Hapless Husbands and Wandering Wives


“The Elopement’, John Collet

We are all aware of the strong legal disadvantages suffered by 18th-century married women. Before the passing of The Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, wives were treated as appendages to their husbands, with no independent rights. After marriage, husband and wife became one person under the law, all the property of the wife was surrendered to her husband and her separate legal identity ceased to exist. There were, however, certain problems for husbands in this situation too. If your wife ran away, then incurred debts by taking credit from shopkeepers and the like, you were still legally responsible for paying them. You and your wife, even if she said she had left your home for good, remained legally one person.

That’s why local newspapers often carried advertisements like these. Note that the word “elopement” at this time simply meant “running away”. It had not acquired the modern practise of restricting its use purely to “running away to get married”.


WHEREAS FRANCES the wife of CHARLES GOLDSMITH, of Ixworth, in the County of Suffolk, shopkeeper and tailor, has lately absconded from me; This is to give Notice to all and every Person or Persons whomsoever, not to let the said Frances Goldsmith take any Goods, or borrow any Money on my Credit, as I will not be accountable for the same after this public Notice.
Witness my Hand, this 9th Day of April, 1793.

The Norfolk Chronicle, 13 April, 1793

WHEREAS CATHARINE (formerly CATHARINE MORRIS, Spinster) the Wife of THOMAS BULLOCK, of Thursford, in the County of Norfolk, Esquire, some short Time since eloped from her said Husband, and has refused to return: Now I the said Thomas Bullock do hereby give Notice to all Persons not to harbour her, on pain of being prosecuted for the same; and I do also desire that no Person will give her any Credit, as I am determined not to pay any Debts which she may contract from this Time. As witness my Hand this Second Day of August, 1784.

The Norfolk Chronicle, 14 August, 1784

A Land Without Divorce

Some 50% of marriages today end in divorce. In the 18th century, there was no divorce, save via a private Act of Parliament—an unbelievably expensive and difficult process open only to the richest of the rich. For the rest, marriage really was a lifetime state. Nor should we assume that every marriage was an arranged one. This practice really only applied to the aristocracy and landed families with concerns about inheritance or propping up a failing estate. People of the middling sort and below generally chose their own partners, much as people do today. Everyone is fallible, so free choice was no guarantee of lifelong affection, or even tolerance.

Some aggrieved husbands resorted to selling their wives (though this was never legal). Many simply abandoned them and headed somewhere else. For wives too, the option of running away, perhaps changing your name and then trying to make a fresh start was often the only course open.

It’s tempting, and probably correct, to assume that many such situations were due in large part to the husband’s conduct. From the wording of their advertisements, you may conclude that abandoned husbands had nothing in mind other than to protect themselves from incurring unwanted debts. They might make a conventional gesture towards a willingness to forgive and forget, but it wasn’t believable, especially when linked to threats against anyone who harboured the lady. However, this next advertisement would indicate either the husband’s forgiving nature to a wife determined to wander, or a man blind to some serious faults on his part!

WHEREAS MARY the Wife of JOHN BOULTER, of Great Yarmouth in the County of Norfolk, Mariner, has several Times eloped from her Husband within the Space of twelve Months last past, and has (notwithstanding his Promise to forgive what had past) again eloped from him: This is therefore to forbid all Persons from harbouring her, and to give Notice, that whatever Debts she may contract from Date hereof, I will not undertake to pay. Witness my Hand this 3rd D[a]y of December, 1778 JOHN BOULTER

The Norfolk Chronicle, 5 December, 1778

A Very Red Face!

Sometimes husbands got it badly wrong. Maybe they simply hadn’t listened to what their wives said to them. Maybe they ignored it. Either way, some serious public grovelling was needed afterwards to put things right!

January 3, 1729
Whereas is was Advertis’d in this Paper of [Nov. 2?] that Elizabeth the Wife of John Danford of [Marlsham?] in the County of Suffolk, Blacksmith, had lately Eloped from her said Husband, and carried with her several Houshold Goods and Money: These therefore are [to] give Notice to all Persons, that the said Elizabeth was not Elopt from her Husband, but gone to see her Sisters, and carry’d away no Goods, but I did this in my Passion which I now Repent, but she shall have the same Liberty as a Wife ought to have.

The Ipswich Journal, 28 December, 1728

The Legal Position

The law was clear. Marriage was indissoluble. No amount of advertising was going to alter that, nor remove anyone’s legal liability for debts incurred. I suspect the main purpose of the advertisements was to let everyone know the husband would refuse to pay his wandering wife’s debts, so it would be best not to allow her any credit. If they did, they would need to weigh the cost and trouble of trying to enforce that debt through the courts against writing it off.

Of course, if either party to the marriage wed someone else—and was found out—they were guilty of bigamy and liable to punishment for it—especially if a husband felt vindictive!

Last Tuesday Susanna Moore, who had eloped from Mr. Moore of Harwich, her Husband and was advertised in the Ipswich Journal, and is since married to one John Game, with whom she has lived in this City for some Time, was committed to the City Goal, on the Oath of her said Husband Moore.

The Ipswich Journal, 15 April, 1749

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About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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6 Responses to Hapless Husbands and Wandering Wives

  1. If I were a disgruntled wife, I’d probably love running up a few debts and making sure my husband paid! It must have been extremely tempting, given that adulterous behaviour was all too common….
    Thanks for stopping by my blog, by the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • These advertisements were addressed to shopkeepers to make them turn you away when you tried it! You would need to do it quickly, before your misery of a husband could block you. For what it’s worth, adulterous behaviour by wives was quite common too, but they couldn’t “punish” a husband who ran off by cutting off his credit (or anything else!). I guess that however you look at it, the wives got the raw deal, disgruntled or not.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. noelleg44 says:

    Another interesting blog – women really didn’t have many options in their lives, did they? Especially if they were in the higher classes. And the possibility of making a poor choice (or maybe an only choice, since I noticed the attribute of Spinster) could doom a woman for life. Glad I didn’t live in that era!


    • The widespread possibility of divorce and either living outside of marriage or remarrying is really very recent. In my parents’ generation, divorce was certainly legal, but still expensive, adversarial and wrapped around with all kinds of social stigmas. The surprise to me is how many saw marriage as the only acceptable aim in life, whatever the risks. As a child, I knew little of what adults did, but I suspect now that all kinds of expedients were found to stay ‘respectable’ on the surface, while striving to meet other needs on the quiet — especially during the years when many men were away at war.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. beppie2014 says:

    What a wonderful blog! Although the system then had obvious flaws (as does the system today) I find myself wondering if there were some way to preserve some of the stability as a corrective to the swinging door state of dispensing with marriage now. Maybe we expect too much of marriage in the world we live in?


  4. Reblogged this on Ella Quinn ~ Author and commented:

    I thought you might enjoy this!


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