Wife Selling and Rough Music in Burford
4 May 2021 (Updated 6 January 2023)
Appalling though it might sound to modern ears, the practice of wife selling was not uncommon in rural areas between the 17th and 19th centuries.
The tradition of wife selling in England
For a long time a legal divorce was very hard to come by in England, and publicly 'selling' a wife was seen as a more socially acceptable way for a husband and wife amicably to go their separate ways than for the man or woman to simply bigamously marry someone else.
Whatever the result, the process sounds extremely demeaning for the wife involved. The tradition was for the husband to put a horse's halter around his wife's neck and lead her to market to be sold, or in some cases auctioned, for the whole town to see. Money did not necessarily change hands, and more often than not the exchange would have been arranged with the new husband in advance. The most important element seems to have been the very public nature of the exchange so that when the couple started their new life together it would be seen as 'official', if not actually sanctioned in law.
The people of Burford disapprove
In Oxfordshire Folk Tales Keven Manwaring recounts an incident which took place in 1855 in which a man from Burford took his wife to Chipping Norton market and sold her to another man for the princely sum of £25, before returning home alone.
However, the man had misjudged what the people of Burford's reaction would be on hearing about his actions. It seems they were a lot more disapproving of the act than he had anticipated!
For three nights the townsfolk congregated outside his house at No.1 High Street and subjected him to the ordeal known as 'rough music'. This involved blowing pipes and whistles, banging pans and cans and generally making as much noise as possible.
By the third night, the crowd had escalated to burning a straw effigy of the man outside his house. This apparently caused him to snap and rush out with a pitchfork to spear the effigy and throw it into the nearby river!
Wife selling for profit?
According to Manwaring, the townsfolk's actions seem to have had the desired result of making the man repent his actions and he duly returned to Chipping Norton to purchase his wife back from the man who he had sold her to. The Burford man may have got the last laugh though, as apparently he purchased her back for £15 rather than the £25 he had originally sold her for, and thus made a £10 profit across the two dubious transactions!
About Symon Wysdom's house
The Grade II listed building at 1 High Street is known as Symon Wysdom's house, but that is not the name of the guilty husband described above. Symon Wysdom (or Simon Wisdom) was a successful 16th century Burford businessman and alderman who paid for various projects for the common good of the people of Burford.
These included founding a school and building 1 High Street. The latter was originally a row of almshouses built to provide accommodation for the poor of Burford.
Other incidents of wife selling in Oxfordshire
In Folklore of Oxfordshire Christine Bloxham mentions two other incidents of wife selling that were both recorded in the Oxford Journal.
The first took place in 1876 where a Mr. Broom from Kennington reportedly sold his wife to a man named Mr. Pantin for five shillings at Littlemore market. The woman was publicly delivered to Pantin with a horse's halter around her neck. Apparently, Mr. Pantin was dissatisfied with his purchase as he gifted his new wife to a woodman by the name of Sadler later the same day!
The second incident took place in 1879 when a navvy working on the Oxford canal is reported to have taken his wife to market with a 'penny slip' around her waist, which he handed to another man for a down payment of three shillings. The wife was apparently very happy with her new husband and, after he had provided her with a second wedding ring, she 'eagerly kissed' him before the pair walked off together!
Nicola Sly in her Grim Almanac of Oxfordshire also mentions an incident of wife-selling that took place at Banbury market on 24 November 1831. 10 shillings was apparently paid to the husband for his wife. Jackson's Oxford Journal who recorded the incident described it as 'the first offence of the kind against common decency we remember to have taken place in Banbury'!
- 'Oxfordshire Folk Tales' by Kevin Manwaring (2012, The History Press, ISBN: 9780752464145)
- 'Folklore of Oxfordshire' by Christine Bloxham (Tempus Publishing, 2005, ISBN: 9780752436647)
- Wife Selling (English Custom) - Wikipedia