On this day in history : 7th April 1832 – Joseph Thompson, a Cumberland farmer, leads his wife by a straw rope around her neck to market in Carlisle, to sell her to the highest bidder….

A satirical engraving of the custom of wife selling – Public domain

The sale had been announced in the local newspaper and a large crowd gathered at the appointed time of 12 noon….

The couple had been married for three years and had no children…. She was an attractive, buxom woman around the age of 22…. As the sale began she stood on a chair above the crowd in her finest, fashionable clothes and appeared to be in good humour….

“Gentlemen, I have to offer you notice my wife, Mary Ann Thompson, whom I mean to sell to the highest and fairest bidder. Gentlemen, it is her wish as well as mine to part forever”….

Thompson went on to list his wife’s failings – saying she was a tormentor, domestic curse and daily devil – all of which caused much laughter from the crowd…. He then catalogued her attributes, which included that she could read a novel, milk cows, make butter, scold the maid, sing and was a good drinking companion…. He offered her at a price of 50 shillings but was eventually knocked down to 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog, by pensioner Henry Mears….

After shaking on the deal Thompson took the rope from around his wife’s neck, placed it around that of his new dog and retired to the nearest tavern…. Mary Ann and her new ‘husband’ then left the town together….

This all sounds rather far-fetched – but according to a local newspaper report of the time it did apparently happen….and actually was not such a rare occurrence…. Between 1780 and 1850 there were around 300 such sales recorded – and quite possibly there could have been many more…. One of the first reported was that of Samuel Whitehouse, who sold his wife Mary in the open marketplace to Thomas Griffiths for £1….

“Selling a Wife” – Thomas Rowlandson circa 1813 – Public domain

Divorces were an incredibly expensive affair and difficult to obtain…. If a marriage broke down a Private Act of Parliament had to be applied for by the man – (a woman was not allowed to file for divorce on account of being the possession of her husband) and cost around £3,000 – that’s well over £15,000 in today’s terms…. An end blessing from the Church also had to be obtained….

So, for the lower classes a legal divorce simply was not an option…. Although not technically legal ‘wife sales’ were an alternative way to end a marriage….and were generally accepted amongst the lower classes – with the authorities turning a blind eye…. Once ‘bought’ the marriage was considered null and void and a woman’s new ‘husband’ became financially responsible for her…. At the time a man owned all of his wife’s property and possessions – by selling her he gave up this right and she was entitled to take her worldly goods with her….

The sales were often only symbolic, with just one previously arranged bidder, usually the wife’s lover…. But sometimes bids were open to all, so she could be purchased by a complete stranger…. However, she had to be in agreement to the sale….some women actually demanded to be sold as it was the only way out of an unhappy marriage….

By the mid 1800s law enforcers had begun to clamp down on the sales – but by then it had become much easier to obtain a legal divorce….

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