Divorce in England in the 19th century required an Act of Parliament. Only the rich could afford it, and many couples remained legally bound in misery (usually the misery was on the wife’s part). But for the lower orders, there was another method.
According to author John Ashton, “On this class, the marriage tie lay lightly, and a rough, and summary, method was sometimes used to dissolve it.”
The method was wife-selling, and Ashton goes on to give examples, gleaned from various periodicals.
Morning Herald, March 11, 1802: "On the 11th of last month, a person sold, at the market cross, in Chapel en le Frith, a wife, a child, and as much furniture as would set up a beggar, for eleven shillings!"
Morning Herald, April 16, 1802: "A Butcher sold his wife by auction the last market day at Hereford. The lot brought £1 4s. and a bowl of punch."
Annual Register, February 14, 1806: "A man named John Gorsthorpe exposed his wife for sale in the market, at Hull, about one o'clock ; but, owing to the crowd which such an extraordinary occurrence had gathered together, he was obliged to defer the sale, and take her away. About four- o'clock, however, he again brought her out, and she was sold for 20 guineas, and delivered, in a halter, to a person named Houseman, who had lodged with them four or five years."
Morning Post, October 10, 1807: "One of those disgraceful scenes, which have, of late, become too common, took place on Friday se'nnight at Knaresborough. Owing to some jealousy, or other family difference, a man brought his wife, equipped in the usual style, and sold her at the market cross for 6d. and a quid of tobacco !"
In the Doncaster Gazette of March 25, 1803, a sale is thus described : " A fellow sold his wife, as a cow, in Sheffield market-place a few days ago. The lady was put into the hands of a butcher, who held her by a halter fastened round her waist. 'What do you ask for your cow?' said a bystander. 'A guinea,' replied the husband. 'Done!' cried the other, and immediately led away his bargain. We understand that the purchaser and his 'cow' live very happily together."
John Ashton, The Dawn of the XIXth Century in England: a social sketch of the times.