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Did Men Used to Sell their Wives? . . . Yes!

Sell Your Wife & Save Money !
Divorce is expensive, it generally costs a man a lot of money to part with a wife.
As always, history has a lot to offer, including a way to get divorced on the cheap.
Put your wife up for public auction

Q: What happened in Barton-Upon-Humber in 1847
A: The last time a woman was sold at Public Auction

This snippet of information was all I had from an article in The Times - I couldn’t leave that one
Having looked into it it turns out to be a Poor Man’s method of divorce.

Lawyers were ever expensive so in order to get divorced there has been an unofficial method dating back to the 1400s.
This is how it was done in Barton-Upon-Humber . . .

St Peter’s Church Barton-Upon-Humber & Saxon Tower
I took this on a beautiful day a couple of months ago
Perhaps this is where they got married ?!

George Wray, from Barrow I believe, made a public announcement that he would be offering his wife for sale by public auction at the Barton Market.
By way of tradition the wife was led to market by a halter tied round her waist.
Mrs Wray was then sold to William Harwood for the princely sum of 1s 3½d !

This is nothing like as barbaric as it sounds - it was agreed to by the 3 parties concerned.
The idea was based around the laws that strictly govern Market Places in Britain.
Because it became a legal sale and was witnessed by Market Officials it could then be attested to have taken place - albeit of no legal standing in national terms, more about local acceptability.

The incident landed the 2 men up before the beak and so came about the end of this tradition.
It would be interesting to know if such things were confined more to rural areas or whether it was something also seen in cities or large towns.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this unusual historical aside from Lincolnshire
All the best

Other related articles: How to Buy a Wife ~ St Peter’s Church


  1. Peter Mullins said,

    January 22, 2013 @ 7:16 pm

    Forty years later Thomas Hardy includes an example of this in his ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’, so he appears to have had at least a folk memory of the sort of thing which had been going on in Barton-on-Humber. People probably under estimate how informal a large number of particularly lower class marriage arrangements have been over time - the frequent church attempts to regularlise this and the state attempt to do so particularly from the middle of the eighteenth century actually witness to this.

  2. veronica said,

    January 22, 2013 @ 7:45 pm

    Yes as Peter says , the Thomas Hardy novel The Mayor of Casterbridge written 1886 is based on such an event in a rural community in Wessex ; so it must have been fairly known and widespread even though illegal .

    In 1830’s Somerset, the custom was to place the halter around a wife’s neck not her waist and lead her to the market place and invite bids.

    One example I found was Sheffield in May 1889 when a Salvation Army member sold his wife for 1 shilling. The sale agreed, her husband put a halter around her neck and lead her to her new ‘husband’s’ house.

    The latest example though was in 1891 when a Lancashire man sold his wife for 18d. The new ‘husband’ went to collect her with a halter and she refused to go.

    There was however an account of a woman in Totnes Devon about a woman who sold her husband on Saturday August 23rd 1824. She brought him to Totnes market with a kerchief about his neck and he was bought by a 60 year old woman for 2s.

    I doubt I’d get anything if I put Mr M up for auction.

  3. Amiguru said,

    January 22, 2013 @ 10:34 pm


    Its closer to home than that too! Our old and reliable legal friend, Anderson Bates, relates in 1893 that:

    One has heard of wife selling; such a sale was effected here [Grimsby] during the cleaning out of the Old Dock, in 1826, by a naavy, who took his wife, having a halter round her neck, into the open market, on a market day, and offered her for sale. She was purchased by another naavy for a small sum and a quart of ale; the parties retiring to the ‘Black Swan’ to settle the purchase. There is now living an old freeman who was present at the sale.

    Echoes of V’s quotes methinks! :)

  4. Rod said,

    January 23, 2013 @ 7:19 am

    wonderful, love the literary connection.
    For me, especially re-enforced after reading what Peter said, this is all about local community acceptability.
    My guess is , once this tradition had been gone through then all those locals would accept that the marriage was over and both parties free to ‘marry’ again.

    I wonder how the church dealt with somebody it has already married wanting to re-marry under these circumstances ?

  5. Rod said,

    January 23, 2013 @ 7:23 am

    some great examples, many thanks indeed.
    It’s interesting to see that, as you mention, this was clearly known.
    I suspect the only legal issue that would arise is if either party decided to re-marry then it would be bigamy

  6. v said,

    January 23, 2013 @ 7:23 am

    As in The Mayor of Casterbridge, most men were reported to regret the action when they had sobered up . Beer was almost always involved.

    I would think however it was a great escape for women as it was so difficult to escape a useless husband at that time.

  7. Rod said,

    January 23, 2013 @ 7:25 am

    what a find !
    Wife selling in Grimsby . . . spot on.

    There is now living an old freeman who was present at the sale
    That could be me ;)

    It’s such a shame these old traditions die out :)

  8. v said,

    January 23, 2013 @ 7:45 am

    I suppose, looking at it historically, it died out a few years before World War 1. This war was a major turning point and improvement for working class women in that they became independent, had no longer had any need to be dependent on men for their survival, in fact ….didn’t need a husband. Women’s suffrage also arose out of this.

    As my husband knows, if I hadn’t had him in my life, guess what…. I would have still survived and had a home and job. I have told him this on the odd occasion over the years. Once or twice, maybe, perhaps.

  9. Ariadne said,

    August 6, 2014 @ 4:00 pm


    This custom is also mentioned by Bernard Cowell in the Sharpe series (I think it was in Sharpe’s Waterloo, at least as it was presented in the DVD). When Sharpe confronts the aristocrat who has an affair with his wife, he mentions that back home in Yorkshire men used to sell their wives if they were not pleased with them. The other man later mentions this to someone else, calling the country folk “animals”. But it seems it was not just in Yorkshire, as one would expect, but in much better places as

    Kind regards,

  10. Rod said,

    August 6, 2014 @ 6:50 pm

    I remember the episode well, I’ve got the box set still somewhere and have watched them all several times in years past - great series.
    You’ve got the goods on Yorkshire, Ariadne - there’s some funny goings on up there :)

  11. v said,

    August 6, 2014 @ 7:34 pm


    Yorkshire is very beautiful; coast, moorland, castles, museums, Romans, Vikings, beaches, ruined abbeys. Yorkshire Tea. The recent Yorkshire leg of the tour de France showed that.

    Well worth a visit.

  12. Ariadne said,

    August 6, 2014 @ 7:57 pm


    You’re absolutely right. I was there some years ago and I loved it! But the noble host seems to think otherwise, and I don’t want to upset him (as I ‘ve done over other matters). I’m sure you’re in a much better position to help him.


  13. minnie said,

    August 6, 2014 @ 9:54 pm

    I can remember reading of two local cases of wife selling - one in Louth and another in Caistor (trying to find references now). The Caistor one I particularly remember because I found it whilst looking up information on the Spalding/Pinchbeck workhouse. The couple came from Caistor area and the husband had sold the wife to keep them both out of Caistor workhouse when he had found himself unable to work (I seem to recall he was injured in some accident). I dont know what happened to the wife but the husband ended his days in the Spalding workhouse some time later.

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