Why were Victorian women willing to sell themselves at wife auctions?

(ORDO NEWS) — The year was 1832 when Joseph Thompson, a native of Cardiff, brought his wife on a crossbar to the local market, hoping to get a good price at an auction that was, after all, just a wife auction.

Before the bidding began, Thompson, whose asking price was a whopping 50 shillings, explained his reasons for selling his wife at a wife auction:

“She was only a snake in my chest for me. I took her for my comfort and the good of the house, but she became my tormentor, domestic curse, night invasion and daytime devil …”.

The first recorded case of the sale of a wife occurred in 1553 AD. However, some historians argue that the practice was much older and of Anglo-Saxon origin, beginning in the 11th or 12th century.

Because of the advent of newspapers, wife auctions were most prominent in England between 1750 and 1850, although the custom also made its way into North America.

However, for many members of the lower classes who could not afford the costs of divorce, selling a wife was seen as the best alternative not only for the husband, but also for the wife, who in most cases willingly sold herself to another suitor.

The difficulties of divorce have made wife auctions useful!

As married women or “feme covert”, wives lost their rights to property, income, and the ability to sign contracts with their husbands.

However, the prohibitive cost of divorce and the complex nature of English law made it extremely difficult for wives to legally separate from their spouse and return to the status of “feme sol”, where a woman could regain her rights lost in marriage.

In Victorian England, divorce was only allowed if the husband or wife could prove life-threatening cruelty or adultery. However, the legal options available to unhappy couples have been expensive and ineffective.

As a rule, in order for spouses to leave a marriage in accordance with the law, an act of Parliament was required that provided for full legal separation. To obtain this document, it was first necessary to achieve judicial separation, which allowed the dysfunctional couple to live separately from each other.

Further, the husband or wife had to prove the fact of adultery in court, if necessary, starting a lawsuit against lovers. If the judge was sufficiently satisfied with the evidence, he issued an act of parliament releasing the husband from financial obligations to his wife, who was returned to the status of fem sol.

However, this traditional way of divorce was incredibly expensive, costing £1,000. For an unskilled worker in the 19th century, the average weekly wage was 75p, which meant that an Act of Parliament was out of the reach of the working class.

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Although wives were legally allowed to obtain an Act of Parliament, the task of proving a husband’s infidelity was often very difficult, since, unlike her husband, she needed further proof of aggravating circumstances such as incest or bigamy.

Between 1700 and 1857, out of 338 people who tried to divorce through an Act of Parliament, only 8 were women, and only 4 of them had successful claims.

In addition, if a woman somehow received a judicial divorce, her rights were still not protected, since legally she remained a feme cover, since she was still formally married.

The other options were no better. Desertion, when the husband moved to another district or entered the service abroad, was another way of divorce. However, this was illegal, and if a husband was caught, he was often forced to pay an allowance to his wife, whom he was legally required to support.

In addition, it was extremely difficult for a wife to bring an absent husband to court, and if a wife ran away from a marriage, it was more difficult for her to survive alone compared to her husband.

Being legally married, the wife had no property rights, and it was more difficult for women to find paid work. If, by luck, she managed to find work, the salary was often extremely meager and insufficient to support her and the children who often accompanied her mother.

The estranged wives were easier to get caught, as the religious officials put in charge of welfare in their areas, in an effort to cut costs, were always suspicious of newly arrived single women, whom they often reported on.

As a rule, most often wives were recognized and sent back to their husbands, who were legally allowed to forcibly keep her in the house.

Another alternative was running away, where the husband or wife ran off with a lover. Again, it was easier for the man, but harder for the woman. Men often closely monitored and monitored their wives’ activities, making it easier for them to spot potential lovers and escape threats.

Unlike desertion, running away allowed a woman to gain protection from another man, but keeping such a relationship secret was not easy, especially since female fugitives were easier to figure out by the public.

The last way to end marital relations was the law on separation. This agreement allowed for the waiver of some marital obligations, which gave the woman the opportunity to restore some rights in exchange for the husband’s refusal to provide financial support.

In this situation, the woman could use her husband’s financial obligations against him, using them as a bargaining chip.

On the other hand, separation laws, at least until 1840, were poorly enforced by the government, and could be revoked at any time at the request of the husband, making them subject to the wishes of the man. Thus, for many poorer women and men of the Victorian era, selling a wife remained the only alternative.

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A satirical engraving of a bizarre English “wife-selling” custom that took the form of wife auctions. This is an English caricature from 1820, note how the artist positioned everything so that the horns of cattle are strategically placed in line of sight behind the husband’s head

Wife for Sale: Wife auctions solved problems

The procedure for selling a wife was most similar to selling cattle, and there were few differences between them. Before the auction, the husband usually advertised the sale, often hiring city criers to inform potential buyers of the time and place of the auction.

They could also advertise in local newspapers, where they could be brutally honest, praising both the virtues and the worst features of their wives, as evidenced by a late 18th-century ad:

“She can sow and reap, hold a plow and drive a team, and will answer any strong man who can hold a bridle, for she is devilishly stubborn and stubborn; but if properly controlled, she will lead or ride, tamed like a rabbit.

From time to time time she makes a wrong move. Her husband breaks up with her because she is too much for him.”

A successful advertising campaign can attract hundreds or even thousands of applicants.

On the day of the auction, after paying the market tax, like any other seller, the wife was often led with a halter around her neck, as if she were a farm animal, and taken for a walk around the market, where potential suitors could get a closer look at her.

Before the sale, the husband or hired professional touted the wife’s good qualities. In one of the advertisements for the sale of 1832, a man readily listed all the virtues of his wife:

“She can read novels and milk cows; she can laugh and cry as easily as you can drink a glass of ale when you’re thirsty…. She can make butter and scold a maid, she can sing Moore tunes and plait frills and bonnets; she doesn’t know how to make rum, gin or whiskey, but she knows them well from her long experience in tasting them.”

However, like any product, the husband also had to point out its flaws and limitations. One man was forced to explain to a group of buyers the unusual look of his wife, stating that she had two eyes, one of which “looks straight at you, and the other wanders north.”

In another case, a husband probably explained the strangeness of his wife, who was described by one observer as “appearing to be no more than 50 years old, she has lost one leg and has a wooden replacement.”

After the speech of her husband, the auction began. Offers could also include non-monetary items. One wife was sold in 1832 for £1 and a Newfoundland dog, the other in 1862 for a pint of beer. At a higher level, there was a woman from Ripon who was sold for 25 shillings.

After the groom was finished, the transfer of property could be formalized in various ways. At times, lawyers hired drafted contracts that described the legal transfer, or interested parties received receipts from market faucets:

“August 31, 1773. Samuel Whitehouse, of the parish of Willenhall, County Stafford, sold his wife Mary Whitehouse on the open market that day to Thomas Griffiths of Birmingham for one shilling. Take her with all her faults.”

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In marriage and in wife auctions, the husband had most of the advantages, as this painting by William Hogarth suggests


However, despite the humiliating treatment, wives were given a decisive veto and could refuse their buyer if she did not like him. In this case, the husband could take it off the market, lower the price, and accept offers from other interested gentlemen, as one husband did at the 1824 sale in Manchester:

“After several auctions it was thrown off for 5 pounds; but, not being liked by the buyer, it was put up again for 3 pounds and a quart of ale.”

This important right has actually helped women, who finally have a choice and some advantages in transactions that are not available to them under existing legal procedures. As a result, women were often happy after the sale and happily started a new life with their chosen one.

One woman, after being sold at Smithfield Market, “declared it was the happiest moment of her life,” according to one source, and at a 1791 auction at Whitechapel, one witness remarked:

“…the deal was done and she left in high spirits with her new owner.”

There were other reasons for the joy of a woman at the conclusion of a deal. Sometimes a woman exulted because she was bought by a family who wanted to save her from an unsuccessful marriage.

In other cases, the man who bought the woman was often already her lover, so the auction sometimes took the form of a symbolic handover. One husband in 1843, for example:

“…sold his wife in Nottingham in the market for 1 shilling, to a fellow named Smith, with whom the woman lived for several years. The rope was tied around the waist of the woman, and when the transaction was completed and the money paid, it was given to the buyer, who took his prize.”

Cases where a woman was forced to marry another man were very rare, because, despite the possibility of hitting her “within reason”, husbands were forbidden to enslave their spouses.

Historian E. P. Thompson noted that of the 218 cases of wife kidnapping recorded between 1760 and 1880, only 4 wives were sold without their consent.

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While the popularity of wife auctions began to wane in the late 1700s, the art auction market only grew as the new middle class bought fashion items such as paintings instead of wives. Engraving by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) and others

The Decline of Wife Auctions

Despite the practice’s popularity among the lower classes, its opponents considered it immoral. As early as 1796, an article was published in the Times newspaper that read: “It would be good if some law were passed to put an end to such a humiliating movement!”

Considered as a ritual of the lower class, some members of the upper classes were disgusted by its existence: “It is a pity that in the lower class of people there is no stop to such depraved behavior.”

On the other hand, even the poorer citizens did not agree with this custom. For example, in 1860, in a North Yorkshire village, a husband and his newly bought wife were burned in effigy by disapproving villagers.

Although this was rare, some men were convicted of selling their wives. In 1815, a man received three months in prison for selling his wife, and in 1823 in Birmingham, another man named John Homer was convicted of bigamy after selling his wife to his brother and then attempting to remarry.

The Marriage Act of 1857 marked the beginning of a decline in wife selling as women were given more legal rights in divorce.

The status of women involved in judicial divorce was changed from feme covert to feme sol, allowing divorced women more freedom and less dependence on the power of their former spouses.

It also gave property rights to women who left marriage, and also made the Act of Parliament more accessible to the lower classes.

The Married Woman’s Property Act of 1870 gave women even greater freedoms, allowing them to receive separate income from property and investments from their husbands. They could also legally receive inheritance from the family, as well as legally represent their property interests.

Women’s rights were further strengthened by changes to the law in 1882 that expanded the definition of property that women could own, essentially establishing full property rights for married women.

Legal proclamations granting property rights to married women and the subsequent decline in the practice of selling wives showed that women’s lack of rights in this area was one of the main reasons for this practice.

The available data show a sharp decline in the number of wife auctions in England from the 1840s onwards: from 1870 to 1879, 17 cases of wife sales were recorded, and only 9 from 1900 to 1909.

It was no longer in women’s interests to acquire property rights, as these privileges were no longer the exclusive property of the husband, allowing the woman more autonomy and removing the incentive to remarry a man who could better manage the woman’s property.

In addition, the Custody of Infants Act of 1839 gave wives more rights over their children, giving them another negotiating tool to use in divorce proceedings along with the husband’s spousal financial obligations.

This came in conjunction with the strengthening of private separation agreements, which allowed a woman to reclaim certain rights from her husband, which became more directly applied after 1840.

The disappearance of a strange custom

Selling wives, like most forbidden practices, took some time to finally disappear. For example, in 1913, the last case of the sale of a wife was recorded in Leeds, and individual cases took place until 1972. Since the turn of the century, however, wife auctions have become the exception rather than the norm.

Despite the impression to the contrary, the sale of wives actually benefited women.

Protected by the husband’s obligation not to enslave her and calling for financial protection from men, selling a wife was a less costly and more effective way for a woman to leave a dysfunctional relationship and find a better man to take over her rights.

On the other hand, with the granting of legal freedoms to women from 1857, the sale of a wife became irrelevant as women became masters of their rights, and divorce became an ever easier and cheaper hurdle to overcome.


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