Would it surprise you to learn that the practice of wife selling was particularly popular in the 17th century? Divorce was almost impossible for anyone but the very rich and as a consequence some husbands sort rather a interesting alternative solution. This bizarre practice was apparently more common in rural counties such as Cornwall and Devon. Indeed folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould dedicated a whole chapter to wife selling in his book Devonshire Characters and Strange Events .
‘There is no myth relative to the manners and customs of the English that in my experience is more tenaciously held by the ordinary Frenchman than that the sale of a wife in the market place is an habitual and an accepted fact in English Life.’ SBG, 1908
The practice of selling your wife was never legal, or indeed morally acceptable, but it is clear that these transactions did occur. And not on such an irregular basis that they can be brushed under the carpet as a rare social anomaly. My own research has uncovered a number of fascinating cases in Cornwall’s history. Cases when Cornish men took their wives to market, not to do the shopping but as the produce!
Ritual and Law
Given that the practice wasn’t ever legal the sale of a wife had a number of surprisingly well established rituals.
Usually an announcement of the intended auction would be spread either by word of mouth, printed on posters or even in the local press. The husband might advertise his wife’s positive attributes, her abilities as a cook or as a farm-worker perhaps. On the appointed day the husband would parade his wife, usually at a marketplace. The lady was traditionally haltered with a leather strap at the neck, arm or waist. Then the wife was simply sold to the highest bidder. Sometimes a written contract was exchanged as proof of the transaction. Often the deal was completed with just the handing over of the money and a handshake.
It’s fortunately an almost incomprehensible scene to us these days. But it may surprise you to know that the selling or auctioning of your wife occurred in British society for hundreds of years. In the words of 20th-century writer Courtney Kenny, the ritual was “a custom rooted sufficiently deeply to show that it was of no recent origin”.
Harpers Magazine, 1876
Selling your wife was never legal but it seems to have been a part of rural custom despite this. Certainly until the marriage laws began to change in 1857 it was frequently the cheapest, and more often the only option, available to unhappy couples. We should remember that many wives were actually complicit in their sale. Eager perhaps to escape an unhappy marriage, to get a second chance. Some wives probably had no objection to getting rid of their husbands!
Wife selling became more frequently reported with the advent of newspapers in the 18th century. There were some prosecutions but these seem to have been few and far between. And despite the fact that the custom had no real basis in law bizarrely it did persist into the 20th century. There was a report of one wife being sold as late as 1901.
The Sale of Cornish Women
I have uncovered seven separate occasions of wives being sold or auctioned to the highest bidder in Cornwall. All the incidents were reported in the local and national newspapers. They all occurred over a period of roughly 35 years, between 1818 and 1853. These wives were sold by their husbands at markets or in the street in Bodmin (twice), St Austell, Truro, Callington, Redruth and Camelford.
Some of the newspaper reports contain no names, perhaps to protect those involved. But these articles still provide enough detail for us to be confident that they are based on fact.
Bodmin Market & the bargain price
In November 1818 a man named Walter arrived at Bodmin Market. Following along behind him was his wife. The report says he was leading her by a halter fastened neatly around her waist. Walter moved to the centre of the market place, amongst the stalls and stinking animal pens, and then unashamedly offered his wife up for sale.
Bodmin in 19th century
The West Briton newspaper reported the outcome of the auction in the following edition on 13th November 1818:
A person called Sobey, who has lately been discharged from the 28th Regiment, bid sixpence for her and was immediately declared the purchaser. He led off his bargain in triumph, amidst the shouts of the crowd, and to the great apparent satisfaction of her late owner.
Sixpence was a tiny amount of money even then. In 1818 it was less than a day’s wages for a skilled labourer and is about the equivalent of £1.50 in today’s money.
Selling a Wife (1812–14), by Thomas Rowlandson. The painting gives the viewer the impression that the wife was a willing party to the sale, which was “a genial affair” marked by laughter.
The sale of Walter’s wife is the earliest report I have uncovered so far but the not the only one connected to Bodmin. The second incident was brought to light by Mr. Elias Hiscutt Liddell, the Bodmin Registrar. More of that a little later!
St Austell Market & the price of a pig
In 1835 George Trethewey lived at High Street Downs in St Stephens-in-Brannel with his wife Susan and their son William. Born in 1779, George was a small man, just 5’3″, with dark eyes, no front teeth and he was twenty years older than his wife. But George must have had hidden charms because as well as being married to Susan he was having an affair with a woman called Ann Cundy.
St Stephen in Brannel, 1900
The liaison resulted in a child, which Ann named after George. The birth of the child seems to have led George to decide it might be time to do something about his situation. So he went to St Austell Market to sell Susan.
This contemporary description of St. Austell‘s market from the West Briton in 1837 allows us to envision the scene.
In no town in Cornwall is there so much traffic as here, carts and wagons constantly passing through it as well on market as on other days. The market being in the principal thoroughfare and being numerously attended is in consequence very much crammed so much so that the foot passenger can with difficulty pass along.
The West Briton reported what happened next on 27th March 1835:
On Friday last, the people assembled at St. Austell market were surprised by the appearance of a man of advancing age leading a woman about thirty, by a halter which was tied round her waist.
George, then fifty-six years old, offered his wife to the highest bidder. Amongst the crowd were two travelling salesmen or tinkers. One of them offered two pence and then the other doubled the bid. George took the four pence and handed his wife over. Apparently the lady and her purchaser then hurried off to the nearest pub for a jug of ale. Unfortunately for George he was caught by the collector of tolls at the market. The official made him pay the fee usually demanded for selling a pig for the sale of Susan!
Sadly George and Ann Cundy’s relationship did not have a happy ending. In May 1842 George Trethewey was sent to Bodmin Goal for 2 months for ‘willful damage’ to Ann’s house. It was his 4th similar offence. Perhaps Susan really did have a lucky escape.
Redruth Fair – a murderous assignation
A rather strange episode which occurred in Redruth demonstrates that the wives, for various reasons, were sometimes totally complicit in their sale.
In 1967 the two authors of The Folklore of Cornwall, Tony Dean and Tony Shaw received a letter from a 79 year old man from Camborne. In the letter the writer described himself as an ex-rabbit-trapper and horse-breaker, who had begun work at the age of 12. He then went on to relate a story that he had been told by his mother. Contemporary newspaper reports also confirm his tale. He writes:
“One man from Redruth would sell his wife to the highest bidder at a local fair. She would then wait until her purchaser was asleep, kill him and steal his money before returning to her husband. No one knew how often the pair succeeded with their evil game but eventually the wife was killed by the daughter of one of the victims.”
The riot at Truro Market
Another incident of wife selling in Truro had some rather unfortunate and unexpected consequences for an innocent bystander.
Market Day, Boscawen Street, Truro
It was November 1848 and word had spread about the town that a woman as going to be sold on market day. An large, excited and expectant crowd formed. A little overexcited as it turned out!
At some point during the day a well-dressed woman from St Agnes was crossing the cobbles at High Cross when some ‘mischievous fellow’ pointed her out, saying that she was the woman to be sold. A mob of men and boys then chased this poor woman down St Mary’s Street.
View of St Mary’s Street, Truro
Luckily a Truro man, seeing the young lady was trouble, took her into his house and barred the doors. The baying crowd surrounded his home and eventually had to be dispersed by the police. Although she escaped unhurt the poor woman was badly shaken and had lost her basket of shopping in the tussle. The newspaper reporter was particularly scathing about the incident, he wrote:
It is commonly thought that wives may be sold in public, because it has sometimes been done; but the practice is altogether illegal, and in the present instance the popular sympathies, as well as the laws of the realm, appeared to be against this barbaric notion.
A disgraceful scene at Callington Market
Another report in 1846 of the auction of a woman in Callington also goes someway further to illustrate that this behaviour was not considered normal or acceptable by some.
On Wednesday night about nine o’clock in the evening a man sold his wife in the open market at Callington for the sum of 2s 6d. We do not learn that either the authorities or the public interfered to prevent so disgraceful a scene. West Briton, January 1846.
On this occasion no names were entered into record. It is my impression that it was more frequently the poor who were trying to escape their circumstances while the wealthy looked on in distain.
A Thwarted Marriage in Bodmin
On a bright July morning in 1853 a couple stood before the Bodmin Registrar ready to take their vows. The registrar Mr. Elias H Liddell admitted however that he had some concerns. Since the reading of the bands he had been informed that the woman before him was already married to someone else. The would-be groom, a navvy from Bodmin, then produced a certificate showing that he had recently bought his intended from her first husband for £1. The transaction had taken place somewhere near St Germans.
View of Bodmin, 1832
Mr Liddell was forced to explain that the document was not worth the paper it was written on. He refused to marry the couple and threatened them with transportation for the crime of bigamy. Apparently the thwarted couple went away most disappointed. One wonders if the navvy asked for a refund of his pound!
The next report demonstrates that selling your wife could sometimes lead to unforeseen problems further down the road.
‘A Bargain and Sale’ in Camelford
(The above was the newspaper headline.)
This particular incident, which happened in February 1828, is the only one I have come across in Cornwall in which the law seems to have been involved. in some small way. John Cook was asked to attend the Petty Sessions at Five Lanes by the overseers of the parish of Tintagel. He was accused of ‘not maintaining his wife and children’. When asked to explain his behaviour he told the court the following. Cook explained to the magistrates that in around 1812 he had been living unhappily with his wife for a number of years. Having no children with her he had decided to sell her at Camelford market. A man had purchased her there for half-a-crown. Since that time Cook said he had had nothing more to do with her. She had been living with the purchaser and together they had had seven children.
Unfortunately for John Cook his wife and her new family had fallen on hard times and had been forced to apply to the parish for relief (monetary help). And now because wife selling was against the law the magistrates held him reasonable for the support of his wife . . . and all the children!
‘Their worships not being disposed to sanction the aforesaid bargain and sale Cook was in a fair way of being saddled with his wife and her offsprings . . . the final decision was postponed to a future day, when he will probably be compelled to pay a reasonable sum to the parish for the support of the woman and her children or visit the tread-mill.’ West Briton, 8th Feb, 1828.
I’ve been unable to discover the fate of John Cook and his estranged wife but I can’t help feeling a little sorry for him!
So, here endeth my account of wife selling in Cornwall, some of strangest incidents in our fascinating social history.
I think it’s worth considering a couple of points however. Firstly, I get the impression that some of these ‘auctions’ were pre-arranged. That an intended buyer had been decided upon in advance. And secondly, if these cases were so well-known why were there so few prosecutions?
I thoroughly enjoyed researching this piece and I’d love to hear your thoughts. So please feel free to comment below!
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