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A satirical engraving of the quaint English custom of "wife-selling," which took place in the form of wife auctions. This is an 1820 English caricature, notice how the artist has arranged things so that the cattle's horns are strategically placed in line-of-sight behind the husband's head. (Public domain)

SCIENCE & TECH: Why Did Victorian Women Willingly Sell Themselves at Wife Auctions?

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The year was 1832 when Joseph Thompson, a local Cardiff man, led his wife by halter to the local marketplace hoping for a good price in what was, after all, just a wife auction. Before the bidding, Thompson, whose asking price was a hefty 50 shillings, explained the reasons he was selling his wife in a wife auction:

“She has been to me only a bosom serpent. I took her for my comfort, and the good of my house, but she became my tormentor, a domestic curse, a night invasion, and a daily devil…”

The first recorded case of wife-selling was in 1553 AD. However, some historians have maintained that the practice was much older and of Anglo-Saxon origin, starting in the 11th or 12th centuries. Because of the rise of newspapers, wife auctions were most visible in England between 1750 to 1850, although the custom did make its way to North America as well. For many in the lower classes however, unable to afford the costs of divorce, wife-selling was viewed as the best alternative not only by the husband, but also the wife, who in most cases would willingly sell herself to another suitor.

Divorce Difficulties Made Wife Auctions Useful!

As a married women or “ feme covert ,” wives forfeited their property rights, income streams, and ability to sign contracts to their husbands. The exorbitant cost of divorce, however, and the complicated nature of English laws, made it extremely hard for wives to legally separate from their spouse and return to “ feme sol ” status, when a woman could take back her rights lost in marriage.

In Victorian England, divorce was only permitted if the husband or wife could prove life-threatening cruelty or adultery. However, the legal options available to unhappy couples were expensive and ineffective.

Typically, for spouses to leave marriages in accordance with the law, an Act of Parliament was required, which would ensure total legal separation. In order to obtain this document, the first step was to procure a judicial separation, which permitted the dysfunctional couple to live apart from each other.

Next, the husband or wife would be obliged to prove their spouse’s adultery in a court of law , with legal proceedings launched against lovers if necessary. If the judge was sufficiently satisfied by the evidence, he would grant an Act of Parliament absolving the husband of his financial obligations to his wife, who would be given back her feme sol status. 

However, this traditional divorce path was unbelievably expensive, costing 1000s of pounds. For an unskilled laborer in the 19th century, the average weekly salary was 75p, meaning that an Act of Parliament was impossible to afford for the working classes.

Although wives were legally permitted to get an Act of Parliament, the task of proving her husband’s infidelity was often very hard, as, unlike the husband, she required additional proofs of aggravating acts such as incest or bigamy. Between 1700 to 1857, only 8 out of 338 who attempted divorce through an Act of Parliament were women, and only 4 of them had successful claims. In addition, if by some means the woman was granted a judicial separation, her rights were still not protected, as she legally remained a feme covert because she was still technically married.

The other options were no better. Desertion, whereby a husband moved to another county or enlisted for overseas work, was another means to separate. However, it was illegal, and if the husband was caught he would often be forced to pay welfare to his wife who he was legally charged with maintaining. It was also extremely difficult for a wife to bring her absent husband to court, and if it was the wife who fled the marriage it was harder for her to survive by herself in comparison to the husband.

Being legally married, the wife had no property rights, and it was more challenging for women to find paid jobs. If, by some stroke of luck, she found a job, the salary was often extremely meagre and insufficient to support her and her children, who often accompanied the mother. It was also easier for the estranged wives to get caught, as religious officials put in charge of welfare in their local districts, keen to reduce costs, were always suspicious of newly-arrived single women whom they reported frequently. Generally, it was more common for wives to be recognized and sent back to their husbands, who were legally allowed to forcibly confine her to the inside the house.

Another alternative was elopement, whereby the husband or wife ran away with a lover. Again, this was easier for the man but more difficult for the woman. Men often closely controlled and monitored the activities of their wives, making it easier for them to identify potential lovers and elopement threats. Unlike desertion, elopement allowed the woman to have protection from another man, however it was a challenge to keep such a relationship secret, especially since women escapees were more easily identified by members of the public.

The final way a couple could end their matrimony was through a Private Separation Act. This agreement allowed the forfeiture of certain spousal obligations, making it possible for women to regain some rights in return for the husband’s relinquishment of his duty of financial care. In this situation, a woman could use the husband’s financial obligation of her against him, employing it as a bargaining chip. On the other hand, Private Separation Acts, at least until 1840, were poorly enforced by the government, and at the behest of the husband they could be terminated at any time, making them dependent on the desires of the man. Thus, for many poorer Victorian women and men, wife selling remained the only alternative.

A satirical engraving of the quaint English custom of “wife-selling,” which took place in the form of wife auctions. This is an 1820 English caricature, notice how the artist has arranged things so that the cattle’s horns are strategically placed in line-of-sight behind the husband’s head. ( Public domain )

Wife for Sale: Wife Auctions Solved Problems

The procedure of wife-selling most closely resembled the sale of livestock, with little difference between both. Before the auction, the husband customarily advertised the sale, often employing town criers to spread the news of the time and location to potential bidders. They could also take out an advert in the local newspapers where they could be brutally honest when extolling the virtues as well as the worst features of their wives, as an advert from the late 18th century attests:

“She can sow and reap, hold a plough, and drive a team, and would answer any stout able man, that can hold a tight rein, for she is damned hard mouthed and headstrong; but if properly managed, would either lead or drive as tame as a rabbit. She now and then makes a false step. Her husband parts with her because she is too much for him.”

A successful advertising campaign could bring in hundreds and even thousands of bidders. On auction day, after paying the market tolls like any other vendor, the wife would often be led with a halter around her neck, as if she was a farm animal, and taken for a walk around the marketplace where potential suitors could get a closer look.

Before the sale, the husband or a hired professional would praise the wife’s good qualities. In a sale from 1832, a man readily provided all the advantages of his wife:

“She can read novels and milk cows; she can laugh and weep with the same ease that you could take a glass of ale when thirsty . . . . She can make butter and scold the maid, she can sing Moore’s melodies, and plait her frills and caps; she cannot make rum, gin, or whisky; but she is a good judge of the quality from long experience tasting them.”

However, like any product, the husband was also obliged to give its faults and limitations. One man was forced to explain the unusualness of his wife’s stare to a group of buyers, stating that she had two eyes, one of which “looks straight at you, the other wanders up to the North.” In another case, the husband likely explained the oddities surrounding his wife, described by one observer as appearing “to be on the wrong side of 50; has lost one leg, and has a wooden substitute.”

After the husband’s pitch, the bidding commenced. Offers could also include non-monetary items. One wife was sold in 1832 for 1 pound and a Newfoundland dog and another in 1862 for a pint of beer. At the higher end of the scale was a woman from Ripon who was sold for an expensive 25 shillings.  

Once a suitor was settled, the transfer of property could be formalized in a variety of ways. Sometimes hired lawyers produced contracts outlining the legal transfer, or the interested parties received a receipt from market collectors:

“Aug. 31, 1773. Samuel Whitehouse, of the parish of Willenhall, 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.”

In marriage and in wife auctions the husband had most of the advantages as this painting by William Hogarth suggests. (National Gallery / CC BY 3.0)

In marriage and in wife auctions the husband had most of the advantages as this painting by William Hogarth suggests. (National Gallery / CC BY 3.0 )

The Power of Veto

However, despite the degrading treatment, wives were crucially allowed a veto and were permitted to reject her purchaser if she didn’t like him. In that case, a husband could remove her from sale, lower her price, and take bids from other interested gentlemen, as one husband from an 1824 sale in Manchester made clear:

“after several biddings she was knocked down for 5s; but not liking the purchaser, she was put up again for 3s and a quart of ale.”

This important right actually helped women, who were finally given a choice and some bargaining advantages unavailable to them through the existing legal procedures. As a result, women were often happy after the sale and excited to start a new life with their chosen man. One woman, after being sold at Smithfield Market, “declared it was the happiest moment of her life” according to one source, and at a 1791 auction in Whitechapel, one witness remarked:

“…the bargain being made, she went off, in high spirits, with her new master.”

There were other reasons for the woman’s joy upon conclusion of a sale. Sometimes the woman was gleeful because she had been bought back by her family, eager to save her from a failing marriage. In other instances, the man who bought the woman was often already her lover, and so the auction could sometimes take the form of a symbolic hand-over. One husband, in 1843, for example:

“…sold his wife in Nottingham Market-place, for 1s., to a fellow named Smith, with whom the woman had been living for several years. A rope was tied round the woman’s waist, and, on the bargain being completed, and the money paid, it was given to the purchaser, who carried off his prize.”

Cases where the woman was forced to marry another person were very rare because despite being able to hit her “within reason,” it was illegal for husbands to enslave their spouses. Historian E. P. Thompson noted that of the 218 cases of wife-seeking reported between the years 1760 to 1880, only 4 wives were sold without their consent.

While the popularity of wife auctions began to wane in the late 1700s, the art auction market only grew as the new middle class bought fashionable items like paintings instead of wives. An engraving by Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and others. (Thomas Rowlandson et al / Public domain)

While the popularity of wife auctions began to wane in the late 1700s, the art auction market only grew as the new middle class bought fashionable items like paintings instead of wives. An engraving by Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and others. (Thomas Rowlandson et al / Public domain )

The Decline of Wife Auctions

Despite its popularity among the lower classes , there was some contemporary opposition to the practice which was viewed as immoral by its detractors. As early as 1796, a newspaper article from the Times would complain: “It would be well if some law was enforced to put a stop to such degrading traffic!”

Seen as a lower-class ritual, some from the higher classes detested its existence: “Pity it is there is no stop to such depraved conduct in the lower order of people.” On the other hand, even poorer citizens took issue with the custom. In 1860 at a north Yorkshire village, for example, one husband and his newly bought wife were burned in effigy by disapproving villagers.

Although rare, some men were convicted for selling their wives. In 1815 a man was given three months in prison for selling his wife, and in 1823 in Birmingham another man called John Homer was convicted for bigamy after selling his wife to his brother and attempting to re-marry afterwards. 

The 1857 Matrimonial Act marked the start of a decline in wife-selling as women were granted more legal rights during divorce. The status of women involved in judicial separations was changed from feme covert to feme sol allowing separated women greater freedoms and less dependency on the authority of their ex-spouses. It also gave women who had deserted the marriage property rights as well as making the Act of Parliament much more affordable for the lower classes.

The 1870 Married Woman’s Property Act gave women even broader liberties, allowing them to earn separate income from their husbands from property and investment. They could also legally receive inheritance from family as well as lawfully represent their property interests. Woman’s rights were further reinforced by the act’s modification in 1882 which broadened the definitions of property that women could possess, essentially instituting full property rights for married women.

Legal proclamations granting married women property rights , and the subsequent decline of wife-selling, illustrated that women’s lack of rights in this area was one of the main reasons for the practice. Available data showed a sharp fall in wife auctions in England from the 1840s, with 17 wife sales between 1870 to 1879 and only 9 reported from 1900 to 1909.

By obtaining property rights it was no longer in women’s interest to be sold, as those privileges were no longer the sole possession of the husband, allowing the woman to exercise greater autonomy and removing the impetus to re-marry a man who might better handle the woman’s assets.

In addition, the 1839 Custody of Infants Act gave wives greater rights to their children, bestowing on them another bargaining tool that could be used in separation procedures alongside the husband’s spousal financial obligations. This occurred in combination with the strengthening of private separation agreements, whereby a woman was allowed to regain certain rights from her husband, which were more directly enforced after 1840.

The Demise of an Odd Custom

Wife-selling, like most outlawed customs, took a while to finally die out. 1913 marked the last reported time a wife was sold in Leeds for instance, and isolated incidents happened as late as 1972. With the turn of the century however, wife auctions became the exception rather than the norm.

Despite giving the opposite impression, wife-selling actually benefited women. Protected by the husband’s obligation to not enslave her and calling on the duties of men to financially protect her, wife selling was a less expensive and more efficient way for a woman to leave a dysfunctional relationship and find a better man to assume her rights. On the other hand, with the granting of legal freedoms to women from 1857, wife selling became irrelevant as women became masters of their own rights and divorce became an increasingly easier and cheaper obstacle to overcome.

Top image: Wife auctions were popular with the lower classes in England from about 1700 to 1850 because divorce was expensive and complicated. This work of art is by Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and is called Selling a Wife. Source: Thomas Rowlandson / Public domain

By Jake Leigh-Howarth

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