In April 1832, Joseph Thomson, a farmer, went into Carlisle with his wife and announced his intention to sell her by auction.
Mrs Thomson was seated in a large oak chair, with a rope or halter around her neck, and as a large crowd gathered, he made the following speech:
“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, a night invasion, and a daily devil. Gentlemen, I speak 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, a roaring lion, a loaded pistol, cholera morbus, Mount Etna, or any other pestilential thing in nature.
“Now I have shewn 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. Indeed, gentlemen, she reminds me of what the poet says of women in general:
Heaven gave to women the peculiar grace,
To laugh, to weep, to cheat the human race.
“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.”
After an hour, Mrs Thomson was sold to one Henry Mears for £1 and a Newfoundland dog.
That story first appeared in the Annual Register for 1832, got picked up by Chambers Book of Days (1864) and has occasionally reappeared in funny historical anecdote collections and articles ever since. It’s generally written up as a one-off, but it was nothing of the sort.
In fact, it was customary in many parts of England for a husband whose marriage wasn’t working out to his satisfaction, to take his wife to market with a halter – usually a rope, but sometimes a ribbon – around her neck or waist and to auction her, usually for a nominal sum. The buyer would then lead his new acquisition home by the halter, only removing it when she had crossed the threshold of her new home. This tradition plainly persisted in rural areas well into the 1800s. While it’s clear that some of the men involved were feckless thugs and idiots, there are also plenty of cases in which the wife was plainly willing to take her chances on a new husband.
It’s an interesting illustration of how fluid the definition of marriage used to be among the working classes until church and state stepped in to control things. Indeed, the custom was common enough for the French church to hold it up as an example of the Godless ways of the Protestant English and their slovenly attitude to the sacrament of marriage.
I can find no authoritative report of the Carlisle case – the speech and the price suggest it might well be an embellished (or completely invented) account by some would-be humorist looking to entertain his readers with the quaint ways of the peasantry.
However, the briefest search of local newspaper reports from the first half of the 19th century turns up a fair few accounts of wife auctions from all over the country all following a similar set of rituals. Contrary to the “humorous” overtones of the Carlisle story, every single newspaper account you come across in the 1800s is outraged that such a barbarous practice can still go on in this day and age.
It didn’t always go as the husband planned it, either. In Halifax in 1836, we read that the wife was so incensed that she beat her would-be seller about the face “till the blood flew about”.
Chambers Book of Days claims there was a case in 1835 when a woman was sold, outlived both old and new partners and then successfully went to court to claim her first husband’s property as she was his widow.