The Sale of Wives

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The Sale of Wives
Originally published in Chambers's Journal, October 12, 1861, vol. XVI, no. 406, p.238.

It is well known that the Englishman of French novels, plays, and essays, is a different creation to the real being who talks upon 'Change, and rides after the hounds, on this side of the Channel. The former compels the first maiden he meets in a casual walk to marry him, after half-an-hour's acquaintance; he puts a halter round her next, and sells her in the cattle-market, as soon as he is tired of her; and in November, getting full of yellow fog, and tired also of himself, he throws himself into the Thames. A French essayist of the last century accused the English of making an institution of suicide. 'They kill themselves on the slightest occasion,' says he, 'and often merely to annoy one another.' This last accusation — thanks to Jean Jacques Rousseau and 'sensibility' — soon began to fit the countrymen of M. de Doux far better than ourselves. The first of these alleged Anglican customs is ridiculously untrue. To the second custom, however — wife-selling — we are bound to plead a certain, though ridiculously small, amount of guilt. Some Englishmen actually have sold their wives; and my purpose here is to record a few of the sales of this article that have taken place in our country during the last hundred years.

The first I can find after the accession of George III, occured in the month of March 1766. A carpenter of Southwark, Higginson by name, went into an ale-house for his morning's draught; there he met a fellow-carpenter, and their talk turned upon wives. The carpenter, whose name history has not preserved, lamented that he had no wife; Higginson, on the other hand, lamented that he had one, and wished there were some way besides murder to get rid of her. The carpenter assured Higginson that there was a way — that old English custom had made it quite lawful for a man to sell his own rib. 'No one would be such a fool as to buy mine,' sighed Mr Higginson. 'I would do so,' answered the other, 'and think I had made a good bargain too.' 'Done!' shouted the delighted husband, and clenched the matter on the spot. Mrs Higginson was fetched by her new lord, and lived with him as a wife. A few days after, however, Mr Higgonson, wearying of a mateless home, or suspecting that he had not done something right, went to the other carpenter, and demanded back his wife. Mrs Higginson strenuously refused to go back. 'A sale was a sale,' she said, 'and not a joke.' Higginson went again and again, but to no purpose. After a week or two, he ceased to call. Mrs Higginson was just concluding that her lord had peaceably ceded her at last, when she was cited to identify his dead body. He had hung himself. What price the poor fellow recieved for the lady, I am not informed.

The next sale I shall recount was made in the summer of the following year, 1767. This also proved a bad, though not quite so melancholy a bargain to the salesman. The lady was, what is often found in that class, a wife in courtesy, but not in fact. She had resided for several years with a bricklayer's labourer at Marylebone. Her 'protector' sold her; and here we have the sum: he valued her at no less than five shillings and threepence, and a gallon of beer. Three weeks after the sale, the lady being duly housed with her new lord, a wealthy uncle in Buckinghamshire died, and, quite unexpectedly, he acknowledged kinship, and left her the sum of two hundred pounds, and a quantity of plate. The protector at once signified his distaste for 'protection,' and became her husband.[1]

In August 1773, three men and three women went into the Bell Inn, Edgbaston Street, Birmingham. They called for the toll-book, which was kept there, and made the following strange entry: 'August 31, 1773. — Samuel Whitehouse, of the parish of Willenhill, in the county of Stafford, this day sold his wife, Mary Whitehouse, in open market, to Thomas Griffiths, of Birmingham. Value [I really blush to write it], one shilling! To take her with all faults.

(Signed) Samuel Whitehouse
(Signed) Mary Whitehouse
(Voucher) Thomas Buckley, of Birmingham

The fourth sale I have been able to find was an expensive business to the purchaser, unless, like our American brethren, he calculated on getting something out of the 'incumbrance.' On the 8th of July 1805, a fellow at Tuxford took his wife into the market-place, with a halter round her neck, and sold her and the child for five shillings. 'It is to be regretted,' says the paper from which I cull this, 'that nobody present had the courage to take the rope from the wife's neck, and lay it on the husband's back.' The probability is, however, that the persons who witnessed this vile transaction were either struck dumb with the marvel, and could only think it a joke, or else knew the man to be such a brute, that they fancied the most unrighteous change was better for the woman and the child than their continuance as they were. The quiet consent of the wife was a witness not only of her discomfort with her husband, but also of the degraded view of womanhood held by this class of salesmen and sold persons.

In February 1807 a fifth sale is recorded. In this case, the parties contracting must have had some wealth, however great their vulgarity and moral debasement. A Mr John Lupton, of Linton, offered to purchase the wife of Mr John Waddilove, innkeeper of Grassington. He was content, he said, to go as high as a hundred guineas. Waddilove consented, and recieved one guinea on the spot as earnest-money. The next day the buyer hurried off to Linton, taking with him the ninety-nine guineas, and demanded fulfilment of the bargain. Mr Waddilove was quite ready; he would have packed the goods and got her off, but it appears that Mrs Waddilove had some womanly dignity and sense of right. Even if she might, she did not choose, she said, to be parted with as a mere disposable chattel; and she sent off her purchaser with scorn and threats. The crafty Waddilove kept the earnest-guinea. Doubtless it was dearly earned; for it must have cost him endless curtain-lectures.

If Mrs Waddilove was valued at the highest rate, the next I have to record was certainly the cheapest of all sold wives. In September 1822, a silly boy named Thomas Jones, working for a house-painter at Caerleon, and not knowing his own mind, rashly married a silly girl. In three weeks, they were weary of one another, and the girl agreed to let her husband sell her. Accordingly, with a provisio that if the buyer after three weeks repented of his bargain the salesman should take her back, and return half the purchase-money, Thomas Jones sold his young wife for threepence.

The seventh sale I shall chronicle is the first in which I have found any interference of the law. It took place early in December of 1822. A notice was given out to the inhabitants of Plymouth, that at half-past twelve on a certain morning, a man named Brooks intended to dispose of his wife by public sale. The lady, it was declared, was not only young and handsome, but would ride to the place of sale, of her own free-will, on her own horse; and further, in a few days she would succeed to the covetable sum of six hundred pounds. There was a huge concourse of people to witness this marvel. Precisely at the advertised hour, the husband rode up; and soon after, the wife, accompanied by the ostler of the Lord Exmouth Inn, also appeared.

The husband, as auctioneer, put up the wife for sale, and requested the bidders to commence. 'Five shillings' was the first offer, then 'ten,' then 'fifteen.' The price continued rising until it came to 'three pounds', which last bid was made by the ostler of the Lord Exmouth. But here the business was suddenly arrested. Two constables came up, and seizing the goods and the salesman, to the apparent disappointment of both, carried them to the Guildhall, to be questioned by the mayor.

That worshipful gentleman asked Mr Brooks how he dared commit such an illegal act. The auctioneer answered, in an innocent way, that he thought it was all right. He and his wife both agreed that it was the best thing to be done. They had not lived together for a long time; she had had children by other men; she was no wife to him; and since he understood there was a man willing to give him twenty pounds for her — three pounds down, and the other seventeen at Christmas — and as his wife was anxious to belong to this man, they both agreed the sale should be made. 'There was nothing below-board in it,' he said; 'he had advertised it publicly in Modbury three successive market-days.' The wife, too, asserted that she had honestly been given to understand that she could be honestly separated by being sold on a market-day in the market-place.

The mayor asked the name of the person who had undertaken to buy her. 'Mr K——,' answered she, 'I am very vexed that he has not kept his promise.' And she went on to say thar she was so determined to be loosed from Mr Brooks, that she had (on finding Mr K—— absent) employed the ostler of the Lady Exmouth inn, where she put up her horse, to buy her with her own money, 'unless,' she said, 'I go for more than twenty pounds.'

Mr and Mrs Brooks were bound over to answer the charge at the next sessions. Neither of them being able to find sureties, their own recognisances were taken.

The next instance I have to chronicle, although it took place ten years later, and so near our time as 1832, seems to have escaped magisterial notice. Joseph Thompson, a small farmer, renting between forty and fifty acres, lived at a village three miles from the city of Carlisle. He had been married about three years. He had no children. He and his wife could not agree. There was a continual soreness between the Montagues and Capulets, his family and hers. These three things made them resolve to part. So, on the 7th of April, early in the morning, Mr Thompson sent round the bellman to give notice that a man would sell his wife at twelve o'clock in the market. The odd announcement, of course, drew together a considerable mob. The lady placed herself upon a high oaken chair, with a halter of straw about her neck, and a large circle of relatives and friends around her. The husband-auctioneer stood beside her, and spoke, says my authority, nearly as follows:

'Gentlemen, I have to offer to your notice my wife, Mary Ann Thompson, otherwise Williamson, whom I mean to sell to the highest and fairest bidder. Gentlemen, it his her wish as well as mine to part for ever. 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. Gentlemen, I speak truth from my heart when I say may Heaven deliver us from troublesome wives. Avoid them as you would a mad dog, a loaded pistol, cholera morbus, Mount Etna, or any other pestilential phenomena in nature. Now I have shewn you the dark side of my wife, and her faults and failings, I will introduce the bright and sunny side of her, and explain her qualifications and goodness. 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. Indeed, gentlemen, she reminds me of what the poet says of women in general—

Heaven gave to women the peculiar grace,
To laugh, to weep, and cheat the human race.

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 in tasting them. I therefore offer her, with all her perfections and imperfections, for the sum of fifty shillings.'

The reporter, I fancy, must have dressed up this speech. Remembering that the goods and the auctioneer were a not very rich north-country farmer and farmer's wife, it is difficult to believe that she had the kind of accomplishments mentioned in the speech, or that he really uttered this speech. He affirms that she did, however, and adds that the lady was a 'spruce, lively damsel, apparently not exceeding twenty-three years of age. She seemed,' he says, 'to feel a pleasure at the exchange she was about to make.' The sale took between an hour and a half and two hours. At last, Mrs Thompson was sold to Harry Mears, a pensioner, for one pound and a Newfoundland dog. The newly coupled pair left the city together, the mob huzzaing and cheering after them. Mr Thompson coolly took the straw-halter from off his old wife and put it on his new dog. He then betook himself to the nearest inn, and spent the remainder of the day there. No doubt, before the setting of the sun, the whole purchase-money of his wife had gone down his throat in drink. 'He repeatedly exulted,' says my authority, 'in his happy release from bondage.' It is fair to state that this account is not taken from a town newspaper, but from a country one, The Whitehaven Herald and Cumberland Advertiser, for May 1, 1832; this paper, too, merely inserts it, without remark, from the Lancaster Herald.

The London Chronicle for February 22, 1766, contains a notice of a double sale, or rather an exchange, of wives. Two 'reputable' tradesmen, near Lincoln's Inn Fields, being in liquor, agreed, without consultation of their ladies, to effect such a transaction. But one of them having a wife whom both agreed to be more personable than the wife of the other, recieved a twenty-pound note, a gold watch, and a guinea. The next day, he called on the purchaser, and delivered his wife, she, poor lady, merely fancying she was going there for dinner. When the business was explained, however, both the women refused to abide by the silly bargain of their husbands. What the feelings were of that unfortunate one who had been valued by both the men at twenty-one pounds, one shilling, and a gold watch less than the other, I dare not think.

The strangest thing about these sales is, that the women sold seem to have rejoiced in the the change more than they lamented the degradation. In one instance in June 1766, this was so plainly marked, that the wife of a Rosemary Lane plasterer, who had been sold to a sailor for thirty-six shillings and a gallon of ale, actually hired a fiddler to precede her with a rude epithalamium to her new home.[2] The loving couple had only been wedded a fortnight.

In 1788, there was a correspondence in the Gentleman's Magazine on the question, Whether a man could let his wife on lease? There is no instance, I believe, of a man allowing his Xantippe to sell him; but in 1736, a woman sold the body of her dead husband.

  1. London Chronicle, June 4, 1767, p.534. The London Chronicle was paged for binding, and published a title-page and a full index
  2. Lloyd's Evening Post, June 13, 1766