In July 1886 the Leek Times reported on a wife selling incident in Longnor. It would seem not exactly a rare event. Between the 18th and early 20th century there were around 400 cases of wife selling around the country. An alleged incident took place in 1854 in Leek so the Longnor case takes such instances virtually to the dawn of the 20th century.
Wife selling was regarded as an alternative way to end an unhappy marriage other than by costly divorce. It was regarded as a rural custom, which relied on the mutual consent of the parties. To give wife selling validity it was necessary to make it a witnessed event.
Locally the custom followed a set procedure. A man took his wife to market tied with a length of rope. He paid a toll that gave him the right to sell her. He then paraded her around extolling her virtues. Once the deal was agreed the parties would adjourn to a local pub and the deal sealed over a beer.
The Leek Times reported that three tinkers came to Longnor, one was playing a tin whistle the other sang and the third a woman collected pennies. A local farmer John Gould of Coats Farm, Hollinsclough whose wife had left him years before entered into negotiations to buy the woman. The sale was agreed over brown ale in the Bull’s Head. Gould then took the halter to lead his newly acquired wife into the market place so that his friends were made aware of his new acquisition.
At this stage a local policeman intervened and the farmer was told that his purchase was illegal and that he ran the risk of being run in. It did not deter him. He said“ I do not think you can interfere with me when my wife left me. I have the right to buy another” The couple was last seen walking away from the Bull’s Head arm in arm later that evening.
By 1886 the practice was dying out the passing of divorce legislation in the middle of the 19th century spelt the end of wife selling. Before the 1857 act men whose wife had committed adultery were forced to take drastic action such as wife selling to re-gain their self-respect. It is likely though that the tradition lingered on in rural areas.