Musings on the Historical Evidence of Wife-Selling in 19th Century England

There are a variety of reasons why a historian might consider a primary source to be misleading. The author may have had a vested interest in portraying an event in a certain way, or may have been somehow impaired in his or her ability to observe or reflect upon the event. Likewise, the historian might misinterpret the choice of language or allusion within the piece because he or she comes to it with a very different set of experiences and expectations from those of the original author or audience.

There is also the issue of satire.

My current sub-project, as those of you who attended the Social History Society Conference this Monday will know, is the manner in which early nineteenth-century female emigration was portrayed in the Scottish newspaper press. I argued that despite a sizable number of serious discussions, Scottish editors also had a penchant for satirical or otherwise flippant portrayals. These ranged from the outright satirical to more subtle jibes about the fairer sex (or their pursuers) within ostensibly straightforward accounts.

Among the many pieces I encountered was the following, printed in the Scotsman and attributed to the Lancaster Herald on 2 May 1832.

SALE OF A WIFE BY HER HUSBAND AT CARLISLE.
(From the Lancaster Herald.)

On Saturday the 7th instant, the inhabitants of this city witnessed the sale of a wife by her husband, Joseph Thompson, who resides in a small village about three miles from this city. He rents a farm of about forty-two or forty-four acres, and was married at Hexham, in the year 1829, to his present wife. She is a spruce, lively, buxom damsel, apparently not exceeding 22 years of age, and appeared to feel a pleasure at the exchange she was about o make. They had no children during their union, and that, together with some family disputes, caused them by mutual agreement, to come to the resolution of finally parting. Accordingly, the bellman was sent round to give public notice of the sale, which was to take place at 12 o’clock. This announcement attracted the notice of thousands. She appeared above the crowd, standing on a large oak chair, surrounded by many of her friends, with a rope or halter made of straw round her neck. She was dressed in rather a fashionable country style, and appeared to some advantage. The husband, who was also standing in an elevated position near her, proceeded to put her up for sale, and spoke nearly as follows:–

“Gentlemen,–I have to offer you notice my wife, Mary Ann Thompson, otherwise Williamson, whom I mean to sell to the highest and fairest bidder. Gentlemen, is is her wish as well as mine to part for ever. She has been to me only a bosom serpent. I took her for my comfort, and the good of my house, but she has become my tormentor, a domestic curse, a night invasion, and a daily devil. (Great laughter.) Gentlemen, I speak truth from my heart, when I say, ma God deliver us from troublesome wives and frolicsome widows. (Laughter.) Avoid them the same as you would a mad dog, a roaring lion, a loaded pistol, cholera morbus, Mount Etna, or any other pestilential phenomena in nature. Now I have shown you the dark side of my wife, and told you her faults and her failings, I will now 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 week with the same ease that you could take a class 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 week, and 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 imperfection, for the sum of fifty shillings.”

After an hour or two, she was purchased by Henry Mears, a pensioner, for the sum of 20s. and a Newfoundland dog. The happy couple immediately left town together, amidst the shouts and huzzas of the multitude, in which they were joined by Thompson, who, with the greatest good humour imaginable, proceeded to put the halter, which his wife had taken off, round the neck of his Newfoundland dog, and then proceeded to the first public-house, where he spent the remainder of the day.

Upon initial inspection, I believed the piece to be clearly satirical. The supplying of surnames was, at first, intriguing, but their commonality, and my inability to examine Lancaster’s parish records at this time, suggested to me that they were likely apocryphal. As this was a case of internal migration, rather than emigration, I set it aside for some future date when time would permit further inquiry. Yet, as I continued through the Scotsman, the piece nagged at me.   Had I discounted the piece as satire simply because I did not believe the practice of wife-selling was possible in 1829? Was I being presumptions?

I did not, as I said, have the ability to travel to Lancaster to search for the Thompsons in the archival record, but I felt they deserved at least a quick search through electronic databases at my disposal.  Nothing more appeared in the digitized press, except the same account in other reprinted incarnations. The secondary literature was more promising, as the practice of wife-selling, or rather, of extra-legal separation and divorce, was indeed practiced at this time.  The Thompson’s themselves, however, remained elusive. As a final effort before returning the article to my ‘someday’ pile, I did a simple, unencumbered Google search of the title and protagonists.

A single page was returned–a transcription from Chamber’s Journal (1861) on WikisourceChamber’s having been otherwise digitized, I was able to quickly authenticate the transcription as accurate.  The content, however, astounded me. According to the author

It is well known that the Englishman of French novels, plays, and essays, is a different creation to the real being who talks upon ‘Change, and rides after the hounds, on this side of the Channel. The former compels the first maiden he meets in a casual walk to marry him, after half-an-hour’s acquaintance; he puts a halter round her next, and sells her in the cattle-market, as soon as he is tired of her; and in November, getting full of yellow fog, and tired also of himself, he throws himself into the Thames. A French essayist of the last century accused the English of making an institution of suicide. ‘They kill themselves on the slightest occasion,’ says he, ‘and often merely to annoy one another.’ This last accusation — thanks to Jean Jacques Rousseau and ‘sensibility’ — soon began to fit the countrymen of M. de Doux far better than ourselves. The first of these alleged Anglican customs is ridiculously untrue. To the second custom, however — wife-selling — we are bound to plead a certain, though ridiculously small, amount of guilt. Some Englishmen actually have sold their wives; and my purpose here is to record a few of the sales of this article that have taken place in our country during the last hundred years.

The piece continued with a number of accounts, from 1766 to the 1830s, of Englishmen selling their wives in various fashions. All had seemingly verifiable personal details, including dates, surnames and locations, and all came to the same conclusion–wife-selling was indeed practiced under George III in the manner described above. While I may someday check up on the Higginsons, and Whitehouses, and Griffiths, and Waddiloves, and Brooks, it was the analysis of our young Mr and Mrs Thompson that interested me then.

The next instance I have to chronicle, although it took place ten years later, and so near our time as 1832, seems to have escaped magisterial notice. Joseph Thompson, a small farmer, renting between forty and fifty acres, lived at a village three miles from the city of Carlisle. He had been married about three years. He had no children. He and his wife could not agree. There was a continual soreness between the Montagues and Capulets, his family and hers. These three things made them resolve to part. So, on the 7th of April, early in the morning, Mr Thompson sent round the bellman to give notice that a man would sell his wife at twelve o’clock in the market. The odd announcement, of course, drew together a considerable mob. The lady placed herself upon a high oaken chair, with a halter of straw about her neck, and a large circle of relatives and friends around her. The husband-auctioneer stood beside her, and spoke, says my authority, nearly as follows:

‘Gentlemen, I have to offer to your notice my wife, Mary Ann Thompson, otherwise Williamson, whom I mean to sell to the highest and fairest bidder. Gentlemen, it his her wish as well as mine to part for ever. She has been to me only a bosom-serpent. I took her for my comfort and the good of my house, 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 Heaven deliver us from troublesome wives. Avoid them as you would a mad dog, a loaded pistol, cholera morbus, Mount Etna, or any other pestilential phenomena in nature. Now I have shewn you the dark side of my wife, and 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, and 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.’

As you can see, his ‘authority’ is that same article within the Lancaster Herald–or rather The Whitehaven Herald and Cumberland Advertiser, which he declared was a faithful reprinting of the Lancaster original. The story is somewhat expanded, and the bard invoked, but is materially the same as that which appeared in the Scotsman. What is most interesting, however, is how the new commentator reacted to the piece.

The reporter, I fancy, must have dressed up this speech. Remembering that the goods and the auctioneer were a not very rich north-country farmer and farmer’s wife, it is difficult to believe that she had the kind of accomplishments mentioned in the speech, or that he really uttered this speech.

The authenticity of the language is therefore questioned, but the event itself remains unchallenged.

So, what does this mean for my transcription? Does it go into a pile of satirical accounts of marriage, migration and divorce? The work of Rachel Vaessen, who studies the symbolic and cultural meaning of Wife-Sale representations, seems to suggest it should. Or does it move into my stack of factual accounts, supporting my examination of female migration and husband-hunting?

All I am sure of is that the next time I read a student’s analysis of a primary source that boldly declares something to be true because it is a ‘primary source’, perhaps I should not be so quick to judge!

**Image courtesy of SalFalko

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