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Wife-Selling and Rough Music!

By Black Country Bugle User  |  Posted: May 17, 2007

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Over the last couple of weeks we've looked at old customs, charms and superstitions relating to love and marriage. Many of these survive today, while others have faded into distant memory. This week we'll see how our ancestors fared when wedded bliss turned sour.

Until the first Divorce Court was established in 1857, if you didn't get on with your partner it was virtually impossible to get rid of them. It also cost an arm and a leg, about £15,000 in today's money, and required a private Act of Parliament to boot.

  So, for ordinary working folk, one solution was for the husband to take his wife to market - and sell her! The practice was carried on, nationwide, and usually followed a set pattern, each region having subtle variations. In Staffordshire, the man led his wife to market with a halter round her neck. Once they arrived, the husband paid the market toll, giving him the right to sell his merchandise. The husband then paraded his wife round the market extolling her virtues to potential bidders.

  A fragment of a song, quoted in Jon Raven's book, "Stories, Customs, Superstitions, Tales, Legends & Folklore of the Black Country and Staffordshire'', describes a typical scene:


 "He drove his wife to market

 Just as they drive a pig.

 With a halter tied round her neck,

 Instead of round her leg.

 So he put her up for auction,

 And he shouted out 'Who'll buy?'

 Just name a price, my masters,

 I don't care what, not I''.


  Wife-selling was fairly common during the 18th and 19th centuries and numerous accounts are given in contemporary press reports. With our modern sensibilities, the practice appears sexist to say the least, if not barbaric. But, for couples faced with a lifetime of unhappiness, it was an accepted, unofficial form of divorce. The sale had to be done publicly and with the wife's consent, and had to follow the traditional format. Also, the wife couldn't be sold for less than a shilling.

  In Stafford, the March 1st 1800 edition of ''The Staffordshire Advertiser'' reports a chimney sweep called Cupid Hodson selling his wife for 5 shillings and sixpence, after lively bidding. Perhaps Cupid failed to live up to his romantic name, was just too sooty, or his wife had her eye on someone else. In fact, when couples turned to wife-selling, it was, generally, by mutual consent, and often instigated by wives who wanted new partners. In reality such arrangements often meant the wife's lover agreeing a price with the husband before the bidding started. Following the sale, the husband handed over his toll ticket, signifying proof of ownership, to the woman's ''new owner''. Then, all three usually sealed the deal with a drink in the nearest inn.

  In November 1837, ''The Wolverhampton Chronicle'' reported the sale of George Hutchinson's wife, Elizabeth, to a Thomas Snape of Burntwood. The sale took place at Walsall market, and Elizabeth went for the grand sum of 2/-. Hutchinson claimed he was glad to see the back of her as she'd been living openly with Snape for three years.

  Although the practice was not legally sanctioned, it was commonly accepted by the people as a legal separation. As long as the sale followed the same procedure as livestock sales then it was considered binding. And, in most documented cases of wife-selling, the buyer was previously known to the wife and the sale previously agreed.

  As you can imagine, the press of the time had a field day. The public's appetite for juicy gossip and delving into people's private lives was just as strong back then. So newspapers, broadsides and popular ballads gave them what they wanted, selling papers while claiming to condemn the practice as an outrage. Fragments of comic songs survive, one in particular entitled, ''Sally Lett, or a Wife for Sale''. The song is described as ''a Bilston Ballad'', and tells the story of ''Bandy Legged Lett'' and his good looking, but domineering wife, Sally.

  According to Lett, he's hard done by, even abused, as Sally is a mix of domestic goddess and tyrant:


 "Her bakes bread quite handy

 An' eats it all up,

 Brews beer like a good 'un

 'An drinks ev'ry sup.''


 What's worse...


 "Her wears mons' breeches,

 So all the folk say...''


 The final straw being ...


 "Her swears like a trooper

 And fights like a cock,

 And has gin her old feller

 Many a hard knock ...''


  Of course, this is a comic song, once popular throughout the Black Country, poking fun at wife-selling, and the stock figure of the henpecked and battered husband. In reality, the woman was much more likely to be on the receiving end. Before divorce became more widely available, there was little help for women trapped in unhappy or violent relationships, save getting their husbands to agree to wife-selling. Even then it was a lottery as women still had few rights, the law weighted heavily in mens' favour.

  One of the few ways outrage at cases of domestic violence could be expressed was for perpetrators to be shamed in a very public way. This usually involved subjecting them to an ancient custom known in the Black Country as ''Rough Music''. Elsewhere in Britain the practice was known as ''Lewballing'', Ran - Tanning'', ''Riding the Stang'' or a ''Skimmington Ride''.

  Proceedings generally involved a band of locals gathering outside the perpetrator's house, and playing raucous music on assorted instruments, pots, pans and kettles and anything that came to hand. Depending on the seriousness of the offence, the business could go on for several days, with the community's disapproval showing itself in yet more shaming ways. Sometimes straw was laid at the doorstep, or life-like effigies of offenders carried on poles or carts and burned outside the miscreant's door. Sometimes the effigies were mounted, facing backwards, on a donkey. In extreme cases, the worst offenders might be dragged outside and beaten, or dumped in the nearest pond.

  Wife-selling and Rough Music are key to the plot of Dorset novelist Thomas Hardy's, ''The Mayor of Casterbridge''. Hardy tells of a ''Skimmity Ride'' taking place, with villagers voicing their disapproval in very similar ways to those described above. But, whatever the name, the practice described by Hardy was widespread across Britain, with a few regional variations.

  But, it wasn't only violent husbands on the receiving end of Rough Music. Anyone offending the public morality of the day could suffer. The list included drunkards, nagging wives, unmarried mothers, runaway wives or husbands, adulterers, widows re-marrying too soon, men who neglected their families. In fact, anyone breaking the unwritten moral code of the community.

  In many cases, those carrying out the shaming believed their activities were entirely lawful, as long as those they were shaming weren't actually named. For that reason they generally started the ritual with anonymous accusations, often shouting or singing a rude rhyme or song known as a ''nominy''. The idea of shaming offenders is ancient, dating from earliest times when such affronts to the community, especially any sexual crimes, were thought to bring crop failure and disaster to the community.

  Such practices began to die out by the late 19th century. But in poorer areas they lingered, as recourse to divorce and other aspects of the law was beyond most people's means. In fact, in some rural areas, there are eye-witness reports of Rough Music and Skimmingtons taking place as late as the 1950s.

  The notion of publicly shaming offenders remains strong, today. We've seen celebrities such as Boy George and Naomi Campbell humbled by performing menial tasks as part of their Community Service. And, without wishing to provoke debate on the rights and wrongs of such acts, perhaps we aren't so far removed from our forebears as we like to think we are.

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