Lauren Padgett, ‘The British Scandal’: Victorian Spouse-Selling

Lauren is currently following up this blog with further research about Victorian wife-selling in the Yorkshire region.

Divorce as we know it was not permitted until the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, but there were other legal and illegal methods of ending marriages prior to this Act, each with their pros and cons. Separation mense et thoro (from bed and board) could be granted by ecclesiastical courts (but the marriage was not terminated). Annulments had a lengthy process. Private separations could be granted by a costly Act of Parliament. Some simply deserted spouses. Another method, which seems to have been favoured by the lower classes, was wife-selling. [1] A husband would bring his wife to a communal location to auction/sell her, often with a halter around her to resemble livestock. Generally, these sales had the consent of both husband and wife, with a buyer (new husband) in mind. The public sale, for example at a market place, was ritualistic and symbolic, creating witnesses to the transaction and letting the community know that one marriage had ended and another begun. This custom is thought to have been practiced in Britain as early as the 11th and 12th century, but the first recorded case occurred in 1553. [2] Despite the 1857 Act, making divorce easier and more accessible for the non-elite, wife-sales still occurred into the late 19th and early 20th century. One of the last known cases occurred in Leeds in 1913 when a wife was sold for £1. [3] This blog will feature examples of wife-selling in Victorian literature, examine some British Victorian examples of wife-sales with unusual prices or for an exchange of goods, and bring to light some rare examples of Victorian husband-sales.

This image entitled ‘Selling a Wife by Auction’ appeared in The Illustrated Police News, Saturday 19 November 1870 (Issue 353). It shows a crowd of people and a woman with a halter around her neck and bound hands.

Literary Wife-Sales

Thomas Hardy is responsible for the most famous literary wife-sale with his novel The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). The custom captured his imagination and formed the basis of the novel’s plot, in which the legitimacy of a wife-sale is questioned. The act of wife-selling is also present in Victorian ballads and ditties. John Ashton’s Modern Street Ballads (1888), a collection of folksongs that “. . . elucidate best, the social manners and customs” from the first half of the 19th century, interestingly starts with two ballads about wife-sales: one called ‘Sale of a Wife’ and the other ‘John Hobbs’. [4] ‘Sale of a Wife’ vividly describes the auction process of a carpenter’s wife, “tied in a halter”, with a “bellman” and “auctioneer” overseeing the sale. The sale ends with a cry from a buyer: “Damme, said a sailor, she’s three out of four, / Ten shillings I bid for her, not a screw more. The deal is done and the sailor greets his new wife: “He shook hands with Betsy, and gave her a smack / And she jump’d straddle-legs on to his back. . .[5]. ‘John Hobbs’ describes a failed wife-sale during which, unfortunately, no-one wants to buy his wife Jane Carter (“a tartar” – an ill-tempered person). The distressed husband, John, attempts to hang himself with the rope used to bring Jane to the sale, but Jane cuts him down. There is a bawdy ending for the spouses as their love is rekindled:

            They settled their troubles,

            Like most married couples,

            John Hobbs, John Hobbs,

            Oh, happy shoemaker, John Hobbs! [6]

Although present in Victorian literature and popular culture, were Victorian wife-sales a common occurrence? Contemporary commentators, such as Robert Chambers in his 1878 edition of The Book of Days, were adamant that such wife-sales were rare oddities, denouncing them as “an outrage upon decency” and considered it “proof of the besotted ignorance and brutal feelings of a portion of our rural population”. [7] E. P. Thompson’s research found 42 authentic cases between 1760 and 1800, compared to 121 cases between 1800 and 1840, and 55 cases between 1840 and 1880. [8] However, one does have to consider the role 19th century newspapers played in recording wife-sales and how they may distort the statistics. Wife-sales (particularly those in isolated rural areas) from previous centuries may have been recorded by local memory, oral history and occasional parish or court records; many of these records have been lost over time. Whereas, the increase in the number of 19th century newspapers and their interest in reporting wife-sales provided a tangible means of recording and ultimately preserving 19th century cases.

 Bradford and its “brutal exhibitions of depravity”

Some Victorian examples from my town of Bradford, West Yorkshire will be presented. In 1837, newspapers reported “one of those brutal exhibitions of depravity” happening at Bradford’s butter market. The reason behind the sale “was the incontinence of the wife, whose affections were stated to have been alienated by an old delver”. [9] At the auction, “the first and only bona fide bid” was by the delver for a sovereign, which was accepted. [10] The Leeds Mercury newspaper reported another “disgusting exhibition” in 1839. It explained how William Farrar arrived at Bradford market cross with his wife, a buyer (called Green) and a witness (called Hainsworth). Farrar’s wife was sold to Green for five shillings, but two shillings and 6 pence of the sale price went to Hainsworth for his trouble of being a witness. [11] In 1858, Hartley Teasley (or Thomson) attempted to sell his wife outside a beer-house in the Shearbridge area of Bradford. A “halter” and “whip” were prepared and she was led there. People assembled at this “disgraceful and somewhat uncommon transaction”, drawn by a bellman. This sale failed to go ahead after local factory owners, outraged by the custom, threatened to sack anyone involved if it went ahead. The arranged buyer (Ike Duncan, the wife’s lover) was put off. The spectacle and anticipation of the sale attracted a large crowd, creating a disturbance, and was forced to be called off. [12]

“Sold for £1 and a Newfoundland dog!”

Victorian examples show that prices varied, and goods as well as money could be exchanged. A pre-Victorian sale in Carlisle (1832) ended with one wife being sold for £1 and a Newfoundland dog! [13] Thompson suggested that the ‘going rate’ for a wife was in the region of 2 shillings and 6 d to 5 shillings. Here is a summary of some Victorian wife-sales where unusual amounts of money or goods were exchanged (or negotiated):

Date               Place                                      Price                                     

1841               Stafford Market                     Eighteen pence and a quart of ale [14]

1849               Goole Market                         Five shillings and nine pence [15]

1859               Dudley                                     Sixpence [16]

1862               Selby Market Cross              One pint [17]

1863               Wales                                      £2 and 10 shillings plus half a sovereign’s worth of drink [18]

1865               Wolverhampton                   £100 (and £50 for the children) [19]

1881               Sheffield                                 Quart of beer

1882               South Wales                         Glass of ale [20]

1882               Belfast                                    One penny and a dinner [21]

(1894              Battersea                               Nine gallons of beer [22])



There are documented cases of husband-sales but these are rare. In 1869, newspapers reported that a German woman had purchased a husband from another gentleman for £10. There is no suggestion that an auction took place or that the purchased husband was previously married. It comes across as a business transaction in which the paid gentleman was a marriage match-maker. [23] A private sale occurred in 1888 when a husband fell in love with a young lady whilst on route to Australia. The young lady wrote to his wife in England asking to purchase him. The wife initially asked for £100, but £20 was agreed. Legal documents were prepared and signed, and the husband married his new wife in Australia. [24] The same year, courts at Wolverhampton heard about a husband who had been sold to another woman for £5. When the money had run out, the ex-wife demanded the husband back. [25] In 1890, a husband and wife, present at an auction of goods, took part in an impromptu sale. Initially the wife “suggested that the next lot should be her old man”, but a spectator encouraged her to step forward and she obliged. [26] In 1893, The Hampshire Advertiser was amused by a divorce case which revealed that the wife had attempted to sell her husband for three half pence. [27]

A “Smiling Bargain”?

While some sales worked out for all parties involved, some ended unhappily. The Stamford Mercury reported a case in Lincolnshire in 1847. A wife was brought to Barton market place to be auctioned off:

. . . the lot was put up, and . . . knocked down to William Harwood, a waterman, for the sum of one shilling, three half pence to be returned ‘for luck’. Harwood walked off arm and arm with his smiling bargain, with as much coolness as if he had purchased a new coat or hat.

However the coins must have been out of luck as a couple of years later, Harwood was in court contesting the responsibility for debts his wife had accumulated whilst married to the previous husband. [28] As the Latin phrase warns: Caveat Emptor – let the buyer beware!


[1] There are very few cases of middle and upper class participation in the ‘plebian’ custom of wife-selling. Henry Brydges, the 2nd Duke of Chandos, reportedly came across a wife-sale in Newbury and bought the wife for half a crown. She became his mistress as he too was married. They later married in 1744 when both were widowed.

‘The Duke of Chandos Buying A Wife’, Notes & Queries, 1870, 4th Series, Vol. 6, p.179

[2] Samuel Pyeatt Menefee, Wives for Sale (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher, 1981), p. 2 and 3.

[3] E. P. Thompson, Customs in Common (London: Merlin Press Ltd, 1991), p. 408

[4] John Ashton, Modern Street Ballads (London: Chatto & Windus, 1888), p. x

[5] Ibid, pp. 1 – 3

[6] Ibid, p. 4

[7] Robert Chambers, The Book of Days (London: W. & R. Chambers, 1878), p. 487

[8] Thompson, p. 409

[9] A delver was a ditch digger or stone quarry worker.

[10] Thompson detailed this case, citing his source as Halifax Express, cited in The Times, 9 Feb 1837. Thompson, pp. 428 – 9. ‘On Saturday . . .’, The Times, Wednesday 9 February 1837, p. 2, Issue 16335

[11] ‘Disgusting Exhibition – The Sale of a Wife’, Leeds Mercury, Saturday 1 June 1839, Issue 5501.

[12] Thompson referred to this case and cites two sources: Bradford Observer (25 November 1858) and Stamford Mercury (26 November 1858). Thompson referred to the seller as ‘Hartley Thompson’ in Customs in Common. Bradford Observer named the husband as ‘Hartley Teasley’, but The Illustrated Police News a few decades later called him ‘Hartley Thomson’. Thompson, p. 455;  ‘Attempted Sale of a Wife’, Bradford Observer, Thursday 25 November 1858, p. 5, Issue 1297;‘Selling a Wife by Auction’, The Illustrated Police News, Saturday 19 November 1870, Issue 353.

[13] As recollected in a Huddersfield Chronicle and West Yorkshire Advertiser article. ‘Sale of A Wife’, Huddersfield Chronicle and West Yorkshire Advertiser, Saturday 19 October 1861, p. 3

[14] Thompson described this sale, referring to an article in the Derby Mercury, 18 August 1841. Thompson, pp. 416 – 7

[15] The husband had returned home after a lengthy hospital stay to discover that his wife had run away with most of his possessions and eloped with her “paramour”. The cuckolded husband found the newlyweds and sold his wife to the young man. Thompson described the sale, citing Doncaster, Nottingham & Lincoln Gazette, 14 December 1849. Thompson, p. 449

[16] ‘Wives for Sale’, Birmingham Daily Post, Monday 14 November 1892, p. 5, Issue 10733.

[17] Ashton in his notes to the wife-sale ballads refers to this sale. Ashton, p.  4

[18] ‘Wives for Sale’, Birmingham Daily Post, Monday 14 November 1892, p. 5, Issue 10733.

[19] The Dundee Courier & Argus, citing the Birmingham Gazette, detailed this strange case in which a wife was sold along with her three children to an American “adventurer” who had a “bowie-knife. . . and a revolver”. She regretted the sale a few days later and returned to her previous husband. The American husband persuaded the old husband to return her in exchange for more money, £50. When the wife was returned, the American gave the old husband a smaller sum of money than originally agreed, confusing a £5 note for a £50 note. This wasn’t discovered until the two husbands had parted ways. With the help of the police, the old husband caught up with them at a train station and the apologetic American gave the old husband the correct amount. The American, his new (but reluctant) wife and her children continued their journey to London, while the old husband headed to the nearest “liquor vaults” with his money. ‘‘The Sale of A Wife and Children at Wolverhampton’, The Dundee Courier & Argus, Wednesday 8 February, 1865, Issue 3590.

[20] Ashton mentions the Sheffield and South Wales sales in his ballad notes. Ashton, pp. 3 and 4

[21] As referred in an article against wife-selling, detailing some cases. ‘How many generations of progress . . .’, The Standard, Friday 15 July 1887, p. 5, Issue 19659.

[22] This sale did not take place but a price was set. Details of this proposed sale were heard at a divorce hearing and reported. ‘Alleged Offer to Sell A Wife’, The Weekly Standard Express, Saturday7 July 1894, p. 6, Issue 3046

[23] ‘Selling a Husband for £10’, Glasgow Herald, Saturday 2 January 1869, Issue 9040.

[24] ‘Selling a Husband’, Birmingham Daily Post, Thursday 12 January 1888, p. 8, Issue 9218.

[25] ‘Wives for Sale’, Birmingham Daily Post, Monday 14 November 1892, p. 5, Issue 10733.

[26] This example is mentioned by Menefee. He does date it in the notes (Friday 31 October 1890) and cited the source as an unnamed newspaper which reported it on 6 November 1890. Menefee, p. 74 (for sale mention) and p. 255 (353, for source reference)

[27] ‘Gossip on Men and Things’, The Hampshire Advertiser, Wednesday 22 February 1893, p. 3, Issue 4873.

[28] Thompson traced this case across two articles, citing Stamford Mercury, 12 March 1847 (for the initial sale) and 25 May 1849 (for the debt court case). Thompson, p. 417



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