The majority took the matter good-humoredly

This folklore book continues to be fascinating. There’s a section on pseudo-legal rituals created to get around perceived problems with the law. The most shocking and interesting is of course wife-selling.

“Selling a wife” by Thomas Rowlandson, c.1812-4, via Wikimedia Commons.

“That invaluable repository of scandal, the Sussex Weekly Advertiser, describes several cases: at Ninfield in November 1790 a man sold his wife one evening for half a pint of gin, duly handed her over next morning in a halter, but later changed his mind and bought her back ‘at an advanced price’; at Lewes in July 1797 a blacksmith sold his wife to one of his journeymen ‘agreeably to an engagement drawn up by an attorney for that purpose’; while at Brighton in February 1799 a man named Staines ‘sold his wife by private contract, for 5s and eight pots of beer, to one James Marten of the same place,’ with two married couples witnessing ‘the articles of separation and sale.’

“The custom persisted into the nineteenth century. Harry Burstow mentions three cases in his Reminiscences of Horsham:

I have been told of a woman named Smart who, about 1820, was sold at Horsham for 3s. and 6d. She was bought by a man named Steere, and lived with him at Billingshurst. She had two children by each of these husbands. Steere afterwards discovered that Smart had parted with her because she had qualities which he could endure no longer, and Steere, discovering the same qualities himself, sold her to a man named Greenfield, who endured, or never discovered, or differently valued the said qualities till he died.

Again, at the November Fair, 1825, a journeyman blacksmith, whose name I never learned, with the greatest effrontery exhibited for sale his wife, with a halter round her neck. She was a good-looking woman with three children, and was actually sold for £2 5s, the purchaser agreeing to take one of the children. This ‘deal’ gave offence to some who were present, and they reported the case to the magistrate, but the contracting parties, presumably satisfied, quickly disappeared, and I never heard any more about them.

The last case happened about 1844, when Ann Holland, known as ‘pin-toe Nanny’ or ‘Nanny pin-toe,’ was sold for £1 10s. Nanny was led into the market place with a halter round her neck. Many people hissed and booed, but the majority took the matter good-humoredly. She was ‘knocked down’ to a man named Johnson, at Shipley, who sold his watch to buy her for the above sum. This bargain was celebrated on the spot by the consumption of a lot of beer by Nanny, her new husband, and friends. She lived with Johnson for one year, during which she had one child, then ran away–finally marrying a man named Jim Smith, with whom she apparently lived happily for many years.

What fascinates me about this is how often it’s clearly a form of abuse—treating your wife like a commodity that can be traded for money or alcohol—but how sometimes it seems more like a form of consensual divorce…and how blurry the lines between the two are in a patriarchal society. One likes to imagine that the blacksmith who sold his wife to his journeyman with a legal document did it because his wife wanted to marry the journeyman, but we can’t ever know.

Has anyone ever seen a romance with this premise? I don’t count Mayor of Casterbridge!

9 thoughts on “The majority took the matter good-humoredly”

    1. Right? Hero is out and about, sees a pretty young woman offered for sale by her lout of a husband, buys her, she insists they’re now married, hijinx and romance ensue! First husband would have to die somehow for the HEA but that’s not hard to arrange.

  1. I read a novel last year based on this premise (it’s an older novel – I found it at the library). It’s called The Bride Sale by Candice Hern:
    I’d never heard of such a thing but immediately looked up more info online. Like any form of human-sale, it’s appalling and shocking to think anyone actually had to endure it. But I wonder if there was ever an element of “Thank God this horrible man’s getting rid of me because there’s at least a chance the next one will be better” for the women involved.
    Really thought-provoking post, Rose.

    1. Ooh, I like Candice Hern! I’ll have to check that out.
      I’m sure there were women who had all sorts of experiences and felt all sorts of ways about it, including positively, you know? Abuse is never simple. And you know, when divorce isn’t legally possible, people have to come up with SOMETHING. It’s like how in old novels you always have to root for bad husbands/wives to die, instead of just rooting for the h/h to leave them. People must have done that in real life! And it’s not really good to be rooting for a human being to die. The messed-up system can push you into these messed-up thought patterns that seem normal while you’re in them.

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