AN ARTICLE in ‘This England Winter 1985’ described how in 1820 a Lincolnshire man sold his wife for R0.50.
Later, one Charles Pearce sold his wife to a shoemaker for R80 (£5).
Wife selling was a recognised part of rural life and the ritual was simple – first the sale had to be announced publicly, sometimes by notice, but more usually by the bellman.
The wife was then led to the place of sale by a rope halter and the auction began. Once sold to the highest bidder, she was again led away by the rope halter which was not removed until after she crossed her new threshold and closed the door behind her.
In 1898 one woman took her four children with her and lived happily ever after.
Prices paid for wives varied considerably from R0.50 (4p) to R200 (£15). Not all women consented to these sales and one woman promptly left her husband.
Perhaps it was the price that annoyed her – a quart of beer.
Some men were quite prepared to barter – James Cole of Devon took a two gallon jar of Plymouth gin for his wife.
Wife-selling continued into the last century, but gradually the practice died out as better education made people realise that it was not quite legal. Was this borne from an ancient custom or was it simply the only hope of release from an unhappy marriage? It certainly was a bizarre chapter in the lives of our colonial forefathers!