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IT WAS ONCE THOUGHT LEGAL by many country folk in rural Devon, that a man could sell his wife at public auction, providing certain procedures were adhered to.
These included putting a straw halter round her neck and leading her – gently – to the auction, having first announced publicly that both parties were agreed to end the marriage in this way: and importantly that the wife would then be bound to transfer her affections to the highest bidder.
Some wives went for a few pounds or even a few shillings: others for a pint of ale or a jug of gin or in one case, a few shillings and a dog.
The bid accepted, it was necessary for the buyer to then lead his new “wife” home by that same bridle and not remove it until the couple had crossed the threshold of her new abode. This, they believed, made everything legal and aboveboard.
This ‘quaint’ rural custom persisted in some parts of Devon especially mid and north Devon (less so in the south) until shortly before the Great War, the last wife sale in the county being recorded in the early 1900s by the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, the vicar of St. Peter’s Church, Lewtrenchard, near Okehampton.
He was an extraordinarily gifted man, happily married with a large family, an author, poet, gatherer of folk songs and composer and wrote Onward, Christian Soldiers. His was an ancient Devon family and his lifelong study of the county, its people and customs was extensive and he recorded and wrote about what he saw and heard throughout his long life (1834 – 1924).
On the subject of Wife Sales he wrote that “many such sales have taken place, and that this is so is due to rooted conviction in the rustic mind that such a transaction is legal and morally permissible”.
Sold! for half a crown
When he was a boy, he recalled, there was a man in his parish called Henry Frise who was ‘a village poet’. His verses, taken to the manor-house were rewarded with his dinner and a crown. He once used half of one of those payments to buy a wife at Okehampton market. Her name was Anne and having bid half a crown for her led her home still in her halter the twelve miles to his home, “she placidly, contentedly wearing the loop about her neck”.
“I must say that Anne proved an excellent “wife.” She was thrifty, clean, and managed a rough-tempered and rough-tongued man with great tact, and was generally respected. She died in or about 1843”.
Sold! for a jar of gin
Baring-Gould also recalled a publican, “who lived some miles off” who bought his wife for a stone two-gallon jar of Plymouth gin. She had belonged to a stonecutter, who became dissatisfied with her and put up a written notice in several public places to this effect:NOTICE
This here be to hinform the publick as how James Cole be dispozed to sell his wife by Auction. Her be a dacent, clanely woman, and be of age twenty-five ears. The sale be to take place in the New Inn, Thursday next at seven o’clock.
He held the sale, making the woman stand on a table, and he armed himself with a little hammer. The biddings were to be in kind and not in money. One man offered a coat, but as he was a small man and the seller was stout, when he found that the coat would not fit him, he refused it.
Another offered a “phisgie,” i.e. a pick, but this also was declined, as the husband possessed a “phisgie” of his own. Finally, the landlord offered a two-gallon jar of gin, and down fell the hammer with “Gone!”
The wife who bought herself
Henry Whitfield in his book Plymouth and Devonport in Times of War and Peace (1900) writes of how, in December, 1822, the Plymouth town crier was sent out and about in Modbury Market to announce that James Brooks was about to dispose of his wife by public auction. The lady was advertised as young and handsome and would arrive at the auction on horseback at precisely midday.
Sure enough the lady arrived, attended by the ostler of the Lord Exmouth public house and the husband invited the bidding. The first was for five shillings, then the sums offered mounted slowly to two pounds. Whereupon the ostler called out “Three pounds!” and she would have been knocked down to him had not two town watchmen intervened and escorted the pair to the Guildhall, followed by a crowd.
When the mayor took them to task, the husband declared that for the life of him he could not see that he was doing wrong. He and his wife had agreed to the sale, as they had not lived together for long, and were ill-assorted, and therefore desired fresh partners.
It transpired that the ostler was buying her at a reserved price, at which she had valued herself. There was a gentleman, the lady said, a Mr. K., whom she had expected to turn up and bid for her. “I was very much annoyed,” she told the mayor, ”to find that he had not kept his promise. But I was so determined to be loosed from Mr. Brooks, that when Mr. K. did not attend, I asked the ostler to buy me with my own money”.
The justices bound the loveless pair over in sureties to be of good behaviour, and dismissed them.
Unsold at 18 pence – and a tragedy
The Rev. W. H. Thornton, vicar of North Bovey, recalled: “In March of this year (1906), I was investigating in North Devon a remarkable instance of suicide, and a still more remarkable verdict thereon. My informant was an old poacher and fisherman, and speaking of the deceased, he said casually that he came of a curious family, and that he himself could well remember to have seen the dead man’s grandfather leading his grandmother on a halter to be sold by public auction in Great Torrington Market.
“The reserve price was fixed at eighteen pence, but as no one would give so much money, the husband had to take his wife home again and resume matrimonial intercourse. Children were born to them, and the ultimate result was the suicide”.
Sold! a wife and children – for beer
Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge, wherein a man sells his wife and child
The Reverend gentleman went on to say that shortly before he became the incumbent at North Bovey in 1868, “a man, whose name I can give, walked into Chagford, and there by private agreement sold his wife to another man for a quart of beer. When he returned home with the purchaser the woman repudiated the transaction, and, taking her two children with her, went off at once to Exeter, and only came back to attend her husband’s funeral, at which, unless I am mistaken, I officiated”.
Devon was not the only scene of these wife-sales, writes Baring-Gould, though they were probably more common here than elsewhere and listed several other instances “to relieve Devon of exclusive discredit in such matters”.
Sold! for 20 shillings and a dog
In 1832 a farmer in Carlisle named Joseph Thomson sold his wife of three years for 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog.
He placed her on a chair, with a rope of straw round her neck and then, according to the editor of The Carlisle Annual Register made the following announcement:
”GENTLEMEN, I have to offer to your notice, my wife, Mary Anne Thomson, otherwise Williams, whom I mean to sell to the highest and fairest bidder. Gentlemen, it is her wish as well as mine to part for ever. She has been to me only a born serpent. I took her for my comfort, and the good of my home; but she became my tormentor, a domestic curse.
“Gentlemen, I speak the truth from my heart when I say may God deliver us from troublesome wives and frolicsome women! Avoid them as you would a mad dog, or a roaring lion, a loaded pistol, cholera morbus, Mount Etna, or any other pestilential thing in nature. Now I have shown you the dark side of my wife, and told you her faults and failings, I will introduce the bright and sunny side of her, and explain her qualifications and goodness.
“She can read novels and milk cows; she can laugh and weep with the same ease that you could take a glass of ale when thirsty. She can make butter and scold the maid; she can sing Moore’s melodies, and plait her frills and caps; she cannot make rum, gin, or whisky, but she is a good judge of the quality from long experience in tasting them. I therefore offer her with all her perfections and imperfections for the sum of fifty shillings.”
An hour later she was knocked down to one Henry Mears, for twenty shillings and a Newfoundland dog. Mr. and Mrs. Thomson then parted company in perfect good humour, Mears and his new “wife” one way, Thomson, his 20 shillings and the dog the other.
The chambermaid who became a Duchess
Finally and in complete contrast there is the extraordinary instance of Mrs Anne Jeffries, a chambermaid at the Pelican Inn, Newbury, who was unhappily married to a Mr. Jeffries the ostler there.
It was the late 1730s when Lord Henry Brydges, second Duke of Chandos, having stopped off at the inn to dine whilst on his way to London, had his meal interrupted by a commotion in the inn yard. Jeffries the ostler had led his wife into the yard with a halter round her neck and was offering her up for sale.
So smitten with Anne’s beauty “and the patient way she waited to be set free from her ill-conditioned husband”, and notwithstanding that he was already married, the good Duke bought her for himself for half a crown (12½p).
She was his mistress for some years. In August 1738 his wife died, and by 1744 the ostler was dead also, and so the two were finally married in London on Christmas Day, 1744.
A noble contemporary said of her, “Of her person and character people speak variously, but all agree that both were very bad.” She died in 1759, after which Chandos married again. Of the noble Duke it was the King himself, George II who said of him, “there goes a hot headed, passionate, half-witted coxcomb.” So hardly a love match there then.
True love, everlasting
But if you seek a happy ending in the midst of all these terrible goings-on you should look no further than to the life and love of the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould himself who did so much to record them for posterity.
When he was a very young curate he met Grace Taylor, the daughter of a mill hand, then aged fourteen. In the next few years they fell in love. His vicar, John Sharp, arranged for Grace to live for two years with relatives in York, “to learn middle-class manners”.
He and Grace were married in 1868, they had 15 children and their marriage lasted until her death 48 years later. . When he buried his wife in 1916 he had carved on her tombstone the Latin motto Dimidium Animae Meae which translates as “Half my Soul”.
He did not remarry and died on 2 January 1924 at their home at Lewtrenchard and is buried there at St. Peter’s Church, next to his wife.