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‘I’d sell my spouse if anyone would purchase her’: spouse sales in England

‘For my component we don’t understand why guys who ‘ve got wives and want that is don’t, should not dispose of ‘em since these gipsy fellows do their old horses…Why should not they place ‘em up and offer ‘em by auction to males that are looking for such articles? Hey? Why, begad, I’d sell mine this full minute if anyone would purchase her!’

Therefore says the farm that is young Michael Henchard, in another of probably the most arresting passages in Thomas Hardy’s 1886 novel The Mayor of Casterbridge. Nearby the start of the written book, Michael gets drunk on rum-laced furmity (frumenty), and contains a disagreement together with spouse, Susan. He chooses to sell Susan and their infant child, who will be purchased by way of a sailor for five guineas. Whenever Michael sobers up, the enormity of exactly just just what he’s done hits house; he realises he cannot get their spouse and child straight back, and swears down liquor for the following 21 years as a result.

The scene is shocking, no question, exactly just just what with Michael’s casual brutality, Susan’s misery, and also the misogyny that is pervasive. Yet whenever it emerges that Susan normally quite keen to part means with Michael, i will be struck by there being something oddly progressive in exactly what is actually a no-fault divorce that is quick. Michael describes towards the onlookers that:

‘It’s an agreement to component. She shall simply take the baby|Thebaby shall be taken by her if she really wants to, and get her methods. I’ll simply simply simply take my tools news, and get my methods. ‘Tis straightforward as Scripture history.’

This brilliant scene raised a wide range of questions in my situation, that I attempted to investigate. Did spouse product product sales similar to this happen actually? If that’s the case, where so when had been they place that is taking and exactly why?

The primary problem had been that ahead of the 1857 Matrimonial forces Act, which put up civil divorce or separation courts, breakup was just for the rich few. a bill that is private become passed through Parliament before a few could divorce, that has been expensive and needed the right governmental connections. For ordinary people, consequently, the primary choices following the break down of a wedding had been restricted to annulment, desertion, or separation (of which there have been various kinds).

That is where the spouse purchase will come in. It had been that is possible certainly not legal – for a guy to offer his spouse, thus renouncing all obligation on her. This technique of separation ended up being inexpensive, versatile, failed to include the courts, and permitted both ongoing events to remarry, in training or even in legislation.

‘Selling a Wife into the Highest Bidder’ (1816)

There is certainly accurate documentation from as soon as 1302 of a man giving their spouse by deed to some other guy, but spouse sales seem mostly up to now through the belated century that is 17th. Wife product product sales might take spot publicly at auction, perhaps by having a pre-arranged customer. Spouses may also be offered without auction, in which case the ex-husband and brand new spouse would either proclaim the agreed sale in a general general public spot (to be able to create witnesses and allow the community understand regarding the modification) or concur in private, possibly culminating in a written contract.

When it comes to general public product sales and deals, a spouse would typically be resulted in a general public destination such as for instance an industry or an inn, by having a halter around her supply or throat, exactly like a bit of livestock. The spouse would show their wife, might enumerate her characteristics, and, when you look at the full instance of a auction, would demand bids through the put together onlookers.

Depiction of the wife purchase (1820)

Spouses could be offered for as low as a pint of alcohol (as at Selby in 1862), but may possibly also fetch somewhat more, as with a lady who had been offered in 1865 for Ј100, plus Ј25 for every single of her kiddies. The normal cost had been probably someplace in the product range of the few shillings. It was scarcely a life-altering amount for the ex-husband; most likely more crucial compared to the amount it self had been the feeling that exchanging cash (or its equivalent that is alcoholic a wife purchase lawfully binding – which needless to say, it would not.

When some body had purchased the spouse, he and their newly obtained spouse would generally walk down together. In a few circumstances its recorded that all parties resigned towards the pub for a drink that is convivial moving forward. The ex-husband might then place an announcement out with a paper towards the impact which he wouldn’t honour any debts which their previous spouse might contract.

‘Sale of a Wife in Smithfield Market’ (1797)

Spouses probably objected less to on the market than we might assume, because the purchase had been frequently agreed by mutual permission. In reality, often matters were organised so the customer had been the wife’s current lover. In December 1849, the changing times reported simply such an event in Yorkshire, explaining exactly how a guy had arranged together with his wife that she should really be offered to her fan – presumably much to her satisfaction. At an auction that is public the city market:

‘After only a little competition that is spirited ended up being offered to her enthusiast for 5 shillings and 9 pence. Before making together with her brand new spouse, the wife snapped her hands at her ex-husband and said ‘There, good-for-nought, that’s more than you’d fetch’.

No matter if a spouse was reluctant, nonetheless, she generally speaking had the effectiveness of veto over any specially unsuitable purchasers. Therefore in Manchester in 1824, ‘after a few biddings she the spouse had been knocked straight straight down for 5s; not liking the buyer, she had been set up again for 3s and a quart of ale’. It can appear that the viewing crowds had been generally perhaps perhaps not ready to notice a woman offered off totally against her might. At one wife purchase in Dublin in 1756, a small grouping of ladies rescued the wife, then provided her husband a mock test and put him within the shares until very very early morning that is next.

‘Selling a wife’ – Thomas Rowlandson (1812-14)

Needless to say, some unscrupulous husbands probably took benefit of this technique. Spontaneous wife product product sales had been specially problematic in this respect because ladies could possibly be obsessed about a whim to complete strangers, as with The Mayor of Casterbridge or an event in March 1766, where a carpenter from Southwark offered his spouse ‘in a fit of conjugal indifference during the alehouse’.

Top of the and center classes – aided by the feasible exclusion associated with the second Duke of Chandos, whom evidently bought their 2nd spouse from an ostler – didn’t be involved in or help spouse product product sales. There was clearly no right in English law to offer one’s spouse. In reality, the 1861 version of Burn’s Justice regarding the Peace and Parish Officer states that ‘publicly attempting to sell or investing in a spouse is obviously an offence’ that is indictable. However, it is clear that some clergy and magistrates had been willing to turn an eye that is blind spouse product sales, only if as the customized ended up being therefore ingrained in everyday activity. Numerous poorer, uneducated people sincerely thought within the appropriate credibility of spouse product product product sales. Thus the scenario of a Stockport man taken up for bigamy in 1899, whom believed their first wife had no claim on him as he had sold her 30 years previously ‘for 1s. 6d. to a chimney sweep at brand New Mills’.

Ann, Duchess of Chandos, who had been supposedly purchased from an ostler

Plus in reality, the customized ended up beingn’t necessarily as harmful to women even as we may at very first assume. It enabled a female to flee a marriage that is bad being forced to show adultery or cruelty into the courts; if a woman’s brand brand new husband ended up being a significant man, her life ended up being better than in the event that ex-husband had just cast her away without anything, as he had been legitimately eligible to do.

Yet spouse product product sales grew less frequent within the nineteenth century, as wider public viewpoint slowly switched against them. Most likely this is in a few right component because of the greater option of divorce or separation. The final record of the spouse purchase was at 1913, whenever a lady in Leeds alleged that her spouse had sold her to at least one of their workmates for Ј1.

Further reading

19th century newsprint clippings wife that is regarding can be obtained about this webpage

The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1832 (see p. 347 for the Duke of Chandos’ marriage april)

The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy (at Project Gutenberg)


So, what do you think ?