Until the first Divorce Court was established in 1857 it was very difficult and costly to get rid of a wife!
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.
In Staffordshire the custom of selling a wife followed a strict pattern. The man took his wife to the Market as he would his pig, but with a halter round her neck instead of around her leg. Having paid the ‘Market Toll’, which gave him the right to sell merchandise, he then paraded his wife round the market place extolling her virtues. As the crowd heckled several would-be owners made their bids for possession of her. Prices usually ranged from a few pence to as much as £1.
In 1800 at Stafford a man called Cupid Hodson sold his wife for 5 shillings and 6 pence (28p) after a spirited session of bidding that started at just one penny. When the bid was accepted, the husband handed over the ‘Toll ticket’ as proof of his ownership, and the three involved in the transaction, went to the pub to seal the sale!
Amazingly, in spite of the lowly position of the wives in these circumstances, most accepted the custom as it generally meant a legal end to an unhappy marriage.
Most sales were by mutual consent and the wife’s lover had often agreed a price with her husband long before the bidding actually started.
Both the Church and the State deplored this practice, but the country folk considered the auction to be as binding as a marriage contract.
Just an idle thought though… How much would a spouse bring today?!
Published: 8th June 2015