An Account of Selling a wife in Blythburgh
The Ipswich Journal of 31st October 1789 carried the following notice:
Oct 29 SAMUEL Balls sold his wife to ABRAHAM RADE in the parish of Blythburgh in this county for 1s. A halter was put round her, and she was resigned up to this Abraham Rade. No person or persons to intrust her with my name, Samuel Balls, for she is no longer my right.
M. Bullock, constable,
Sir John Cullum, of Hardwick House near Bury St Edmunds, saw this report, stuck it in a scrapbook, and wrote alongside: "In this enlightened age, one would hardly think of seeing such an advertisement as the above ... ". We also know from a contemporary directory that George Wincop (sic) was Blythburgh’s village blacksmith (his grave is in the churchyard), and Robert Sherington kept the White Hart.
The Blythburgh event was not unusual. Some 400 documented cases are known, from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century, and there could have been many more, especially in the less censorious eighteenth century when they may not have been noticed. The best–known example is fictional, in Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge. But the casual brutality of this encounter, the fortuitous arrival of the purchaser, who bid on impulse, and the lack of ritual features, make this a misleading stereotype.
The ritual was important: location in a public place, often a market; a formal announcement or advertisement; the use of a halter; the presence of an "auctioneer"; the transfer of money, and sometimes the exchange of pledges. The symbolism was derived from the market sale of goods and chattels, with which the participants were familiar, and intended to make ’lawful’ what was essentially a form of divorce and remarriage.
While the sales took place in a society in which women occupied an inferior position, it may be wrong to assume that they were being represented as chattels. The need to observe a "lawful" procedure was the real significance of the ritual. In fact, the women may rarely have been victims. They knew their value and their rights in their society, and their consent was generally a necessary condition of sale.
Footnote: a Samuel Balls, a single man of Holton, married Mary Bedingfield of Blythburgh by license on 6 August 1782, in the presence of Samuel Thrower and William Blowers. Was this the same Samuel and do we have here an eighteenth–century example of the seven-year itch?
Suggested further reading:
E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common (1991)
S.P. Menefee, Wives for Sale (1981)
Alan Mackley, Blythburgh, April 1994, rev. November 1995.
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