Heritage: Husband auctioned wife at Romford Market for six shillings

The north side of Romford Market in 1900. Picture: Brian Evans

The north side of Romford Market in 1900. Picture: Brian Evans - Credit: Brian Evans

Before divorce was available for everyone, couples had to find other ways to get out of an unhappy marriage, as Prof Ged Martin explains

When Barbara Parkin arrived in Ingatestone in 1860 – her husband had been appointed Rector – she visited the villagers in their homes.

She found one elderly couple sitting on either side of their fireplace.

“Well, Mrs Brasier, I hear you have been married over sixty years.”

“I was married sixty years ago,” the old lady agreed, adding, “and I have been regretting it ever since.”

She glared at her husband, who shook his head in silent dismissal.

Divorce was too expensive for poor people, but there was a primitive folk equivalent.

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In 1831, after one month of marriage, Thomas Newcombe auctioned his wife in Romford Market for six shillings (30p). Public sale of a wife was regarded as transferring her to a new partner.

Marital disharmony could disrupt small communities. In 1591, there was a row between two Collier Row men, John Coxe and Geoffrey Luckin.

“I cannot live in quiet with my wife,” Luckin complained, “for when I am from home then Coxe is at my house with my wife, and when I am at home my wife will be at Coxe’s house.”

The Church wanted married couples to live together. Local officials tried to provide relationship counselling, but major breakdowns were referred to ecclesiastical courts.

A Romford man, John Crookes, alleged in 1613 that his wife had left him to live with a new partner in Wennington, near Rainham. Meanwhile, Crookes was reported “by common fame” to have taken up with a woman from East Ham.

Wennington’s churchwardens tried to mediate, but the “contention” between Mr and Mrs Crookes was “greater than by private exhortation can be quieted”, and the case went to the Church courts.

Not everybody accepted this interference. In 1584, Agnes Quicke of Romford was accused of committing adultery with, Nicholas Lucas, also of Romford. She abused the churchwardens for reporting her, saying that if she’d been a man, she would have taken revenge on them, and that she would not appear in a Church court “for a hundred pounds”.

The Church lost its authority over people’s private lives, but matrimonial quarrels still sometimes came to court.

Stephen Gilbey and his wife – it’s so typical that her full name wasn’t even reported – were married in 1890, and lived at North Ockendon.

Mrs Gilbey apparently worked in a shop, and her husband regarded her as a cashpoint. On one occasion, he threatened to throttle her unless she gave him money and her watch. His descriptions of how he would break her neck were frighteningly detailed.

On another occasion, he was prosecuted for knocking out her teeth, and putting her out of action for five weeks. The couple separated after two years.

In 1895, parliament gave married women rights to claim support. Mrs Gilbey took her husband to court demanding maintenance.

Branding her husband a “little villain” and a liar, she proclaimed: “He don’t marry me, but only my money.”

The court clerk remarked “that people would understand why he left her”. Magistrates declined to intervene.

Perhaps there were faults on both sides. Gilbey alleged that he had rushed to his estranged wife after she wrote to tell him she was dying, but “found her dancing a can-can”.

The can-can was a very provocative dance in the Naughty Nineties.

A reporter thought the case “very amusing”, but violence against women is no joke.

The Essex town of Dunmow has an ancient tradition of awarding a side of bacon (the “Dunmow Flitch”) to couples who can prove they haven’t exchanged a cross word for a year and a day.

In 1921, organisers of a local fete at Navestock, three miles north of Harold Hill, offered a similar prize. The contest collapsed when every couple in the village insisted their relationship was perfect.

Journalists proclaimed Navestock the happiest place in England.

I hope that’s still true.