit skimpy. Why who or how isn’t registered.
But as the practice gained in popularity over the 18th and 19th centuries, details of such sales became more available.
There were two main reasons that wives were sold, and let’s stick with wife selling because the male transactions were few and far between. The main reason was that it was an easy way to get a semi-legal divorce, and the other was when a lover was required to pick up the tab for keeping his siren mistress.
In those days, her husband owned the female Brit. She had no property rights and was considered the property of her husband. For most of the population, other than upper-class women, ladies had no private assets. The only way to exist without languishing in poverty was via marriage.
Men often found their investment wasn’t worth the candle, so they tried to offload the liability to someone else.
The lady in question would have a halter placed around her neck and be led by her spouse to the local cattle market, where other males would bid for her.
This practice developed as a popular way of divesting an unsatisfactory spouse, so expensive was divorce procedure for many. Most couldn’t pay the legal fees to go through the courts, especially as the action ended being heard before the House of Lords.
So off to market would go the hapless wife with a halter around her neck, shamefully led by the husband who would offer her in the cattle market to the best bidder.
And those bids could be wild.
The successful bidder so admired one unnamed lady, she went for 50 guineas and a horse at Smithfield Meat Market, while one poor soul found no bidders and went for a pint of ale.
A variety of factors similarly drove the cases of lovers and cuckolds.
One husband walked in on his wife in the middle of a two-person party and immediately began negotiations with her lover over a sale price.
Other cuckolds were anxious to get rid of their liability and sell their female companion to her lover. If he was to have the pleasure, then he must bear the financial pain.
Several cases of the lover buying out his married reveller are documented, and in one or two instances, the lover decided he had been rash and refused to bid on the object of his desire.
It seems, however, that there was always a buyer at the market, and the female moved on to a new life of happiness or otherwise.
There are several instances of drunken husbands sobering up and regretting the sale they had agreed in an alcoholic stupor. Sometimes, the buyer would sell back, but in one example, the wife refused to return, and her husband was so distraught he hanged himself.
In another case, the purchaser swiftly decided he didn’t like what he had bought and tried to send the woman back. The husband, quite satisfied with the fee he’d got, and shot of the wife who was a financial burden, refused the offer, telling the dissatisfied customer to put her up for sale again.
On one occasion, a wife was sold and resold several times until she found a husband who was satisfied, and she returned to a fulfilled life.
In 1865, one wife went to a new partner for £25 and a glass of ale, while another was so thrilled at the idea of leaving her husband, she led a drinks party at the market where she was sold.
The Duke of Chandos, while staying at a small country inn, bought a woman who was being savagely beaten by her ostler husband. She was young and attractive, and the duke eventually married her in 1740, and she became a member of the nobility. But such fairy tale stories are rare.
The whole occasion was demeaning for the woman. If the notice of an auction went wide enough, huge crowds would turn up to watch the bidding and tinkers would be hired to do jigs and dances in the street to tempt the groups to come to the sale.
Now, squeaky-clean Lewes hasn’t suffered the indignity of wife swapping clubs. At least not that What is historically on record is that there was at least one recorded wife sale in Lewes, which took place in 1797. A blacksmith took his wife to market in the county town, led by halter ‘enall, while in Brighton a wife went for 5 shillings and 8 pints of beer, bought by a worthy citizen called James Marten
But Lewes wasn’t the primary wife market. That dubious honour fell to Hailsham, where wife sales were regularly held.
One of the last recorded ‘legal’ sales was at Littlehampton in 1898, when the lady went for 3 shillings, while at Ninfield, in 1790 the price was a half-pint of gin. Having consumed his gin, the husband had second thoughts and repurchased her at more than the cost of a half-pint of gin.
At Horsham, in 1820, a woman was bought by a man from Billingshurst as her husband wanted to get rid of her for because she had qualities he could no longer endure. The new husband was similarly disenchanted and sold her on to yet a third man. History seems to have decided she found a satisfactory companion in the third spouse.
In 1844, a wife with the unfortunate nickname of Pin Toe Nanny was sold at Shipley Market for 1.10 shillings to a man who sold his watch to pay for her.
This particular transaction also began a growing public distaste for selling wives and the crowd, rather than partying which had been the usual reaction, hissed and booed. But Nanny led the partying and consumed a lot of beer, before being led away to a new life. Dissatisfied with her new man, she decamped after a year and lived with another man, apparently happily for the rest of her life.
The stories are many and various, but the last legal ‘legal’ sale was at Hailsham. •