Wife for sale in Spilsby …

A curious comment on a wife sale at Spilsby sparked my interest recently

The circumstances which are communicated to us, connected with the sale by a man of Wainfleet, of his wife Spilsby market, are too disgusting and infamous for publication. [Despite] the spirit of censorship which such circumstances require, we shall … add the man’s name Thomas Sowden – Mr. Thomas Sowden our correspondent calls him. Stamford Mercury – Friday 18 May 1810

While the sensibilities of the Stamford Mercury prevented the printing of the details, Mr John Bell’s La Belle Assemblée – an important ladies magazine of the era – were happy to share their information on the event.

Provincials Remarkable Occurrences – Lincolnshire

One of those scenes which are a disgrace to the police, lately took place at Spilsby. One Thomas Sowden of Wainfleet, publicly exposed his wife for sale in Spilsby Market, and sold her for 5 guineas, a larger sum than we have heard a wife to bring at public sale for some time past. One of the engagements in this disgraceful bargain was that the husband should have the liberty of visiting her at what time he thought proper, with out let or molestation. After the conclusion of the sale the parties retired to a public house, where for five days and nights they feasted upon the fruits of the bargain; but at length tired – out by the powerful influence of Morpheus, like pigs, they all retired to the same stye, certainly the fittest place for this unnatural trio. We are astonished the magistrates do not interfere upon these occasions, and prevent such public insults to the morals of the people. Surely they are punishable for an offence contra bones mores, if by no other statute. La Belle Assemblée Vol I 1810

As the magazine points out 5 guineas was a remarkable sum, particularly in comparison to the sale below some twenty years later.

A fellow in the neighbourhood of Horncastle took his wife for sale in the market there last week, and got what he asked for her ( which was 1l ) He gave back 2s.6d for luck, and delivered her up in a halter, tied around her waist. Stamford Mercury – Friday 06 April 1832

Different Lincolnshire locations appear to have prescribed different treatments of the events. In February 1826 the Stamford Mercury reported on another wife presented for sale in Loughborough, remarking upon her own happy adjustment of her halter during the process. Local magistrates sent both parties to prison. In 1842 The Lincolnshire Chronicle reported on a similar attempt at the Green Dragon Inn, Boston, when Henry Mears offered his wife for sale by auction, on this occasion the police intervened but the reporter noted that a private sale was expected to proceed.

Social historians who have studied the sales in depth report that their research substantiates that these spectacles were frequently a public declaration of separation and a change in circumstance, the wife having already taken a lover and chosen her “purchaser” , rooted in custom and tradition, particularly for the working classes. The old newspapers are littered with examples.

A famous report in 1832 shows the theatrical nature of the event on many occasions, the original report from the Lancaster Herald was printed nationwide.

The sale of Mary Thompson at Carlisle


Saturday, the 7th instant, the inhabitants Carlisle witnessed the sale of a wife by her husband, Joseph Thompson who resides in small village about three miles from this city. He rents a farm of about 42 or 44 acres, and was married at Hexham, in the year to his present wife. She is a spruce, lively, buxom damsel, apparently not exceeding 22 years of age, and appeared to feel pleasure the exchange she was about to 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 bell-man was sent round to give notice of the sale, which was to take place at twelve o’clock. This announcement attracted the attention of thousands. She appeared above the crowd, standing large oak chair, surrounded by many of her friends, with rope or halter made of straw round her neck. She was dressed in rather fashionable country style, and appeared to some advantage. The husband, who was also standing in an elevated position near, proceeded to put her for sale, and spoke nearly as follows :

“Gentlemen—l have to offer to your notice my wife, Mary Anne Thompson, otherwise Williamson, whom 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 bosom serpent. 1 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 heart when I say, may God deliver us from troublesome wives and frolicsome widows.—(Laughter.) Avoid them the same as you would a mad dog, roaring lion, a loaded pistol, cholera morbus, Mount Etna, or any other pestilential phenomena in nature. Now 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 weep with the same ease that I can take a glass of ale when thirsty: indeed Gentlemen, she reminds of what the Poet says of women in general :—

Heaven gave to woman 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 them from long experience tasting them. I therefore offer her, with all her perfections and imperfections, for the sum of 50s.”

After hour or two she was purchased by Henry Mears, a pensioner, for-the sum of 20s and a Newfoundland dog.

The happy people 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.

Leicester Chronicle – Saturday 28 April 1832

I found the mention of another Henry Mears involved in a wife sale rather strange, as the Boston report was ten years later , had the “pensioner” of 1832 moved South and decided to move the wife along ?

It would be nice to hear the voice of the women in these stories. There are examples of wife selling in Germany, Switzerland and Paris. One article in the Swindon Advertiser and North Wilts Chronicle – Saturday 19 November 1892 – reviewed a wide variety of wife sales beginning in 1750. They had tracked down one instance of a husband sale in 1888. The man in question had formed a strong attachment with a young lady while travelling to Australia, on finding that he was married she duly wrote to his wife and requested permission to buy him. The initial request of £100 for all rights was refused but the parties came to an arrangement at £20.

Rowlandson’s depiction of wife selling at market 1812

Published by

Mrs T

Beyond the day job, and the garden, I love to delve into local and family history. While pursuing one project other snippets frequently distract me, resulting in the eclectic mix of tales from the past found here.

2 thoughts on “Wife for sale in Spilsby …”

    1. I dipped into the academic research behind this yesterday and there is a lot to support the notion that this was a ritual divorce by mutual consent, the Spilsby example is extreme. That is not to demean the instances where this was not the case.

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