When Selling Your Wife was the Easiest Way to End a Marriage

Today, if you no longer want to stay married to your spouse, you can seek a divorce in court. In 18th and 19th century England, before divorce was legal, men who sought to end a marriage could sell their wives.

Before the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 allowed ordinary people to get a divorce, a person had to either get an annulment or an Act of Parliament to end a marriage. This process cost around £15,000 in today’s values, and was out of reach for the vast majority of people. Since wives legally became a form of property upon marriage at that time, many unhappy couples resorted to a public auction to circumvent divorce law.

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In these cases, the husband would register his wife as a good of sale at a local marketplace. Men could bid to purchase the woman to take as a wife for himself. Often, the sale was arranged in advance, and the auction that took place was a formality.

Before you begin to feel too bad for the women involved, you should know that most of the women were willing participants in their sale. They usually chose where they were going next, and they were often the instigators of the process, since this was the only way an unhappy wife could escape a bad husband. In fact, many times the wife could be found celebrating with her new husband in the local tavern after the transaction was completed. In a time period when women were not afforded equal rights, this was one of the few ways they could exercise control over their own lives.

The act of selling one’s wife was illegal, but most authorities turned a blind eye to the practice. Stopping the practice would likely have led to increased cases of domestic violence or of wives simply being turned out of their homes and becoming burdens on their communities. So, allowing the sales to occur saved the local authorities worse troubles. This laxity on the part of officials resulted in at least 300 documented cases of wife-selling between 1780 and 1850.

There were prosecutions of husbands who sold their wives, and by the 1850s, societal pressure caused the practice to mostly die out. The last known reported case of English wife-selling was in 1913. In that year, a woman near Leeds testified in court that her husband had sold her to a work colleague for £1. It is not recorded if the woman eventually moved in with her husband’s co-worker, but we do know that she left her husband and sought maintenance payments.

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