In England – Before Divorce

It might appear to be a bit strange for a civilized nation such as England, but it was common practice for a marriage to end, not in divorce but rather the husband selling his wife.

In the 18th century England, it became a practice since divorces were only for the wealthy and even a separation could be expensive for the ex-husband, paying for her support, it was acceptable to sell the wife. It was not for a huge amount of money, many times it was for a couple bottle of liquor.

It tended to be acceptable to the wife, who may have already had a lover on the side and that person purchased his future wife. The former wife also approved, now being about to get out of an unhappy marriage.

It was not an English law but rather a custom done among the less wealthy people. With the Marriage Act of 1753, the wife was the property of the husband. Girls could be married as young 12 years old. In 1777 it was written wife selling was viewed as a “method of dissolving marriage”, when “a husband and wife find themselves heartily tired of each other, and agree to part if the man has a mind to authenticate the intended separation by making it a matter of public notoriety.”

Some selling of a wife was done as an auction, advertising the event. Sometimes the children of the marriage were part of the sale, either as one price to include all or the children for a separate price.

There were cases of a sale being necessary. If a husband had no work and could not afford his wife and children, the wife was sold so she and children would not have to go to the public poor house. This was the case in 1814 for Henry Cook.

The practice appeared to have been widespread throughout England, but relatively rare in neighboring Wales, where only a few cases were reported, and in Scotland where only one has been discovered. The English county with the highest number of cases between 1760 and 1880 was Yorkshire, with forty-four, considerably more than the nineteen reported for Middlesex and London.

Photos: Examples of wife selling and auctions in England.

Related Blogs:

A Boston Marriage

Meeting a Spouse

History of Divorce

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