Image - WIFESELLER_WifeSelling

"The problem is all inside your head"
She said to me
"The answer is easy if you
Take it logically
I'd like to help you in your struggle
To be free
There must be fifty ways
To leave your lover"

– PAUL SIMON - Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover

As Paul Simon observed in 1975 there must be fifty ways to leave your lover, from the simple but legitimate ‘Two Years Mutual Separation’ divorce at one end to the sneaky ‘slipping out the back or making a new plan’, like Jack and Stan.

In the late 17th century when divorce was a practical impossibility for all but the very wealthy one way of resolving an unsatisfactory marriage was to auction your wife to the highest bidder - often with the approval of the lady. An article in the ‘Observer’ of the 24th September 1815 reported…

Image - WIFESELLER_highest-bider

“The common bellman gave notice in Staines market last week that the wife of ——- Issy was then at the King’s Head Inn, to be sold with the consent of her husband to any person inclined to buy her. The only bidder was her paramour who offered 3/4d.”

In 1832 the Gentleman’s Magazine carried this story…

“The Duke of Chandos, while staying at a small country inn, saw the ostler beating his wife in a most cruel manner; he interfered and literally bought her for half a crown. She was a young and pretty woman; the Duke had her educated; and on the husband’s death he married her. On her death-bed, she had her whole household assembled, told them that from the most wretched situation, she had been suddenly raised to one of the greatest prosperity; she entreated their forgiveness if at any time she had given needless offence, and then dismissed them with gifts; dying almost in the very act.”

Wife selling provides the backdrop for Thomas Hardy’s 1886 novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, in which the central character sells his wife at the beginning of the story, an act that haunts him for the rest of his life, and ultimately destroys him…

It may seem strange to sophisticated minds that a sane young matron could believe in the seriousness of such a transfer; and were there not numerous other instances of the same belief the thing might scarcely be credited. But she was by no means the first or last peasant woman who had religiously adhered to her purchaser, as too many rural records show.


Image - WIFESELLER_Selling3a3Wife33181214

Although the custom had no basis in law and frequently resulted in prosecution, particularly from the mid-19th century onwards, the attitude of the authorities was equivocal. The lower classes were under the impression that a wife could be sold, provided that the sale took place in a public place after due notice be given and that she was a) in agreement with the sale and b) was delivered to the purchaser with a halter about her neck!

At least one early 19th-century magistrate is on record as stating that he did not believe he had the right to prevent wife sales, and there were cases of local Poor Law Commissioners forcing husbands to sell their wives, rather than having to maintain the family in workhouses.

In in 1892 publication ‘Bygone England’ William Andrews catalogues many cases of wife selling, including an instance in 1796 where a man in Sheffield sold his wife for 6d and then a further guinea to have her transported to Manchester. Andrews also suggests that ‘wife prices’ ranged from 6d to 25 guineas. In W and R Chambers ‘Book of Days’ published in 1897 a case is mentioned in which a wife was sold in 1835 for £15. When the purchaser and then her real husband died she claimed his property as his widow. The real husband’s family contested this claim but the court maintained that the sale of the woman in 1835 could not vitiate her rights as the man’s widow. Wife selling continued into the 20th century with one Leeds woman claiming in 1913 that she had been sold to one of her husband’s workmates for £1.

She said, "Why don't we both
Just sleep on it tonight
And I believe in the morning
You'll begin to see the light"
And then she kissed me
And I realized she probably was right
There must be fifty ways
To leave your lover

– from Martyn Day