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Wife selling - a forgotten Cornish custom

Would it surprise you to learn that the practice of wife selling was particularly popular in the 17th century? Divorce was almost impossible for anyone but the very rich and as a consequence some husbands sort rather a interesting alternative solution. This bizarre practice was apparently more common in rural counties such as Cornwall and Devon. Indeed folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould dedicated a whole chapter to wife selling in his book Devonshire Characters and Strange Events .

‘There is no myth relative to the manners and customs of the English that in my experience is more tenaciously held by the ordinary Frenchman than that the sale of a wife in the market place is an habitual and an accepted fact in English Life.’ SBG, 1908

The practice of selling your wife was never legal, or indeed morally acceptable, but it is clear that these transactions did occur. And not on such an irregular basis that they can be brushed under the carpet as a rare social anomaly and there is a number of fascinating cases in Cornwall’s history. Cases when Cornish men took their wives to market, not to do the shopping but as the produce!

Given that the practice wasn’t ever legal the sale of a wife had a number of surprisingly well established rituals.

Usually an announcement of the intended auction would be spread either by word of mouth, printed on posters or even in the local press. The husband might advertise his wife’s positive attributes, her abilities as a cook or as a farm-worker perhaps. On the appointed day the husband would parade his wife, usually at a marketplace. The lady was traditionally haltered with a leather strap at the neck, arm or waist. Then the wife was simply sold to the highest bidder. Sometimes a written contract was exchanged as proof of the transaction. Often the deal was completed with just the handing over of the money and a handshake.

It’s fortunately an almost incomprehensible scene to us these days. But it may surprise you to know that the selling or auctioning of your wife occurred in British society for hundreds of years. In the words of 20th-century writer Courtney Kenny, the ritual was “a custom rooted sufficiently deeply to show that it was of no recent origin”. Harpers Magazine, 1876.

Certainly until the marriage laws began to change in 1857 it was frequently the cheapest, and more often the only option, available to unhappy couples. We should remember that many wives were actually complicit in their sale. Eager perhaps to escape an unhappy marriage, to get a second chance. Some wives probably had no objection to getting rid of their husbands!

Wife selling became more frequently reported with the advent of newspapers in the 18th century. There were some prosecutions but these seem to have been few and far between. And despite the fact that the custom had no real basis in law bizarrely it did persist into the 20th century. There was a report of one wife being sold as late as 1901.

The Sale of Cornish Women

The following incidents were reported in the local and national newspapers and all occurred over a period of roughly 35 years, between 1818 and 1853.  Some of the newspaper reports contain no names, perhaps to protect those involved. But these articles still provide enough detail for us to be confident that they are based on fact.

Bodmin Market 

In November 1818 a man named Walter arrived at Bodmin Market. Following along behind him was his wife. The report says he was leading her by a halter fastened neatly around her waist. Walter moved to the centre of the market place, amongst the stalls and stinking animal pens, and then unashamedly offered his wife up for sale.  The West Briton newspaper reported the outcome of the auction in the following edition on 13th November 1818:

A person called Sobey, who has lately been discharged from the 28th Regiment, bid sixpence for her and was immediately declared the purchaser. He led off his bargain in triumph, amidst the shouts of the crowd, and to the great apparent satisfaction of her late owner.

Sixpence was a tiny amount of money even then. In 1818 it was less than a day’s wages for a skilled labourer and is about the equivalent of £1.50 in today’s money.

St Austell Market 

In 1835 George Trethewey lived at High Street Downs in St Stephens-in-Brannel with his wife Susan and their son William. Born in 1779, George was a small man, just 5’3″, with dark eyes, no front teeth and he was twenty years older than his wife. But George must have had hidden charms because as well as being married to Susan he was having an affair with a woman called Ann Cundy. The liaison resulted in a child, which Ann named after George. The birth of the child seems to have led George to decide it might be time to do something about his situation. So he went to St Austell Market to sell Susan. The West Briton reported what happened next on 27th March 1835:

On Friday last, the people assembled at St. Austell market were surprised by the appearance of a man of advancing age leading a woman about thirty, by a halter which was tied round her waist.

George, then fifty-six years old, offered his wife to the highest bidder. Amongst the crowd were two travelling salesmen or tinkers. One of them offered two pence and then the other doubled the bid. George took the four pence and handed his wife over. Apparently the lady and her purchaser then hurried off to the nearest pub for a jug of ale. Unfortunately for George he was caught by the collector of tolls at the market. The official made him pay the fee usually demanded for selling a pig for the sale of Susan!

Sadly George and Ann Cundy’s relationship did not have a happy ending. In May 1842 George Trethewey was sent to Bodmin Goal for 2 months for ‘willful damage’ to Ann’s house. It was his 4th similar offence. Perhaps Susan really did have a lucky escape.

Redruth Fair

A rather strange episode which occurred in Redruth demonstrates that the wives, for various reasons, were sometimes totally complicit in their sale.  In 1967 the two authors of The Folklore of Cornwall, Tony Dean and Tony Shaw received a letter from a 79 year old man from Camborne. In the letter the writer described himself as an ex-rabbit-trapper and horse-breaker, who had begun work at the age of 12. He then went on to relate a story that he had been told by his mother. Contemporary newspaper reports also confirm his tale. He writes:

“One man from Redruth would sell his wife to the highest bidder at a local fair. She would then wait until her purchaser was asleep, kill him and steal his money before returning to her husband. No one knew how often the pair succeeded with their evil game but eventually the wife was killed by the daughter of one of the victims.”

Callington Market

A report in 1846 of the auction of a woman in Callington also goes someway further to illustrate that this behaviour was not considered normal or acceptable by some.

On Wednesday night about nine o’clock in the evening a man sold his wife in the open market at Callington for the sum of 2s 6d. We do not learn that either the authorities or the public interfered to prevent so disgraceful a scene. West Briton, January 1846.

St Germans

On a bright July morning in 1853 a couple stood before the Bodmin Registrar ready to take their vows. The registrar Mr. Elias H Liddell admitted however that he had some concerns. Since the reading of the bands he had been informed that the woman before him was already married to someone else. The would-be groom, a navvy from Bodmin, then produced a certificate showing that he had recently bought his intended from her first husband for £1. The transaction had taken place somewhere near St Germans.

Mr Liddell was forced to explain that the document was not worth the paper it was written on. He refused to marry the couple and threatened them with transportation for the crime of bigamy. Apparently the thwarted couple went away most disappointed. One wonders if the navvy asked for a refund of his pound!


This particular incident, which happened in February 1828, is the only one found in Cornwall in which the law seems to have been involved. in some small way. John Cook was asked to attend the Petty Sessions at Five Lanes by the overseers of the parish of Tintagel. He was accused of ‘not maintaining his wife and children’. When asked to explain his behaviour he told the court the following. Cook explained to the magistrates that in around 1812 he had been living unhappily with his wife for a number of years. Having no children with her he had decided to sell her at Camelford market. A man had purchased her there for half-a-crown. Since that time Cook said he had had nothing more to do with her. She had been living with the purchaser and together they had had seven children.

Unfortunately for John Cook his wife and her new family had fallen on hard times and had been forced to apply to the parish for relief (monetary help). And now because wife selling was against the law the magistrates held him reasonable for the support of his wife . . . and all the children!

Many thanks to The Cornish Bird for her blog from which this fascinating story was edited.


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Updated on January 27th, 2013

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