Thomas Rowlandson, Selling a Wife, 1812 – 1814
A ‘disgraceful transaction’ took place at Windsor (New South Wales, Australia) in 1811. Ralph Malkin, transported in 1801, put a rope around his wife and led her down the street seeking a buyer. He found one. Thomas Quire stumped up 16 pounds on the spot, plus a few yards of cloth.
While the better classes of society were outraged at such a ‘gross violation of decency’, wife selling was a custom practiced throughout Britain since at least the 16th century. And not only by the common folk. The 2ndDuke of Chandos is said to have purchased his second wife around 1740 and many recorded cases of the custom involve tradesmen and skilled men as the purveyors of their spouses. While the practice was not legal, it was commonly believed to be so and there was often a reluctance by magistrates to prosecute cases, particularly as, it was claimed, the women involved were agreeable to being sold.
By the time Ralph Malkin decided to offer his wife to the highest bidder in Windsor, the custom was increasingly frowned on by public opinion. The writer of the letter in which the event is recorded used words like ‘shameful’ and ‘contemptible to describe the seller and the buyer of Mrs Malkin.
But all was not as it might seem to contemporary or modern sensibilities. For a wife selling to proceed, the woman had to agree to be sold. Research on this custom indicates that in quite a few cases the women were sold to men who were already their lovers. It seems that wife selling was a form of folk divorce at a time when the average person could not afford such proceedings, or even access the legal means to achieve that state.
Prices paid for wives exchanged by this custom varied from a high of 100 pounds down to three farthings. There are even cases where wives were given away free or for a glass of beer. The price was not as important as the fact that the sale took place in public, usually a market, fair or public house. This ensured the presence of plenty of witnesses to validate the transaction. Popular participation and approval was an important element of the custom and, in some incidents, magistrates seeking to stop a wife sale were driven away by the crowd and on others the crowd refused to allow a sale to proceed if the woman was not agreeable.
An occasional reason for sale was that the wife was simply fed up with the husband, as in the case of a wife sold in Wenlock Market, Shropshire in 1830. When her husband showed signs of cold feet at the last minute she reportedly flipped her apron in his face and said ‘Let be yer rogue. I wull be sold. I wants a change.’
|Selling a Wife at Smithfield Market, 1816
In the case of the Windsor event, Mrs Malkin (who is never named) was thought to be: ‘… so devoid of the feelings which are so justly deemed the most valuable in her sex, agreed to the base traffic, and went off with the purchaser, significantly hinting that she had no doubt that her new possessor would make her a better husband than the wretch she thus parted from.’ Which was the long-winded nineteenth century way of saying that she not only agreed to be sold but that she thought the new husband was a whole lot better than the old one.
While everyone involved in this transaction was seemingly perfectly happy with it, the local bench of magistrates investigated and determined that a breach of some law had taken place. And in any case, the three ‘base wretches’ involved quite readily admitted to their crime, if it was one. Ralph Malkin received fifty lashes and three months hard labour in irons. His wife – or ex-wife – was transported to the Coal River (Newcastle) for an indefinite period. There seems to be no record of any proceedings against Mrs Malkin’s purchaser.
Wives continued to be sold in Australia. There was a case in the Swan River colony in 1839 and another on the Mount Alexander goldfield in 1861:
‘Last Saturday week a miner residing near Cockatoo discovered that his wife was untrue to him, the gay Lothario being a miner named Sam. The latter party, a cool sort of customer, informed the husband that a row would bring no gain to either party, and that perhaps an arrangement satisfactory to both parties might be effected. The husband offered to sell his wife, tent, cooking utensils for £5.- Sam agreed to the terms, paid the money, and the husband departed.’
But Sam soon tired of his new spouse, a woman of twenty-seven years and reportedly ‘not by any means destitute of personal attractions’. He went in search of another buyer and soon found a miner willing to pay two pounds for the lady.
The belief that wife selling was legal persisted for a long time. Nineteenth century newspapers frequently pointed out that it was a ‘popular error’ but there was a recorded sale in England as late as 1913.
The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 March 1862, p. 2, surveying wife selling in England from 1766 to the 1830s.
Geoffrey C Ingleton, True Patriots All, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1952, p. 58; Bruce Kercher, Debt, Seduction and Other Disasters: The Birth of Civil Law in Convict New South Wales, Federation Press, 1996 pp. 66-7; ‘Wife Selling’, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary if English Folklore, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, p. 390. There is a treatment of wife selling in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge(1886) and an excellent article by Lauren Padgett, ‘Brutal exhibitions of depravity’: 19th Century Wife-selling in Literature, Illustrations and Practice’ at http://www.leedstrinity.ac.uk/blogs/leeds-centre-for-victorian-studies/19th-century-wife-selling-in-literature-illustrations-and-practice, accessed August 2018.
The Perth and Independent Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, 24 January 1862, p. 3 (in article on state of the colony in 1939).Mount Alexander Mail, 7 June, 1861, P. 5 (reprinted from the North West Chronicle).
Dance’s Historical Miscellany at http://www.danceshistoricalmiscellany.com/id-sell-my-wife-if-anybody-would-buy-her-wife-sales-in-england/, accessed August 2018.