Wife Selling at Smithfield Market

Nekane Cherrie, City Information Centre
A wife being sold at Smithfield Market, London, 1816
©London Metropolitan Archives

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, when divorce was extremely expensive and time- consuming, some lower-class British people could not afford it  -the solution? They sold their wives in public places like fairs or markets instead.

This unconventional practice also took place at London’s Smithfield Market, today City of London’s only major wholesale market, that operates to supply inner City butchers, shops and restaurants with quality fresh meat.

Although wife-selling wasn’t technically legal, the way it unfolded in public made it valid in the eyes of many.

Take for instance, Joseph Thompson, a farmer, who allegedly sold his wife in April 1832. 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 a nominal amount 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.

Wife sales largely ended in 1857 when divorce became easier. With it died a custom—and tales of the tradition are just as bizarre and entertaining as they were then.

“In the end,” writes historian Roderick Phillips, “too little is known about wife sales to enable us to draw firm conclusions

So, next time you visit Smithfield Market, spare a thought for all the wives who were sold there and their untold stories.