Nostalgia: Tethered wife sold by auction at Romford Market

Romford Market in 1831 - the year a man sold his wife there. PIC: Courtesy of Havering Library

Romford Market in 1831 - the year a man sold his wife there. PIC: Courtesy of Havering Library - Credit: Archant

The sale of a woman at Romford Market wasn’t so hard to imagine in 1831.

March 8 is International Women’s Day. March 10 is Mothering Sunday but not that long ago things were very different.

In August 1831 a woman was sold in Romford Market.

The Essex Standard, Chester Courant and Royal Cornwall Gazette on August 20, 23 and 27 respectively, said she was brought to the market in a halter (a strap or rope used to tether an animal), tethered to a post and sold by public auction.

The buyer was charged for the rope used to tether her and the usual market fees (a toll and charge for the pitch) were discharged.

Currently we know nothing more about her other than that she was sold by her husband of one month, Thomas Newcombe.

Nationally, 300 cases of wife selling were reported from 1780-1850, 100 of them between 1820 and 1840.

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The practice was not widespread, but comment tended to focus on how it showed the “depraved conduct in the lower order of people” (The Times, 1797), rather than on the social and legal position of women.

In Newcastle in 1810 a wife who seemingly controlled the event was described as a “modern Delilah” in the press, rather than being sympathetically treated.

The Royal Cornwall Gazette said of the Romford case: “It will scarcely be credited that in the present advanced state of moral feeling, the following most disgraceful scene should have been permitted to take place”.

Married women had no separate legal identity. In 1753 a judge wrote: “the very being, or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage”.

Husbands could divorce wives. Wives required an Act of Parliament to divorce husbands.

Only four were ever passed. Wives had to be represented by a trustee if seeking a Deed of Separation, husbands could represent themselves. In 1830 a woman was reported encouraging her husband to sell her at Wenlock Market saying: “Let be yer rogue. I wull be sold. I wants a change”.

In 1837 in Burntwood George Hutchinson sold his wife to the man she had been living with for three years.

Many felt such sales had force of law. They may have taken place in markets to ensure the maximum number of witnesses.

In 1832 in Carlisle straw was used as the halter, in Bradford in 1858 it was ribbon. Images of wife-selling, show it as a jocular affair.