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Wife Selling In England and Derbyshire...Going Full Circle

Source: Illustrated Police News 1870

Until the first Divorce Court was established in 1857 'selling ons wife seemed to be the done thing. Even once divorce was possible reports indicate that it 'wife selling' persisted against a back drop of cost. In the 19th century it could cost at least £3,000 (£15,000 at present day values), as a private Act of Parliament was required to make the disposal of a wife legal. But in poor districts, such as the West Midlands of England, a wife was considered a chattel to be bought and sold like any other commodity.

Indeed, the practise of Wife Selling provides the backdrop for Thomas Hardy's 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....

Source: A much earlier case of wife selling, mentioned in the Morning Chronicle 30 October 1819

Throughout the 1800s there was barely a year without a newspaper report of a court case involving the sale of a wife. It seems that some people believed that if a wife were taken to market on market day with a halter (or sometimes a rope) around her neck the transfer was legal. It happened all over the UK; for example, in 1819 a magistrate who attempted to prevent a sale at Ashbourne, Derbyshire, but was pelted and driven away by the crowd, later commented:"Although the real object of my sending the constables was to prevent the scandalous sale, the apparent motive was that of keeping the peace ... As to the act of selling itself, I do not think I have a right to prevent it, or even oppose any obstacle to it, because it rests upon a custom preserved by the people of which perhaps it would be dangerous to deprive them by any law for that purpose"

Apparently the Golden Age, for want of a better expression, of wife selling was between 1780 and 1850, when some 300 wives were sold (the tip of the ice-berg I'd say, as the recorded statistics will never quite tell the true story of how many women were, with or without their consent, were sold in this way.

Source: Morning Chronicle 28 July 1828

Source: Illustrated Police News 21 Oct 1899

Wife selling could be a very lucrative business especially when the prices ranged from a shilling to the equivalent of £150, while the punishments meted out by magistrates included a mere month's hard labour and a £5 fine. The magistrates and newspaper reporters expressed disgust at the lower classes' behaviour and ignorance, and were particularly shocked to find cases where the wife herself was perfectly satisfied at the arrangement. However, it is equally likely that many 'wives' were not happy with the arrangement and as for the 'disgust at the lower classes' more rigorous enforcement of the laws and harsher fines and sentences would have easily addressed the practice. The hypocrisy of the times sometimes leaves one quite angry!.

Suffice to say the practise was outlawed but women laws of property ownership, custody of children and not least the right to vote pretty much managed to treat women effectively like the property of first their fathers and brothers then husbands for many years afterwards.

Thanks to the sacrifice of suffragists, suffragettes and the many who have contributed to The Women's Liberation movement, today wife selling is inconceivable, and yet we have the mass trafficking if women across and within borders on a mass scale....

According to the NGO UNSEEN,

In the UK in 2016, 3,805 people were identified as potential victims of trafficking. This is a 17% increase on 2015 figures.Approximately 51% of victims in the UK are Women most trafficked into sex work and or domestic servitude.... (

Members of Soroptimist International Derby spoke out against human trafficking on Anti Slavery Day by standing at Speaker’s Corner in Derby Market Place and speaking to members of the public about modern day slavery. The event was also a great opportunity to collect signatures for the lobby against sex advertising with 90 signatures in total and the event was featured on Radio Derby. (Source:

Unsurprisingly, several factors contribute to trafficking in women. Their vulnerability, especially as a consequence of violence, and the demand for their sexual services are two leading factors which have received increased attention in recent years. Undoubtedly some of these issues of violence, both sexual and physical and the commodification of women, were part and parcel of wife selling and persist today in new forms of violence against women and girls. The persistence of attitudes which treat women as inferior, less, 'property' etc are the very attitudes which gave birth to women saying 'No' 'No', 'No' - through their individual and collective social and political activism, and no doubt, reflects the need for a Woman's Movement' still, marching, advocating and fighting for gender based equality' .

So the fight goes on for gender based equality continues...

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