Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/Wife-sales

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THERE is no myth relative to the manners and customs of the English that in my experience is more tenaciously held by the ordinary Frenchman than that the sale of a wife in the market-place is an habitual and an accepted fact in English life.

It is—so far as my experience goes—quite useless to assure a Frenchman that such transfer of wives is not a matter of everyday occurrence, and is not legal: he replies with an expression of incredulity, that of course English people endeavour to make light of, or deny, a fact that is "notorious."

In a book by the antiquary Colin de Plancy, on Legends and Superstitions connected with the Sacraments, he gives up some pages to an account of the prevalent English custom. I heard a country cure once preach on marriage, and contrast its indissolubility in Catholic France with the laxity in Protestant England, where "any one, when tired of his wife, puts a halter round her neck, takes her to the next market town and sells her for what she will fetch." I ventured to call on this cure and remonstrate, but he answered me he had seen the fact stated in books of the highest authority, and that my disputing the statement did not prove that his authorities were wrong, but that my experience was limited, and he asked me point blank whether I had never known such cases. There, unhappily, he had me on the hip. And when I was obliged to confess that I did know of one such case, " Mais, voilà, mon Dieu," said he, and shrugged his shoulders with a triumphant smile.

Now it must be allowed that such sales have taken place, and that this is so is due to rooted conviction in the rustic mind that such a transaction is legal and morally permissible.

The case I knew was this.

When I was a boy there lived a tall, thin man in the parish who was the village poet. Whenever an event of any consequence took place within the confines of the parish, such as the marriage of the squire's daughter, he came down to the manor-house with a copy of verses he had composed on the occasion, and was then given his dinner and a crown. Now this man had actually bought his wife for half a crown. Her husband had led her into Okehampton and had sold her there in the market. The poet purchased her for half the sum he had received for one of his poems, and led her home with him a distance of twelve miles, by the halter, he holding it in his hand, she placidly, contentedly wearing the loop about her neck.

The report that Henry Frise was leading home his half-crown wife preceded the arrival of the couple, and when they entered the village all the inhabitants turned out to see the spectacle.

Now this arrangement was not very satisfactory to my grandfather, who was squire, or to my uncle, who was rector of the parish, and both intervened. Henry Frise maintained that Anne was his legitimate wife, for "he had not only bought her in the market, but had led her home, with the halter in his hand, and he'd take his Bible oath that he never took the halter off her till she had crossed his doorstep and he had shut the door."

The parson took down the Bible, the squire opened Burns' Justice of the Peace, and strove to convince Harry that his conduct was warranted by neither Scripture nor the law of the land. "I don't care," he said, "her's my wife, as sure as if we was spliced at the altar, for and because I paid half a crown, and I never took off the halter till her was in my house; lor' bless yer honours, you may ask any one if that ain't marriage, good, sound, and Christian, and every one will tell you it is."

Mr. Henry Frise lived in a cottage that was on lives, so the squire was unable to bring compulsion to bear on him. But when Anne died, then a difficulty arose: under what name was she to be entered in the register? The parson insisted that he could not and he would not enter her as Anne Frise, for that was not her legal name. Then Henry was angry, and carried her off to be buried in another parish, where the parson was unacquainted with the circumstances. I must say that Anne proved an excellent "wife." She was thrifty, clean, and managed a rough-tempered and rough-tongued man with great tact, and was generally respected. She died in or about 1843.

Much later than that, there lived a publican some miles off, whom I knew very well; indeed, he was the namesake of and first cousin to a carpenter in my constant employ. He bought his wife for a stone two-gallon jar of Plymouth gin, if I was informed aright. She had belonged to a stonecutter, but as he was dissatisfied with her, he put up a written notice in several public places to this effect:—


This here be to hinform the publick as how James Cole be dispozed to sell his wife by Auction. Her be a dacent, clanely woman, and be of age twenty-five ears. The sale be to take place in the New Inn, Thursday next at seven o'clock.

In this case I do not give the name of the purchaser, as the woman is, I believe, still alive. I believe—so I was told—that the foreman of the neighbouring granite-works remonstrated, and insisted that such a sale would be illegal. He was not, however, clear as to the points of law, and he believed that it would be illegal unless the husband held an auctioneer's licence, and if money passed. This was rather a damper. However, the husband was desirous to be freed from his wife, and he held the sale as had been advertised, making the woman stand on a table, and he armed himself with a little hammer. The biddings were to be in kind and not in money. One man offered a coat, but as he was a small man and the seller was stout, when he found that the coat would not fit him, he refused it. Another offered a "phisgie," i.e. a pick, but this also was declined, as the husband possessed a "phisgie" of his own. Finally, the landlord offered a two-gallon jar of gin, and down fell the hammer with "Gone."

I knew the woman; she was not bad-looking. The new husband drank, and treated her very roughly, and on one occasion she had a black eye when I was lunching at the inn. I asked her how she had hurt herself. She replied that she had knocked her face against the door, but I was told that this was a result of a domestic brawl. Now the remarkable feature in these cases is that it is impossible to drive the idea out of the heads of those who thus deal in wives that such a transaction is not sanctioned by law and religion. In Marytavy parish register is the following entry:—

1756. Robert Elford was baptized, child of Susanna Elford by her sister's husband. She was married with the consent of her sister, the wife, who was at the wedding.

In this instance there is no evidence of a sale, but we may be sure that money did pass, and that the contractor of the new marriage believed it was a right and proper union, although perhaps irregular; and the first wife unquestionably believed that she was acting in observance of a legal right in transferring her husband to her sister. There are instances in which country people have gone before a local solicitor and have had a contract of sale drawn up for the disposal of their wives. The Birmingham police court in 1853 had to adjudicate on such a case, and the astounding thing in this instance was that a lawyer could be found to draw up the contract. It is no wonder that the magistrates administered a very severe reprimand. But there was a far earlier case than this, that of Sir William de Paganel; the lady stoutly and indignantly resisted the transfer and appealed against the contract to the law, which declared the sale to be null and void.

Mr. Whitfeld, in his Plymouth and Devonport, in Times of War and Peace, mentions a case that occurred at the former, but without giving the date, of one John Codmore, who was indicted for burglary and for having married without his father's consent, and then tiring of his wife, having sold her for five pounds—which was a large sum as the price of wives went—to a miller. In December, 1822, the Plymouth crier announced to all and singular: Oh yes! Oh yes! that James Brooks was about to dispose of his wife by public auction. The lady was advertised as young and handsome, and as likely to succeed to an inheritance of £700.

Expectation was whetted by the intimation that the lady would attend the sale herself, that all might judge of her personal charm, and that she would be mounted on horseback. A curious and babbling crowd assembled to witness the transaction, and precisely at midday, according to the announcement, she rode up, attended by the ostler of the "Lord Exmouth." The husband, James Brooks, officiated as auctioneer. The first bid was five shillings, then the sums offered mounted to ten and to fifteen; but none rose, and that slowly, over two pound. Whereupon the ostler called out "Three pounds," and she would have been knocked down to him had not at this conjuncture a couple of watchmen intervened, one laying hands on the husband and the other on the wife, and escorted the pair to the Guildhall, followed by the rabble.

When the mayor took them to task, the husband declared that for the life of him he could not see that he was doing wrong. He and his wife had agreed to the sale, as they had not lived together for long, and were ill-assorted, and therefore desired fresh partners. The ostler was prepared to pay twenty pounds for her—three pounds down and the balance at Christmas—and the woman was quite agreeable. What, then, was wrong? He assured the mayor that there was nothing "below board" in the transaction; the auction had been "called" three times in Modbury Market, and the wife also considered that she ought and would like to be sold in a public fair.

The mayor now examined the woman. She admitted that the ostler was buying her in at a reserved price, at which she had valued herself. There was a gentleman, a Mr. K., who she expected would have attended and bid for her, and with whom she had intended to go. But Mr. K. had not turned up, much to her annoyance. "I was very much annoyed," said she, "to find that he had not kept his promise. But I was so determined to be loosed from Mr. Brooks, that when Mr. K. did not attend, I asked the ostler to buy me with my own money, unless I went for more than twenty pounds."

The justices bound them over in sureties to be of good behaviour, and dismissed them.

In 1823, an army sergeant in residence in Devonport Dock tracked his faithless wife to Liskeard, and there engaged the bell-man to announce that it was his intention to dispose of her by sale to the highest bidder. Procuring a rope, he placed it round the neck of his spouse, and led her unresisting to the Higher Cross, opposite the Market, where the offers were taking a spirited turn when the police interfered. In the same year, William Hodge was indicted at Plymouth for putting his wife up to auction, and William Andrews for purchasing her. It was shown that Hodge had repeatedly threatened to sell his wife, that she had cheerfully welcomed the proposition, and that Andrews had anticipated the transaction of the sale by abducting her. At the Quarter Sessions "the auctioneer" was conspicuous by his absence; the wife pleaded that he had frequently assaulted her; and Andrews was condemned to prison "by way of warning."[1]

The Rev. W. H. Thornton, vicar of North Bovey, in Devon Notes and Queries, Vol. IV, 1906, writes: "A sale may apparently be effected either by private arrangement or by public auction, and in neither case do the prices obtainable seem, as a rule, to run high. The husband naturally considers the result more satisfactory if a good sum can be obtained for his wife, but when the course of matrimony has arrived at a crisis, he commonly feels that it is better to accept the market price of the day than it is to lead her home again to resume conjugal life.

"My attention was recently called to the matter, when, in March of this year (1906), I was investigating in North Devon a remarkable instance of suicide, and a still more remarkable verdict thereon. My informant was an old poacher and fisherman, and speaking of the deceased, he said casually that he came of a curious family, and that he himself could well remember to have seen the dead man's grandfather leading his grandmother on a halter to be sold by public auction in Great Torrington Market. The reserve price was, in this instance, fixed at eighteen pence, but as no one would give so much money, the husband had to take his wife home again and resume matrimonial intercourse. Children were born to them, and the ultimate result was the suicide.

"On being asked whether, in such instances, the neighbours generally considered the transaction legitimate, old John Badger replied in the affirmative; he declared that the vendor was held to be free to wed again, and the purchaser to be liable for the maintenance of the woman, but not till the money had changed hands over the bargain.

"This statement reminded me of a case which occurred at North Bovey shortly before I became incumbent of the living in 1868. This can easily be verified. A man, whose name I can give, walked into Chagford, and there by private agreement sold his wife to another man for a quart of beer. When he returned home with the purchaser the woman repudiated the transaction, and, taking her two children with her, went off at once to Exeter, and only came back to attend her husband's funeral, at which, unless I am mistaken, I officiated.

"Mr. Roberts, the present old clerk at Wolborough, tells me that he has heard his father say that he knew of several instances of the kind now under consideration, but that he does not think that in South Devon the arrangement was often considered legal. In the north of the county people were less enlightened."

Devon was not alone the scene of these wife-sales, though they were probably more common there than elsewhere. Still, there is evidence that such transactions went on elsewhere, and one or two instances may be quoted, to relieve Devon of exclusive discredit in such matters.

The story is well known of the Silesian noble whose house was raided by Tartars, one of whom carried off the nobleman's wife on his horse behind him. The Silesian looked after the disappearing bandit, rubbed his hands, and said, "Alas, poor Tartar!" Doubtless there were many husbands who would have been glad to be rid of their wives at any price, even for nothing at all.

In 1815, a man held a regular auction in the marketplace at Pontefract, offering his wife at a minimum bidding of one shilling, but he managed to excite a competition, and she was finally knocked down for eleven shillings.

In 1820, a man named Brouchet led his wife, a decent, pleasant-looking woman, but with a tongue in her mouth, into the cattle market at Canterbury from the neighbouring village of Broughton. He required a salesman to dispose of her, but the salesman replied that his dealings were with cattle only, and not with women. Brouchet, not to be beaten, thereupon hired a cattle-pen, paying sixpence for the hire, and led his wife into it by the halter that was round her neck. She did not fetch a high figure, being disposed of to a young man of Canterbury for five shillings.

In 1832, on 7 April, a farmer named Joseph Thomson came into Carlisle with his wife, to whom he had been married three years before; he sent the bellman round the town to announce a sale, and this attracted a great crowd. At noon the sale took place. Thomson placed his wife on a chair, with a rope of straw round her neck. He then said according to the report in the Annual Register—"Gentlemen, I have to offer to your notice, my wife, Mary Anne Thomson, otherwise Williams, whom I mean to sell to the highest and fairest bidder. Gentlemen, it is her wish as well as mine to part for ever. She has been to me only a born serpent. I took her for my comfort, and the good of my home; but she became my tormentor, a domestic curse. Gentlemen, I speak the truth from my heart when I say may God deliver us from troublesome wives and frolicsome women! Avoid them as you would a mad dog, or a roaring lion, a loaded pistol, cholera morbus, Mount Etna, or any other pestilential thing in nature. Now I have shown you the dark side of my wife, and told you 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, to 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."

That this address was spoken by Thomson is most improbable—it is doubtless put into his mouth by the editor of the Annual Register; it was not to his interest to depreciate the article he desired to sell. After about an hour, the woman was knocked down to one Henry Mears, for twenty shillings and a Newfoundland dog. They then parted company in perfect good humour, each satisfied with his bargain; Mears and the woman went one way, and Thomson and the dog another.

In 1835 a man led his wife by a halter, in precisely the same way, into the market at Birmingham, and sold her for fifteen pounds. She at once went home with the purchaser. She survived both buyer and seller, and then married again. Some property came to her in the course of years from her first husband; for notwithstanding claims put forth by his relatives she was able to maintain in a court of law that the sale did not and could not vitiate her rights as his widow.

Much astonishment was caused in 1837 in the West Riding of Yorkshire by a man being committed to prison for a month with hard labour for selling or attempting to sell his wife by auction in the manner already described. It was generally and firmly believed that he was acting within his rights.

In 1858, in a tavern at Little Horton, near Bradford, a man named Hartley Thompson put up his wife, who is described by the local journals as a pretty young woman, for sale by auction, and he had the sale previously announced by sending round the bell-man. He led her into the market with a ribbon round her neck, which exhibits an advance in refinement over the straw halter; and again in 1859, a man at Dudley disposed of his wife in a somewhat similar manner for sixpence. A feature in all these instances is the docility with which the wife submitted to be haltered and sold. She would seem to have been equally imbued with the idea that there was nothing to be ashamed of in the transaction, and that it was perfectly legal.

If we look to discover whence originated the idea, we shall probably find it in the conception of marriage as a purchase. Among savage races, the candidate for marriage is expected to pay the father for his daughter. A marriageable girl is worth so many cows or so many reindeer. The man pays over a sum of money or its equivalent to the father, and in exchange receives the girl. If he desires to be separated from her he has no idea of giving her away, but receives what is calculated to be her market value from the man who is disposed to relieve him of her. In all dealings for cattle, or horses, or sheep, a handsel is paid, half a crown to clinch the bargain, and the transfer of coin constitutes a legal transfer of authority and property over the animal. This is applied to a woman, and when a coin, even a sixpence, is paid over and received, the receiver regards this as releasing him from all further responsibility for the wife, who at once passes under the hand of the purchaser. There is probably no trace in our laws of women having been thus regarded as negotiable properties, but it is unquestionable that at an early period, before Christianity invaded the island, such a view was held, and if here and there the rustic mind is unable to rise to a higher conception of the marriage state, it shows how extremely slow it is for opinions to alter when education has been neglected.

  1. Whitfeld, Plymouth and Devonport, in Times of War and Peace, 1890, pp. 296-7.