For Hundreds of Years, British Men Auctioned Off Their Wives

For Hundreds of Years, British Men Auctioned Off Their Wives

Shannon Quinn - June 19, 2018

From the 1600’s to the early 1900’s in Great Britain, going through a divorce was an extremely expensive process that most people could not afford. When a husband and wife agreed that their relationship just wasn’t working out, they needed to come up with alternative solutions to dissolve their marriage. At that time, women could not vote, they had little to no viable employment options where they could work to support themselves, and there were typically no childcare options.

A woman’s only options outside of marriage were to resort to prostitution, or go to the workhouses with her child. This was a terrible fate that most people would never wish on their worst enemy. Just like today, there were plenty of couples who knew their relationship was not working out, and they wanted to part ways amicably, but the inability to get a divorce put people in a really awkward position. Their only options were to be forced to stay married and miserable, abandon a wife to misery, or come up with an alternative solution. This is what lead to the custom of “wife selling”, which is exactly what it sounds like.

For Hundreds of Years, British Men Auctioned Off Their Wives
“Selling a Wife” by Thomas Rowlandson as he illustrates the process. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Wife-Selling Process

Once a husband and wife agreed to the sale, a woman would stand in front of a crowd of single men who were looking for a wife. The woman would often wear a leather halter and be held on a leash, which is what they normally do for livestock auctions. This was all part of the good-natured joke of the sale, but it was also obviously very demeaning for women, and it made it clear that she was the husband’s “property” that could be bought or sold. While some men viewed this as a joke, the consequences were very serious. Buyers truly did pay up for women and children. There were sometimes even lawyers on-site to sign documentation.

At that time, a man could take legal action against another man for sleeping with his wife. During this wife sale process, men were signing away their rights, while still legally staying married to her. Bigotry is illegal, meaning that someone cannot be legally married to two people at once. If their marriage was documented, she was not allowed to remarry this second man. However, many lower-class English people who lived outside of a city would have a ceremony in a church to celebrate their wedding with a spiritual unity, but never bothered to pay for a wedding license. So technically, there was no need for a divorce, and the woman was free to marry the second man. However, these people would sometimes have to go through the “ecclesiastical” or spiritual courts run by the church, which were not exactly a walk in the park, either.

Just like a wedding, these wife sales were always done in front of a large audience, so that there were multiple witnesses to the transaction. Even if it was honor-based, these witnesses could verify that the sale took place, and the town cryer would even announce the sale, just in case. However, it was in a man’s best interest to get their agreement in writing. In 1758, a husband continued to harass his ex-wife and her new husband, claiming that he did not receive enough money for her. They had to go to court to settle the matter, which is ironic, because the whole point in selling a wife at auction was to avoid the court system.

While the wife would have had to agree to the sale in the first place, the fact that this was a literal auction process meant that she had no control over which man she would be forced to go home with. She always had the option to say “no”, but it was very likely that many women went into this knowing that they had no other choice but to agree to go with the man who paid the money for her, no matter who it was. In 1756, in Dublin, Ireland, an abusive husband started to sell his wife at a public auction, but a crowd of angry onlookers stopped him, and rescued his wife. They put him in the stockade overnight, possibly to give him a chance to sober up and rethink his decisions.

For Hundreds of Years, British Men Auctioned Off Their Wives
Illustration from The Mayor of Casterbridge. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Mayor of Casterbridge

In the 1886 novel called The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, the main character, Michael Henchard is an alcoholic hay-trusser who goes to the local fair with his wife, Susan, and infant daughter Elizabeth-Jane. In the middle of a drunken rage, Michael decides to sell his Susan and their baby to the highest bidder. He sells her to a kind traveling sailor for five guineas, and Susan agrees to leave, because she was done being a victim of Michael’s drunken temper. The next day, Michael sobers up and tries to get his wife back, but he discovers it is too late, because the sailor was already gone. He spends the rest of his life regretting his poor life choices. He quits drinking and turns his life around. After experiencing sobriety for years, Michael Henchard becomes a successful businessman and mayor. However, even when he turns his life around, the wife-sale comes back to haunt him when he falls in love again and tries to get remarried. Nineteen years after she was sold to the sailor, Susan brings Elizabeth-Jane to Casterbridge to meet her biological father, and drama ensues.

While the characters and events in the novel were works of fiction, Thomas Hardy was inspired by articles written about wife-selling in his local newspaper, The Dorset County Chronicle. Clearly, Thomas Hardy wanted to send the message that wife-selling was not a great idea, and the novel became a cautionary tale of what could happen when men make rash decisions.

For Hundreds of Years, British Men Auctioned Off Their Wives
Screenshot from the Mayor of Casterbridge movie where Michael Henchard sells his wife at the county fair.

Since the 1500’s, England has used “Poor Laws” to justify issues that are unique to lower-class people. Members of law enforcement and the court system believed that wife-selling fell under the umbrella of “Poor Laws”, which is why there were so few instances of arrests. Even when a man was caught selling his wife, he only had to serve one month of manual labor, which was the case with a man named Joshua Jackson in 1837.

Obviously, this was not an issue all over Europe, because many countries had affordable divorce options. A French publication called Punch Magazine drew up a political cartoon to mock the British, illustrating an obese peasant woman who resembled a pig. In another cartoon, a fat character called “John Bull” looks drunk and dressed to the nines as he gets ready to sell his wife at Smithfield Market.

For Hundreds of Years, British Men Auctioned Off Their Wives
This unflattering cartoon shows a pig-like woman being sold at the market like an animal. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1857, the English government realized how much of an issue this actually was, and they created the Matrimonial Causes Act. This reformed their divorce laws to make it more affordable for the general public in civil court. Before this point, a woman could be put to death for committing adultery, while a man basically got away with it. The Matrimonial Causes Act also did away with the adultery laws, because they realized that it caused more harm than good. These new and affordable divorce proceedings caused a decline in wife-selling, but it did not completely disappear in communities with extreme poverty. Even in the United States, there were still a few instances of wife auctions in the late 1800’s.

For Hundreds of Years, British Men Auctioned Off Their Wives
French cartoonists illustrated a character called “John Bull” to make fun of British people. In this illustration, he is going to the Smithfield market to sell his wife. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1889, The Yorkshire Gazette was still reporting stories of wife auctions. One woman was sold for five shillings, while another was sold for only one. Even when the auction was over, this woman who was only “worth” one shilling was led back to her new husband’s home with the halter and leash still around her neck. In 1894, there was yet another case reported in the New York Times where the husband tried to sell his wife at the market. Instead of quietly accepting her fate, this woman screamed, struggled, and refused to allow her husband to put a animal leash around her neck. Despite the fact that she clearly did not want to go along with it, they eventually had to be pulled apart, and were forced to go to civil court to get a proper divorce. There was a huge crowd that witnessed this, and it inspired a folk song called “Rosin the Beau”. By this time, the idea of a man selling his wife was appalling, and people knew it was much more civilized to just go to court. As women began to fight for their right to vote, and the mindset of marriage slowly began to shift, the practice eventually died out completely.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

The Mayor of Casterbridge. Thomas Hardy. Broadview Press. 1997.

Wife-Selling in England. Law Quarterly Review. 1929.

Women, Work & Sexual Politics in Eighteenth-century England. Bridget Hill. McGill Queens-University Press. 1994.

Wife Selling at Smithfield: Authentic Case and Ballad in Which the Heroine is Sold. New York Times. 1894.