Sold for a Shilling and a Bottle of Gin



Until divorce became more easily accessible, it was not uncommon for men to buy and sell their wives and even up to 100 years ago, unwanted wives were still sold at market.  A husband would often bring his wife, perhaps with a rope around her neck, shouting his intention to sell – often the woman would be auctioned to the highest bidder.  And this practice of wife selling did not pass Leigh by – as a removal dispute found in the Leigh Parish Records will show!

Accounts of wife sales were frequently found in 18th and 19th century British newspapers in all their lurid details – and many will be familiar with the wife-selling story that occurs in Thomas Hardy’s 1886 novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge.

The origins of such a practice may have come from the tradition where a prospective husband paid his new wife’s father.  Having paid for his wife, if he wanted rid of her the husband would negotiate a price with a buyer and sell her on.   Between 1780 and 1850 there were over 300 cases reported in newspaper reports where wives were sold at market in Britain – how many other cases went unreported will never be known.   Divorce was only really available to the privileged few before the First World War.  If a marriage was dissolved in an ecclesiastical court, couples could only separate and not remarry, and therefore the only way to obtain a divorce before 1858 was through an Act of Parliament; after 1858 it became possible to divorce through the law courts.   But nevertheless the enormous fees involved – as well as the shame – meant that working class people and the poor were unable to take this route out of an unhappy marriage.

Therefore, wife selling existed as a kind of folk custom, which permitted quarrelling couples to separate – unofficially.  Such separations, however, did have ramifications if children were involved or it became a question of legal settlement, as the Leigh case will reveal.  Often a wife was “sold” to her lover for a nominal amount – even for a shilling and a bottle of gin!

Although such transactions were not legal – the long-standing custom meant that such wife selling appeared to have legal weight in the eyes of those participating in the custom.  And of course “a sale was a sale” and if a husband regretted his action, he might not be able to get his wife back!

As well a wife being sold to her lover for a small amount, there were also cases where the wife was literally sold at the market or even auctioned to the highest bidder.  After the sale, the new ‘owner’ might then treat his purchase and the former husband to a drink afterwards – but there were times when the crowds who watched such events unfold could turn hostile towards the husband.

The Napoleonic Wars may have contributed to the frequency of wife-sales in the early 19th century – when the wars finally ended in 1815, some disbanded soldiers – who had been away for years – found their wives had taken new “husbands” in their absence – and a wife sale, where the second husband “purchased” the wife for a nominal sum of a few pence, was one way out of this mess.  The authorities shut their eyes to such sales.

However, they could not turn a blind eye forever – and Victorian news reports of wife selling gradually begin to express disquiet at the practice.  After 1800 there were increasing prosecutions for wife selling which probably hastened the custom’s demise.  Also husbands or wives who participated in a sale and then re-married could be charged with bigamy or having “feloniously intermarried” – their children labelled bastards or removed to their parish of birth.

Joyce Field

Source: Notes taken from ‘Ancestors’ magazine February 2010: Article “Til Death Us Do Part” by Jan Newby




 In Part 1, I gave some background to the practice of wife selling in Britain – a practice that apparently would not have been unfamiliar to the village of Leigh – as is revealed in a document detailing the investigation into the removal of a family from the parish of Leigh!

A document found in the Leigh Historical Society archives reveals that wife selling did take place in Leigh at the turn of the 1800s.  The document is a letter which is seeking legal advice on the Right of Settlement of the parties concerned:  A legal settlement would determine which parish is liable to maintain the parties concerned.  The opinion given could have serious implications for the family, and particularly the children.

Unfortunately we do not know who wrote this initial application to the Courts, but it would have come from the Overseers of the Poor of the Parish of Leigh:

About ….. years since John Stonar then residing in Nuthurst in Sussex married Ann Peach by whom he had several children born in the said parish. He was obliged to quit Sussex on account of being concerned in smuggling and left his wife & went into service in the parish of Leigh in Kent, his wife soon after followed him & hired herself as a servant in the same parish of Leigh and they both resided there for two or three years without its being known that they were married.  The wife there contracted an intimacy with a fellow servant James Staples and as she preferred him to her husband, Stonar left Leigh parish about twelve years since and his wife refusing to go with him he sold and delivered her up to Staples for a shilling and a bottle of gin & he has never been seen by her since.  It is not known whether Stonar is now alive or dead or where he went to.  It was reported in Nuthurst parish two years since that Stonar was then alive and in Beckenham parish but on enquiry he could not be found or heard of.  Staples has ever since continued to live with the woman and has four children by her the first of whom was born within a year after Stonar left her and the youngest is now four years old and upwards.  One of these children was born in the parish of Sevenoaks one in Leigh and two in Tonbridge parish.

The parish of Nuthurst gave relief to Mrs Stonar for herself and children by Staples till within the last fifteen months.  In August 1800 Staples married Mrs Stonar to which he was persuaded by Nuthurst parish who promised to continue relieving her and children as before and accordingly did so for a very short time afterwards but then refused it and no relief has been since given to them by Nuthust parish.  Nuthurst paid the expense of the marriage to Staples.

Staples belongs to Cowden parish and can support himself but cannot maintain Mrs Stonar and the children and they are now chargeable to the parish of Leigh.

You will please to advise whether Mrs Stonar and her children should now be removed to the parish of Nuthurst as her husband’s settlement.  Or whether she should be removed to Cowden as the wife of Staples and the children be removed as bastards to the parishes in which they were born and if you advise a removal to Nuthurst you will please to advise whether the parish of Nuthurst must now show in evidence that Stonar is dead before they can bastardize the children.  Or whether the woman can be sworn as to the fact of not having seen or heard of her husband since he left her in Leigh parish.

The Opinion given by John Bayley, Temple

I think it clear that all the children except perhaps the eldest might be removed as bastards to the parishes in which they were respectively born and I think the eldest ought to be removed also in like manner unless he was born within such a time after Stonar left the mother that it is possible Stonar might have been the father.  It is by no means necessary in order to bastardize the child of a married woman to prove to an absolute certainly that the husband could not have had access to his wife at the time the child was conceived it is sufficient to show such grounds as make it highly improbable that the husband should have been the father and highly probable that some other person should.  Thus where it was proved that sometime before the child of a married woman was conceived her husband had left her that she immediately cohabited with another man and that the child was baptized in the name of the person with whom she cohabited and always passed as his child and as a bastard the Court held clearly that this was sufficient evidence to prove the child a bastard, tho’ it might be possible that the real husband had access to his wife at the time this child was conceived 4 Term Rep.35b see also 4 Term Rep. 251*.  I think it clear too that the woman would be competent to prove that she had not seen or heard of Stonar from the time he left her in Leigh, tho’ she would not be compellable agt her will to give such evidence it having been decided that it is competent either for father or mother to bastardize their children 6Term Rep.330*.  I should therefore recommend the removal of the children to the parishes in which they were born and in case of appeal the parish of Leigh must be prepared to prove that Stonar was the husband, that he left his wife before any of the children could have been conceived, that Staples from that time cohabited with her and that Stonar was never known to have returned to her.  As to the woman she may be removed to Nuthurst if reasonable evidence can be brought to show that Stonar was living when Staples married her. But if this evidence cannot be adduced, I should recommend her removal to Cowden because Cowden must support her unless that Parish can prove that Stonar was living at the time she married Staples and if Cowden can bring that proof tho’ the order must be quashed as agt Cowden the proof will enable Leigh to remove to Nuthurst.

John Bayley
19 Dec 18…
(The following is added at the bottom of the Opinion)

Sevenoaks Dec 24 1801


Herewith agreed the case with …. Bayley’s opinion.. You should bring up Staples on Saturday with all the children who are seven years old.
I hope the parish will think …. Bayley’s opinion satisfactory.
I am your very hble serv’t …  J F Claridge


*these references must refer to some point of law

Source:  J Stoner:  1801:  correspondence to the Overseers of the Parish Of Leigh, near Tonbridge




Without further research via original sources it is difficult to find out what happened to the family – if such records do still survive anyway.  But to elucidate a little on the document, a little analysis is needed for clarity:

The document appears to have been a legal correspondence on the right of settlement of those involved – right of settlement was an important issue under English Poor Law. If you could support yourself it was relatively easy to move between parishes; but if you could not, a Parish would seek ways to remove you to your parish of birth.  In this case Sevenoaks/Nuthurst are asking opinion of a Mr John Bayley of Temple on this question of Settlement, as Leigh did not want to support the family whose legal settlement might in fact be elsewhere!

From the document it seems that James Staples and Mrs Stonar, plus the four children must have returned to Nuthurst from Leigh at some point.  There is mention in the correspondence that she had children with John Stonar, but the case revolves around her children with James Staples and whether the first child is James Staples or John Stonars.  It appears that Nuthurst parish had been relieving her and the children (i.e. paying for her support out of parish funds) but had now stopped doing so and that the parish had also paid for her marriage to James Staples which took place at Nuthurst.

James Staples came from Cowden and was self-supporting, but could not afford to support his wife (Mrs Stonar) and their children – and Nuthurst wished for Leigh to pay for their poor relief as they had obviously lived at Leigh previously.  A decision needed to be made on her place of settlement and that of her children so that it could be decided which Parish was liable to pay!  Ann Stonar’s place of settlement appears confused: should she and children be a burden on Nuthurst where her husband John Stonar came from; or should she be removed to Cowden as James Staples wife and where he came from – and the children, who were illegitimate (they were born out of wedlock prior to 1800) be removed to their parishes of birth (ie Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Leigh): or if they take Nuthurst as their settlement, would Nuthurst need evidence that Stonar is dead otherwise they cannot say whether the children are bastards or not. If Stonar is still alive, then the children would be considered illegitimate: finally, they need to agree whether Mrs Stonar could swear to his death as she hasn’t heard from him.

The legal opinion given decided that all the children except the eldest could be removed as bastards to the parishes where they were born.  The eldest child would also be removed to the parish where he was born (probably Leigh) unless it could be shown that Stonar was the father.  But as it appears difficult to prove with certainly one way or other the paternity of this child, and if the child is baptized in the name of the person with whom she was cohabiting, namely James Staples, and always passed off as his child – then the child would be deemed illegitimate unless proved otherwise.  The legal opinion did agree that Mrs Stonar was competent to say that she hadn’t heard from her husband, but she would not be compelled to do so.

Thus, the outcome was that legal opinion recommended the removal of all the children from Nuthurst – and in case of appeal, it would be down to Leigh to prove that Stonar was still the husband and had left his wife before the children could be conceived.  Therefore, the children could be removed to the parishes of their birth unless Leigh could prove that Stonar was father of the children.  Mrs Stonar/Staples may also be removed to Nuthurst if there is evidence to show that Stonar was living when Staples married her – i.e. bigamy and the marriage to Staples would, therefore, not be legal.  But if they cannot find this evidence, then she should be removed to Cowden for Cowden to support her (as Staples wife) unless Cowden can prove that Stonar was living at the time she married Staples (i.e. bigamy).  If Cowden can prove this, then Leigh would be able to remove her to Nuthurst.


However, despite all the complexities of the above ruling, it is difficult to know what did happen without further research.  We do not know how Leigh responded to the ruling: did Leigh prove Stonar had died? Or that he left his wife before the children were conceived so the child is Staples child and entitled to stay in Leigh?  Ann Stonar/Staples would have had to go to Nuthurst if Stonar was still alive: if he had died, she would have to go to Cowden with James Staples.

But of course they may have stayed at Leigh, the Leigh parish overseers may have decided to keep the family together – because from the parish registers there appears to be a James Staples, baptized at Leigh (son of James Staples and Anne) in 1805: so, after everything, did both James Staples and Ann stay at Leigh after all.  Of course, the children over 7 years old may have been removed to the parishes of their birth.

It is difficult to trace the family via on-line sources alone:   only two children appear in indexes to James and Anne Staples:  Rosetta Staples, born 1797 at Sevenoaks to James and Ann Staples, and James Staples born 1805 at Leigh.  She had an older child born at Leigh, and two at Tonbridge.  No children are found in on-line sources to John and Anne Stonar, although they also had children.  The marriage of John Stonar and Ann Peach at Nuthurst is not on on-line records, nor are any children of John Stonar and Ann Peach.  (The original registers of Nuthurst would have to be consulted).

The ‘facts’ known:

John Stonar  Mar.  Ann Peach   (to be proved)   (residing at Nuthurst at time of their marriage)
Had issue

John Stonar left Mrs Stonar (nee Peach)

Mrs Stonar cohabits with James Staples  (then married 1800 on order of parish of Nuthurst:  Mr Staples belongs to parish of Cowden)

Four children
Child 1  Eldest (born Leigh)  (is child of Stonar or Staples?)
Child 2  Tonbridge
Child 3  Tonbridge
Child 4  prob. Born ca 1797 (prob. Rosetta, b. 1797b Sevenoaks to James/Ann Saples)
(Thus: one born Sevenoaks, one at Leigh, two at Tonbridge)


From familysearch website:

Rosetta Staples:  born Sevenoaks 1797 d. James Staples and Ann

Other baptisms listed are post 1800

No James Staples marriage in Kent re: above)

There is a James Staples, son of James Staples and Anne born at Leigh 1805

FamilySerach website provides no further information of the above marriages, or any further children of a John Stonar and Ann (Peach), or James Staples and Ann (Peach/Stonar)


Joyce Field (November 2015)