So, when we heard about wife selling in Herefordshire we were more than a bit intrigued and had to find out more.
Apparently it was quite commonplace in Hereford well into the 19th century for husbands to sell their wives by public auction. They would bring her to Hereford market with a rope around her neck or waist. So that she could be led away post sale by the buyer/new husband.
The interesting thing is neither the husband, wife or onlookers seemed to think it was strange. It was accepted practice. A local magistrate was purported to say that he did not have the right to prevent wife sales. So it carried on. It was seen as a simple way of ending an unsatisfactory marriage by mutual agreement. Some husbands were forced to sell their wives to remove the burden of care from the workhouses.
Sometimes the wife would be sold just for money. In some cases additional food or drink would be included to enhance the offer. However the custom had no basis in law. Frequently it resulted in prosecution as it was seen as a convenient way to remedy an unhappy marriage or change of circumstances. How pragmatic. We always wondered why Hereford market was so popular, now we know!
Wife Selling in Herefordshire Photo: Courtesy of the British Museum
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