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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