Sold for a pot of beer and a shilling!

On August 10th 1817 the marriage took place between Charles Skinner and Mary Gower, at Speldhurst, Kent, the union of two people in Holy matrimony. This seemingly happy union was to last for the next ten years, until John Savage appeared on the scene.

We turn to an account of a court case in the Globe newspaper of July 26th 1828 which took place at the West Kent Quarter Sessions. Charles Skinner, Mary Skinner and John Savage, of the parish of Tonbridge, were indicted for a misdemeanor. The misdemeanor being:

one of those disgusting transactions which were frequently mentioned in the newspapers, and which by a vulgar error, were imagined to be lawful. It was by many persons supposed that if a man became tired of his wife, he might take her to a public market with a halter round her neck, or (as in the present instance) a handkerchief round her waist, and there publicly sell her. Such proceedings were both illegal and immoral, whether the parties were or were not all agreed. Sometime the wife was sold against her will; but in this case, there was an agreement by all parties before they left the cottage at Speldhurst, in which they all lived.

Matrimony: may the Devil take them that brought you and me together.
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

Charles and Mary had separated in the respect of being husband and wife, but they continued to live under the same roof along with Mary’s new lover, John Savage. The cottage they all lived in belonged to the parish and this unusual living arrangement came to the attention of the officers responsible for the cottage. Charles and Mary were told in no uncertain terms to ‘behave themselves’.

Clearly ‘behaving’ was not an option and they decided upon a different course of action so that they could retain possession of the cottage. So, with that, Charles and Mary went to the tap-room of the George and Dragon public house in Tonbridge. Then, after a while John Savage appeared in the pub and the drama began. Making sure that people heard, Charles, having tied a silk handkerchief around his wife’s waist, said to Savage, “Will you buy my wife?” Savage replied “Yes, what will you have for her?” Charles replied, “A shilling and a pot of beer”. Savage agreed to the bargain and Mary was handed over to him with Charles saying to her ‘If you give me that handkerchief I have nothing more to do with you”. She then gave him the handkerchief and they went away.

Thwick-Thwack
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

Mr Pollock, prosecuting, concluded by observing that these people ought to be taught that what they had done was both immoral and illegal, that by their punishment other people might be warned that such transactions could not take place without impunity.

William Hook who was one of the overseers of Speldhurst confirmed that Charles Skinner was a pauper of the parish and that he had resided in the cottage belonging to the parish for three years, but was now in the workhouse because of this transaction. Hook also pointed out that the couple had already been warned at the Monthly Vestry that if he permitted Savage to live in the house, and cohabit with his wife, he must leave the cottage; if he had more room than he wanted, the parish would find somebody to put in it, but apparently Skinner took no notice of this warning.  John Smith the landlord of the George and Dragon was called to give his account of the events of that evening.

He confirmed that on June 2nd that Charles Skinner went in first and ordered a pot of beer and shortly after Savage arrived, the transaction was carried out. He confirmed that there were about four other people present who also witnessed it. Skinner and Savage assumed that this would make it all legal – how wrong they were! As each witness gave their version of events, all were consistent that Skinner had in fact sold his wife for a shilling and a pot of beer.

The learned Chairman intimated that there was not enough evidence to support a charge of conspiracy, but that the transaction took place could not be denied.

The defendants were called to give their account of the event. Mary simply laughed and said, “My husband did not wish to go along with my wishes and that was the reason I wished to part”.

Six Weeks after Marriage
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

The learned Chairman, in summing up, observed that this indictment was rather of a novel nature. He did not think the charge of conspiracy had been proved. These people had been living together in the same house, but in what manner it was not now necessary to inquire; and even it was, mere rumour was not sufficient to reply upon that point. Besides the count of conspiracy, there were two others, charging the defendants with making the sale, and it appeared that such a sale did take place. The lady certainly did not rate her own value very highly; for a pot of beer and a shilling was the only consideration given for that valuable commodity.

The jury, without hesitation found all of them guilty. They were each sentenced to serve one moths hard labour.

 

Featured Image

Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

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6 thoughts on “Sold for a pot of beer and a shilling!

  1. History is full of these quasi-divorces throughout the 19th century. Usually they were surprisingly amicable affairs based on village common sense when a marriage had failed and separation in law was for the rich… Here’s an extract from Chambers’ Book of Days

    “The Annual Register for 1832 gave an account of a singular wife-sale which took place on the 7th of April in that year. Joseph Thomson, a farmer, had been married for three years without finding his happiness advanced, and he and his wife at length agreed to separate. It is a prevalent notion amongst the rude and ignorant in England that a man, by setting his wife up to public auction, and so parting with her, legally dissolves the marriage tie, and escapes from all its obligations.

    Thomson, under this belief, came into Carlisle with his wife, and by the bellman announced that he was about to sell her. At twelve o’clock at noon the sale commenced, in the presence of a large number of persons. Thomson placed his wife on a large oak chair, with a rope or halter of straw round her neck. He then spoke as follows:

    ‘Gentlemen, I have to offer to your notice my wife, Mary Anne Thomson, otherwise Williams, whom I mean to sell to the highest and fairest bidder. Gentlemen, it is her wish as well as mine to part for ever. She has been to me only a born serpent. I took her for my comfort, and the good of my home; but she became my tormentor, a domestic curse, a night invasion, and a daily devil. Gentlemen, I speak truth from my heart when I say—may God deliver us from troublesome wives and frolicsome women! Avoid them as you would a mad dog, a roaring lion, a loaded pistol, cholera morbus, Mount Etna, or any other pestilential thing in nature. Now I have shewn you the dark side of my wife, and told you her faults and failings, I will introduce the bright and sunny side of her, and explain her qualifications and goodness. She can read novels and milk cows; she can laugh and weep with the same ease that you could take a glass of ale when thirsty. Indeed, gentlemen, she reminds me of what the poet says of women in general:

    “Heaven gave to women the peculiar grace,
    To laugh, to weep, to cheat the human race.”

    She can make butter and scold the maid; she can sing Moore’s melodies, and plait her frills and caps; she cannot make rum, gin, or whisky, but she is a good judge of the quality from long experience in tasting them. I therefore offer her with all her perfections and imperfections, for the sum of fifty shillings.’

    If this speech is correctly reported, the man must have been a humorist in addition to his other qualities. The account concludes with the statement that, after waiting about an hour, Thomson knocked down the lot to one Henry Mears, for twenty shillings and a Newfoundland dog; they then parted in perfect good temper—Mears and the woman going one way, Thomson and the dog another.”

    Liked by 2 people

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