English Men Once Sold Their Wives Instead of Getting Divorced

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, divorce was prohibitively expensive, which is why some low-income British people didn’t get them. Instead, the husbands would sell their wives. The custom seems outlandish today, but it was commonplace in the past, often done at public places like markets, taverns, and fairs. If your marriage broke up in the 1750s, for example, you had to obtain a private Act of Parliament to formally divorce. The process was expensive and time-consuming, so wife-selling arose as a form of faux divorce. It wasn’t technically legal, but the way it unfolded in public made it valid in the eyes of many. Once a wife was auctioned off, the previous marriage was considered null and void and the buyer became financially responsible for his new wife. Technically, though, wife sales didn’t dissolve the underlying marriage, and police eventually began breaking up the sales. Wife sales largely ended in 1857 when divorce became easier and more affordable.