A Brief History of Wife Selling in Leeds

In August 1895, Benjamin Gibbons of Pudsey went on trial at Leeds Assizes accused of bigamy and wife-selling. Earlier that year, the 59-year old had proposed to a young widow, Nancy Halliday, having assured her that his wife of 29 years, Maria, had left him and that they were legally separated.

Gibbons had in fact sold Maria to another man for three shillings and sixpence. According to Gibbons, Maria “had seemed quite willing to go and drove away with a number of men in a cab.” He claimed that she was already married to another man but there was no evidence of this. The jury returned a guilty verdict and Gibbons was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour.

The practice of wife selling arose in the late seventeenth century and was often consensual. Until the passing of the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, it was only possible to get divorced in England by a private Act of Parliament. To all intents and purposes, therefore, a sale was the only feasible means of obtaining a separation but there was no legal basis for it. Although it was largely a rural custom, there were several other recorded instances of wife selling in Leeds, as follows:

29 March 1797 A man paraded his wife with a halter around her neck at the Market Cross on Briggate and sold her for five shillings.

May 1804 At the same place and for the same price, another man sold his wife to a man who was “acquainted with her merits”.

1807 Yet another auction at the Market Cross took place, when a “tender-hearted publican” sold his wife and business for five guineas. The choice of the Market Cross in Briggate, together with the rarity value, would have ensured a large crowd for these spectacles.

1880 A woman was sold for £5 and later bore 12 children to the buyer who, in 1908, was prosecuted for her ill-treatment.

Most surprisingly, the practice continued into the twentieth century and two of England’s most recent cases took place in Leeds:

1913 A women was sold by her husband for £1 to one of his workmates.

1926 Another wife selling case came before magistrates in Leeds, in which it was heard that the accused had sold his spouse, with her full consent, for £10.

My book ‘On This Day In Leeds’ will be launched on 11th May 2019.

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