Modern Street Ballads

Whenever a foreigner used to write that Englishmen sold their wives in open market, with halters round their necks, they were not believed in England; but it was nevertheless a fact, and even as lately as last year a man sold his wife. In two of my books (“Old Times” and “The Dawn of the Nineteenth Century”) I have given numerous instances. The halter round the neck was used when the wife was sold at market, it being considered that, being thus accoutred, she was on a level with the cattle, and thus could legally be sold.


Attend to my ditty, you frolicsome folk,
I’ll tell you a story—a comical joke;
’Tis a positive fact, what I’m going to unfold,
Concerning a woman, who by auction was sold.

Then long may he flourish, and prosper through life,
The Sailor that purchased the Carpenter’s wife.

A carpenter lived not a mile off from here,
Being a little, or rather too, fond of his beer;
Being hard up for brass—it is true, on my life,
For ten shillings, by auction, he sold off his wife.

The husband and wife they could never agree,
For he was too fond of going out on the spree;
They settled the matter, without more delay,
So, tied in a halter, he took her away.

He sent round the bellman announcing the sale,
All in the hay-market, and that without fail,
The auctioneer came, with his hammer, so smart,
And the Carpenter’s wife stood up in a Cart.

Now she was put up without grumble or frown,
The first bid was a tailor, that bid half a crown;
Says he, I will make her a lady so spruce,
And fatten her well upon Cabbage and goose.*

Five and sixpence three farthings, a butcher then said,
Six and ten said a barber, with his curly head;
Then up jump’d a cobbler, said he, in three cracks,
I’ll give you nine shillings, and two balls of wax.

Just look at her beauty, the auctioneer cries,
She’s mighty good-tempered, and sober likewise;
Damme, said a sailor, she’s three out of four,
Ten shillings I bid for her, not a screw more.

Thank you, sir, thank you, said the bold auctioneer,
Going for ten—is there nobody here
Will bid any more ? Is not this a bad job ?
Going! Going! I say—she is gone for ten bob.

The hammer was struck—that concluded the sale,
The sailor he paid down the brass on the nail;
He shook hands with Betsy, and gave her a smack,
And she jump’d straddle-legs on to his back.

The people all relished the joke, it appears,
And gave the young Sailor three hearty good cheers;
He never cried stop, with his darling so sweet,
Until he was landed in Denison Street.

They sent for a fiddler, and piper to play,
They danced and they sung, untill the break of day,
Then Jack to his hammock with Betsy did go,
While the fiddler and the piper played “Rosin, the beau.”

* As applied to tailors, “cabbage” means the remnants of cloth stolen in making up garments. The goose is the large iron used for pressing the seams, etc.

Wives at the market did not fetch good prices; the highest I know of, is recorded in The Times, September 19, 1797 : “An hostler’s wife, in the country, lately fetched twenty-five guineas.” But this was extravagance, as, with the exception of a man who exchanged his wife for an ox, which he sold for six guineas, the next highest quotation is three and a half guineas; but this rapidly dwindled down to shillings, and even pence. In 1881, a wife was sold at Sheffield for a quart of beer; in 1862, another was purchased at Selby Market Cross for a pint; and the South Wales Daily News, May 2, 1882, tells us that one was parted with for a glass of ale. Sometimes they were unsaleable, as we learn by the following ballad :—

A jolly shoemaker, John Hobbs, John Hobbs,
A jolly shoemaker, John Hobbs!
      He married Jane Carter,
      No damsel look’d smarter;
      But he caught a tartar,
      John Hobbs, John Hobbs;
Yes, he caught a tartar, John Hobbs.

He tied a rope to her, John Hobbs, John Hobbs;
He tied a rope to her, John Hobbs!
      To ‘scape from hot water,
      To Smithfield he brought her;
      But nobody bought her,
      Jane Hobbs, Jane Hobbs,
They all were afraid of Jane Hobbs.

Oh, who’ll buy a wife? says Hobbs, John Hobbs;
A sweet pretty wife, says Hobbs.
      But, somehow, they tell us
      The wife-dealing fellows
      Were all of them sellers,
      John Hobbs, John Hobbs.
And none of them wanted Jane Hobbs.

The rope it was ready, John Hobbs, John Hobbs.
Come, give me the rope, says Hobbs;
      I won’t stand to wrangle,
      Myself I will strangle,
      And hang dingle dangle,
      John Hobbs, John Hobbs;
He hung dingle dangle, John Hobbs.

But down his wife cut him, John Hobbs, John Hobbs;
But down his wife cut him, John Hobbs;
      With a few hubble-bubbles,
      They settled their troubles,
      Like most married couples,
      John Hobbs, John Hobbs,
Oh, happy shoemaker, John Hobbs!

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