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How the Black Country couples used to ‘put the beans to bile’

By john workman  |  Posted: June 21, 2013

Wife selling!

Wife selling!

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Following last week’s article about old wedding customs, here’s a look at some of those of our Black Country forebears.

In our region, when a couple had been “gooin” together for a while folk would expect them to “put the beans to bile”. In other words, to have the wedding banns read out. And, as we saw last week, there were plenty of old sayings giving advice.

If a relationship was deemed unsuitable friends might warn against “marrying the miskin for the muck and getting pisoned with the stink on it”. Meaning if you marry just for money or security, you’ll be unhappy.

In his brilliant book, The Folklore of the Black Country’ (Logaston Press, 2007) Roy Palmer mentions other pearls of wedding wisdom. For instance, brides should never wear green. Witness this piece of advice by a Bilston collier’s wife, given to historian, G.T Lawley: “If yo’m gottner no other frock but ner green un to be married in, doh yo goo ter church, that’s all, or yo’n loosener yor mon afore lung if yo dun.” Bilston folk would also look to see if the bride was wearing white gloves – a symbol of virginity.

Bilston grooms not only wore the traditional buttonhole, but also had flowers stuffed in their pockets.

Grandfather’s pub Other Black Country wedding lore forecast dire calamity if the wedding party met a funeral cortege on the way to the church. And, woe betide the groom who saw his bride after midnight on the wedding eve. In Roy Palmer’s book, Tom Langley gives an account of what happened to his great aunt Emma, from Tipton.

Emma was born in 1848, and, as Tom says: “It’s an owd belief in the Black Country that if a woman oo’s gettin’ married saw the bloke ‘er was gooin’ ter marry after midnight on the marriage day ‘erd be far better jed than ‘ave ‘im.” Strong stuff, yet it was a widespread belief! And, as Tom relates, “The women’d look anywhere and they’d go to bed early the night afower they got married so they wouldn’t see ‘im.” Unfortunately, on her wedding eve, Tom’s aunt Emma woke in the middle of the night, looked out of the window and the inevitable happened: “ ... who should be comin’ out o’ me grandfather’s pub over the road but this bloke ‘er was goin’ to marry, and ‘er watched ‘im turn into a devil ...” Sadly, it was too late for Emma, as Tom explains: “’Er got married the next day, and I How the Black Country couples used to ‘put the beans to bile’ might tell yo’ ‘er did marry a devil ...” For Emma and her devilish partner, it was “till death do us part”. Twenty five years later, having just laid out old chap, Emma started praying.

Her nephew,Tom, recalls: “’Er says, “Well, Lord, yo’m took ‘im at last, but if yo’ll excuse me sayin’ so, yo’m bin a bloody long while about it ...” Just then: “’Er suddenly thought ‘er might be looking in the wrong direction so ‘er looked down and ‘er says: “God ‘elp yo’ if yo’ve got ’im”. Wonderful stuff! For ordinary folk, there was no such thing as divorce. You made your bed and were expected to lie on it. If a married couple were especially quarrelsome, or if one of the partners abused the other, or had illicit affairs, the local community would voice its disapproval.

If a chap got his girlfriend pregnant, he might be forced into a “knobstick wedding”. This evocatively named practice involved the local parish offering the chap money to do the right thing by his girlfriend.

Roy Palmer mentions such a case occurring at Oldswinford, in 1783, where a chap was offered 3s 6d to marry the girl. If bribery failed, a dose of “rough music” might do the trick. This involved locals serenading couples they disapproved of with a discordant racket, played on old tin kettle, pots and pans, and anything laying to hand.

Nagging wives While husbands were allowed by law to chastise their wives, domestic violence was generally frowned on. A husband deemed to have gone too far could find a load of straw dumped outside his door. This told him the community disapproved, as, according to an old saying, “ ...

after a thrashing there’s generally plenty of straw”.

Nagging wives could suffer an even worse fate, such as being made to wear the “scold’s bridle” or being ducked in the nearest pond, on the “cucking stool”. In 1686, Staffordshire Historian, Robert Plot, writes about a scold’s bridle used in Walsall. Apparently, Plot preferred this barbaric device to the cucking stool, as it silenced the woman “effectively”.

Whereas, the unfortunate woman on the cucking stool could voice complaints in between duckings.

Of the scold’s bridle he says, it “not only quite deprives them of speech, but brings shame for the transgression, and humility thereupon, before ’tis taken off ...” Roy Palmer says there were cucking stools at Walsall, Bilston and Wednesbury. And, as late as 1924, historian F W Hackwood records locals referring to “the rotting and rusty remnant” of a cucking stool “lingering in a cattle pond near the old manor house of Wednesbury”.

Occasionally, these instruments of torture were used on male “scolds” or philandering husbands.

But, mostly, it was the women who suffered.

When marriages broke down irretrievably, couples could go through what many folk considered a legitimate means of ending a marriage – wife selling! In reality, it was illegal, but as only the wealthy could obtain a divorce, authorities and communities often turned a blind eye. And, in cases where both parties were willing it was often condoned.

Paid in ale In the Black Country, Roy Palmer says there are around a dozen recorded instances of wife selling over a period of 200 years.

He cites wife sales at Walsall, Wednesbury, Dudley, Bilston, Stourbridge, Merry Hill, Brierley Hill, Tipton and Cradley. Most sales took place in the market place, the “contracts” being sealed in the local pub. In fact, if money didn’t change hands, the price was often paid in ale.

Local historian G T Lawley quotes an unsourced account of such a sale occcurring in Bilston, in 1819. The whole affair followed time-honoured practice. Firstly, the bellman or town crier announced the date, time and venue of the sale. In this case, “Jimmy the Grinder”, wishing to sell his wife, Moll, to the highest bidder, at the pig market! Moll was said to be good looking, and possessing all the requisite domestic skills. Every word the crier said was designed to entice the crowds to this extra market day attraction.

It was considered good entertainment, and few considered it illegal.

Lawley says: “Indeed, such care was taken in carrying out the formularies which custom had sanctioned as to give a sort of legal force to the proceedings.” Woman sold To do things properly, firstly, the husband had to buy a new halter, “which on the morning of the sale he tied round his wife’s neck, as we see a butcher deal with a calf or horse which he is taking to market for sale ...” Next, the husband usually parades the wife around, to drum up the crowds, passing through toll gates and paying the tolls required.

At the appointed hour and spot, the poor woman would be made to stand on a stool, while her husband auctioned her to the highest bidder.

When the woman was sold, her ex passed the halter to the new chap. Then, it was off to the pub. If the wife was complicit, it could be an amicable affair. When both parties were willing, it enabled incompatible couples to move on to new partners, without incurring the disapproval of the community.

Unsurprisingly, wife selling featured in many popular songs and humorous poems of the day.

To end, picture this scene from an old Bilston ballad. A henpecked husband called Bandy- Legged Lett, makes a sales pitch, hoping to attract takers for his wife, Sally: Her bakes bread quite handy, An’ eats it all up; Brews beer like a good un An’ drinks every sup ...

Her swears like a trooper And fights like a cock, And has gin her owd feller Many a hard knock ...”

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