‘I’d sell my spouse if anyone would purchase her’: spouse product sales in England

‘I’d sell my spouse if anyone would purchase her’: spouse product sales in England

‘For my component we don’t realise why males who ‘ve got wives and don’t need ‘em, shouldn’t be rid of ‘em since these gipsy fellows do their old horses…Why should not they place ‘em up and sell ‘em by auction to males that are looking for such articles? Hey? Why, begad, I’d sell mine this full moment if anyone would purchase her!’

Therefore claims the farm that is young Michael Henchard, in just one of probably the most arresting passages in Thomas Hardy’s 1886 novel The Mayor of Casterbridge. Nearby the start of the guide, Michael gets drunk on rum-laced furmity (frumenty), and has now an argument together with his spouse, Susan. He chooses to sell Susan and their infant child, that are purchased by way of a sailor for five guineas. Whenever Michael sobers up, the enormity of just what he’s done hits house; he realises he cannot get their daughter and wife straight straight right back, and swears down liquor for the following 21 years because of this.

The scene is shocking, no question, just exactly what with Michael’s casual brutality, Susan’s misery, while the pervasive misogyny. Yet whenever it emerges that Susan normally quite keen to part means with Michael, i will be struck by there being something oddly modern with what is actually a fast no-fault divorce or separation. Michael explains into the onlookers that:

‘It’s an agreement to component. She shall simply take the baby|Thebaby shall be taken by her if she would like to, and get her methods. I’ll just just just take my tools, and get my methods. ‘Tis straightforward as Scripture history.’

This brilliant scene raised lots of questions I set out to investigate for me, which. Did spouse product product sales such as this happen actually? If that’s the case, where so when were they place that is taking and exactly why?

The primary problem ended up being that prior to the 1857 Matrimonial forces Act, which put up civil divorce or separation courts, divorce proceedings was just when it comes to rich few. a bill that is private become passed away through Parliament before a few could divorce, that was expensive and required the right governmental connections. For ordinary individuals, consequently, the primary choices following the break down of a married relationship had been restricted to annulment, desertion, or separation (of which there have been numerous kinds).

This is how the spouse sale is available in. It absolutely was possible – though not appropriate – for a guy to market his spouse, therefore renouncing all duty on her behalf. This process of separation had been low priced, versatile, didn’t include the courts, and permitted both events to remarry, in training if you don’t in legislation.

‘Selling a Wife towards the Highest Bidder’ (1816)

There was a record from as soon as 1302 of a guy giving their spouse by deed to some other man, but spouse product sales appear mostly up to now through the late century that is 17th. Wife product product sales might take spot publicly at auction, perhaps with a buyer that is pre-arranged. Spouses may additionally be offered without auction, in which particular case the ex-husband and husband that is new either proclaim the agreed sale in a general public spot (in order to create witnesses and allow the community understand associated with the modification) or concur in personal, maybe culminating in a written contract.

A wife would typically be led to a public place such as a market or an inn, with a halter around her arm or neck, just like a piece of livestock in the case of public sales and auctions. The spouse would show their spouse, might enumerate her characteristics, and, when you look at the situation of a auction, would demand bids through the put together onlookers.

Depiction of a spouse purchase (1820)

Wives may be offered for as low as a pint of alcohol (as at Selby in 1862), but may possibly also fetch somewhat more, as with a female who was simply offered in 1865 for Ј100, plus Ј25 for every single of her young ones. The normal cost ended up being probably someplace in the product range of some shillings. This is barely a life-altering amount for the ex-husband; most likely more important compared to the amount it self was the sense that exchanging cash (or its alcoholic equivalent) made a wife purchase lawfully binding – which needless to say, it failed to.

When someone had purchased the spouse, he and their newly acquired wife would generally walk off together. In certain instances it really is recorded that every parties resigned to your pub for the drink that is convivial moving forward. The ex-husband might then place an announcement out via a magazine to your impact which he wouldn’t honour any debts which their previous spouse might contract.

‘Sale of a Wife in Smithfield Market’ (1797)

Spouses probably objected less to offered than we’d assume, since the purchase had been frequently agreed by shared permission. In reality, often things were organised so the customer ended up being the wife’s current enthusiast. In December 1849, the days reported simply such an event in Yorkshire, describing exactly how a person had arranged along with his spouse that she should really be offered to her enthusiast – presumably much to her satisfaction. At an auction that is public the city marketplace:

‘After only a little competition that is spirited had been offered to her fan for 5 shillings and 9 pence. Before making along with her brand new spouse, the spouse snapped her hands at her ex-husband and said ‘There, good-for-nought, that’s more than you would fetch’.

Just because a spouse had been reluctant, but, she generally speaking had the effectiveness of veto over any specially unsuitable purchasers. Thus in Manchester in 1824, ‘after a few biddings she the spouse had been knocked straight straight down for 5s; not liking the buyer, she ended up being set up again for 3s and a quart of ale’. It can appear that the viewing crowds had been generally speaking perhaps maybe maybe not willing to see a woman sold down entirely against her might. At one spouse purchase in Dublin in 1756, a small grouping of females rescued the wife, then provided her husband a mock test and put him when you look at the shares until very early morning that is next.

‘Selling a spouse’ – Thomas Rowlandson (1812-14)

Needless to say, some unscrupulous husbands most likely took benefit of this technique. Spontaneous spouse product product sales were especially problematic in this respect because females might be obsessed about a whim to strangers that are complete as with The Mayor of Casterbridge or an event in March 1766, the place where a carpenter from Southwark offered their spouse ‘in a fit of conjugal indifference during the alehouse’.

The top of and center classes – aided by the feasible exclusion for the second Duke of Chandos, whom evidently purchased their 2nd spouse from an ostler – didn’t take part in or help wife product product sales. There was clearly no right in English legislation to offer one’s spouse. In reality, the 1861 version of Burn’s Justice for the Peace and Parish Officer states that ‘publicly offering or investing in a spouse is obviously an offence’ that is indictable. However, it is clear that some clergy and magistrates had been ready to turn an eye that is blind spouse sales, if perhaps since the customized was therefore ingrained in every day life. Numerous poorer, uneducated people sincerely believed within the validity that is legal of product sales. Thus the outcome of a Stockport man taken on for bigamy in 1899, who thought their very very first spouse had no claim he had sold her 30 years previously ‘for 1s on him as. 6d. to a chimney sweep at brand brand brand New Mills’.

Ann, Duchess of Chandos, who had been supposedly purchased from an ostler


Plus in reality, the customized ended up beingn’t always as harmful to women even as we may at very first assume. It enabled a lady to flee a marriage that is bad needing to show adultery or cruelty into the courts; and when a woman’s brand new spouse ended up being a great guy, her life had been better than in the event that ex-husband had merely cast her away without a cent, as he had been legitimately eligible to do.

Yet spouse product sales expanded less frequent within the century that is 19th as wider general public opinion gradually switched against them. Most likely this is in a few component because of the greater option of breakup. The record that is last of spouse purchase was in 1913, whenever a lady in Leeds alleged that her spouse had offered her to 1 of their workmates for Ј1.

Further reading

19th century newsprint clippings regarding spouse product sales are present with this website

The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1832 (see p. 347 for the Duke of Chandos’ marriage april)

The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy (at undertaking Gutenberg)