The White Hart in Nettleham has been an integral part of village life for many centuries. Records as far back as the 1700s show it as a favoured centre for boisterous village activities. But it earned particular renown in 1851 when an auction was staged there to sell someone’s wife.

Samuel Sawyer, a labourer from Nettleham had put his wife up for sale by auction. He had married her, a widow with 2 children, 9 months before, but it seems his idea of married bliss had not materialised.  Selling a wife by auction had become popular, albeit irregular; and was sometimes dubbed 'the vulgar form of divorce'. His wife, being less than enthusiastic about his idea had taken to her bed even though it was early evening. Samuel forced her to her feet and fitted her with a leather halter he had bought for the occasion from the village saddler. And that was how they arrived at the White Hart that evening; Thomas leading his wife by the halter round her head, emulating the pre-sale parade of cattle at a livestock auction.

A local farmer was appointed auctioneer and the unhappy wife was led around on display. Bidding was slow to start; the first offer being only a gallon of ale and for some time it seemed that might be the only bid. But the village blacksmith then offered five-shillings and when it was declined the miller increased it by a further five-shillings. Only then did it become clear the two men were working in unison and planned to share her! At this stage Richard Johnson, the Clerk to the village, offered a whole sovereign but the husband insisted he would accept nothing less than thirty-shillings (about £210 now) but when no such offer was achieved, the wife was declared unsold and returned to the marital home with her husband.

 In 1753, marriage, usually following vows made in church, became legally binding. Once such a commitment had been entered into only an Act of Parliament could annul the proceedings to completely free the individuals. Selling wives by auction, as a means of divorce, had sprung up in the late sixteen-hundreds. Although it had no legal status and its validity was sometimes challenged, it had widespread public support and had become commonplace; even evolving its own rituals like the use of halters on the subjects.

But all was not quite what it may now seem. Many of the halters were actually made of quite soft materials and were often tied loosely around the waist instead, sometimes by the wife herself!  In many cases, a now ex-wife, trying hard not to smile too broadly, was led away from the auction by her lover, occasionally with the ex-husband close behind; all three heading for the local tavern to celebrate.

But what of the Samuel Sawyer auction?  Did he really want rid of his wife? To maximise income from a sale it was usual to advertise 'the goods’ beforehand to generate interest and maximise eventual bidding. This sale had not been advertised; indeed it appeared ill thought through and last minute. Samuel had even persuaded the saddler to re-open his workshop after-hours to make the halter. And the children?  They would normally go with their mother but they are not mentioned. And finally, the unrealistic asking price. Wives normally traded at two or three shillings each: Samuel asked thirty!

Many wives were sold by auction, but was that really the intended outcome here?

Roy Davey

Image: Selling a Wife - Thomas Rowlandson (1812-1814)
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