Until the 20thcentury divorce was virtually unknown. Although divorce did exist cases were rare and only then among the upper echelons of society. However, there were alternative methods of disposing of an unsuitable spouse. One such method was the custom of wife-selling, a somewhat bizarre practice that seems to have originated during the 17th century.
This involved the husband publicly auctioning his wife to the highest bidder. This, however, was not as chauvinistic as it might first appear. It would seem that some wives welcomed the prospect of being able to free themselves from a less than suitable husband. Indeed, a few cases even suggest that it was the wife who sometimes instigated her own sale!
This unorthodox although not illegal method of separation increased in popularity during the 18th and 19thcenturies, especially among the lower classes. In rare instances the practice even continued into the early 20thcentury. Clergyman and Justices of the Peace were largely unperturbed by these transactions as long as the wife was in agreement.
Most sales took the form of an auction which usually attracted a crowd of onlookers. With ceremonial pomp the wife would be led to the auction by a halter around either her neck or waist. This was usually a large convenient area making the act a very public affair. The halter was passed to the successful bidder, representing that the wife was no longer the property of the original husband, and that he was no longer financially responsible for her.
Sometimes the bidder was already known to the wife, possibly being her lover. To this extent the sale offered a convenient method in which a humiliated husband could dispose of an unfaithful wife. Amounts were not large, usually ranging from between five shillings to a couple of pounds, although it was not unknown for some wives to be exchanged for a quantity of ale. This was especially true when the venue was the local tavern.
An example of this curious custom taking place locally, although with an unusual twist, occurred in Cheadle on June 13th1763. Thomas Moss lived with his wife Mary within the parish of Cheadle. In 1758 this farmer enlisted in one of His Majesty’s regiments of dragoons. Shortly afterwards he was sent to Germany leaving Mary behind. After Thomas had been in Germany for some time, a group of her husband’s friends informed Mary that they had received a letter saying that Thomas was dead.
Sometime afterwards Mary remarried, considering this to be the most prudent way to bring up the child that she was left with. Her new husband was John Keeling, a yeoman farmer from the village of Milwich.
However, in May 1763, something that Mary would never have believed possible happened – her original husband Thomas returned. It came to light that the letter stating Thomas’s death had been instigated by Thomas himself, which was confirmed by a number of his acquaintances.
His return to Cheadle understandably caused ‘great differences and distress’ for Mary, as well as her new husband. This was only made worse when both husbands claimed to be married to Mary. To help rectify the situation both men had a legally-binding document drawn up. This ‘Articles of Agreement’ declared that Keeling should pay Moss the sum of £2 2s. For this sum Moss had to ‘denounce all claim and demand’ on Mary, and to acknowledge her to be the true wife of John Keeling. Both men, unable to write, made their marks on the document, and the money exchanged hands.
Cases such as these always produce more questions than answers. Was Thomas tired of his wife? Was this the reason he originally joined the army to escape the confinement of marriage? Returning to his native parish, and on hearing of his wife’s remarriage, did Thomas see this as an opportunity to make a bit of money?
Because these individuals do not appear in any other litigation it may be supposed than John and Mary lived ‘happily ever after.’ Likewise, Thomas may have settled down to farming in Cheadle or drifted away again. Their lives have passed into the history of the market town which in 1763 sold a very different kind of livestock.