Thursday, 2 February 2012

The custom of wife-selling

Herefordshire city centre.

Many of you will be familiar with the custom of wife-selling through it figuring large in "The Mayor of Casterbridge" when Michael Henchard sold his wife to a sailor in the doorway of the frumenty tent at Weydon-Priors fair. However, it was not confined to Wessex, as this webpage shows. Far from being frowned upon by the Judiciary, as one might expect, it was even actively enforced by the Poor Law Commissioners, so they were absolved from having to support the entire family in the Workhouse. The standard procedure was for the wife - usually more than willing to take her chance with a new man than the one whose failings she was only too familiar with - to be stood with a halter around her neck or arm or waist (as if she were a horse for sale) and for bids to be offered until a mutual agreement was reached. "Marriagable age" at the time of the Marriage Act in 1753 was the age of consent (12 for girls and 14 for boys). HERE is Wikipedia's take on wife selling.

Anyway, I must be feeling better as I have been blowing the dust off a bookshelf looking for a.n.other book and my eye fell on The Folklore of Herefordshire, and this has mention of the practice:

"There can be no doubt that the horrible custom of a man's selling his wife, in the open market, with a halter round her neck, was kept up at Hereford into the 19th C. In 1802, a butcher sold his wife by public auction, in Hereford market. The lot realised one pound, four shillings, and a bowl of punch. "Nonagenarian", an old lady whose reminiscences of old-time Hereford have been referred to, witnessed a similar scene more than once. Here is a description of it in her own words:

I must recall to your memory my statement as to my being playfellow to Mona Delnotte Coates, for it was while walking with her that I first saw a man selling his wife. We were going from the Barton to the other side of the town, and necessarily had to pass the bottom of the pig market. Here we saw a crowd. The girl was desirous of knowing what was the matter, so she elbowed her way through the people, and was followed by the children to the open space in the centre. There stood a woman with her hat in her hand . . . This woman's hat was a very smart one. She stood looking down. At first I thought she was admiring her own red cloak, but as she stood so still my eyes wandered over to see what was amiss, and I shall never forget how surprised I felt when I observed she had a rope about her neck, and that a man was holding one end of it. "What has she done?" we both cried out, for I believed she was going to be hanged. "Oh," said a bystander, "she has done no good, depend upon it, or else he wouldn't want to sell her." Just then there was a loud laugh, and a man shouted, "Well done Jack, that is elevenpence more than I would give. It's too much, boy, too much." But Jack stood firm. "No," said he, "I'll give a shilling, and he ought to be thankful to get rid of her at thatt price." "Well," said the man, "I'll take it, though her good looks ought to be worth more than that." "Keep her master, keep her for her good looks," shouted the laughing bystanders. "No" said he, "good looks won't put victuals on the table without willing hands." "Well," said Jack, "here's the shilling, and I war'nt I'll make her put victuals on the table for me, and help to get it first. Be you willing Missis to have me, and take me for better for worse?" "I be willing," says she. "And be you willing to sell her for what I bid maister?" "I be," said he, "and will give you the rope into the bargain." So Jack gave the man his shilling."

Well, I had better go and see to the evening meal now before a) I freeze my extremities off (9 deg. today in the house - I've known it warmer!) and b) in case my husband decides to get a shilling for me . . .

N.B. header photo taken a couple of days ago, so a slight change in the colour balance of the sunrise.


  1. argh--9 degrees--I looked it up --48F--
    I'd be hugging that stove all day!

    didn't know about the wife selling--

  2. No I didn't know about the wife selling either; but in case you go "missing" we will know where to come first. Hope you are feeling much better.

    We had a couple of snow flakes this morning - only a couple mind - but it is very cold here too.

    Take Care



  3. I know that Herefordshire scene well.

  4. Keep warm Jennie, doubt if you will get sold you are such a good cook!!

  5. Since I know that you put victuals on the table I feel pretty confident that Keith will hang on to you:)