The bizarre methods Sussex folk used to find a marriage partner

PUBLISHED: 15:35 02 March 2017 | UPDATED: 15:35 02 March 2017

Wife selling

Wife selling


In the past, Sussex folk used a huge array of curious beliefs and charms to find the right marriage partner. Chris Horlock finds out more

Oday, discovering Mr or Mrs Right could be as simple as trawling through the myriad of dating sites and apps available – where any number of individuals await scrutiny. In the past, for girls particularly, the situation was very different and the methods many employed to find a husband were strange to say the least. In 1868, Charlotte Latham, of Fittleworth, near Petworth, collected a large number of “Omens and Presages associated with Love and Marriage,” which she published as a book, Some West Sussex Superstitions, in 1878. On the subject of determining how long it would be before someone married, she wrote: “There is an experimental spell which I have tried sometimes in my youth in Sussex. A ring, or piece of money, is suspended by a thread or hair, and held as steadily as may be within a glass. The belief is, that when it begins to oscillate, it will strike the number of years that are to pass before the holder of the thread is married.”

One way she recorded for a girl to glimpse a future husband required her visiting the local graveyard and picking a sprig of yarrow growing on the grave of a man who had died young. Then, a short rhyme had to be recited:

Yarrow, sweet yarrow, the first that I

have found,

In the name of Jesus Christ, I pluck it from

the ground;

As Joseph loved sweet Mary, and took her for

his dear,

So in a dream this night, I hope, my true love

will appear.

The girl then had to sleep with the yarrow under her pillow.

Another custom, used by both men and women, involved cutting a plant such as a fern just above the root. The section across the stem would be in the shape of the initial of their future partner’s name.

A further ritual described in Latham’s book was the apple charm. “The apple charm is very simple, consisting merely in every person present fastening an apple on a string, hung and twirled round before a hot fire. The owner of the apple that first falls off is declared to be upon the point of marriage; and as they fall successively, the order in which the rest of the party will attain to the matrimonial honours is clearly indicated; single blessedness being the lot of the one whose apple is last to drop.”

An old saying she gives about bees however, strikes a warning note: “If bees make their nest in the roof of a house, none of the daughters in that dwelling will marry.”

Valentine’s Day of course would see cards exchanged, a tradition going back to the late 18th century. It was in 1784 that a nursery rhyme was published, containing a verse which immediately became popular to write in cards:

The rose is red, the violet blue,

The honey’s sweet and so are you.

Having found Mr Right, there would be a wedding to plan. There was an old Sussex rhyme about the best colour to have for a wedding dress:

Married in black, you’ll wish yourself back.

Married in blue, love will be true.

Married in brown, you’ll live in the town.

Married in yellow, ashamed of the fellow.

Married in green, not fit to be seen.

Married in pink, you’ll live at the sink.

Married in the red, you’ll wish yourself dead.

Married in purple, you’ll look simply awful.

Married in grey, you’ll live right away.

Married in mauve, you’ll look like a toad.

Married in white, you’ll look just right.

It seems white or blue were the only choices! Friday was considered a bad day to get married: “Let not Friday be your wedding day, or you and your wife will lead a cat and dog life.”

An odd ritual at weddings was that a bride, when coming out of the church, would be ‘robbed’ of pins in her dress by the single females present, from the belief that whoever possessed one would be married within the forthcoming year. Loose pins were deliberately tucked into the dress so this could readily happen.

There were many other customs to be observed when it came to raising a family. A couple hoping for a child could ensure conception by rocking an empty cradle. 
An old rhyme stated that:

If you rock the cradle empty,

Then you shall have babies a plenty.

At a christening, it was essential the baby cried during the ceremony. If not, ill luck would follow. Another belief was that a mother should never cut her newborn child’s fingernails for a full year. This would prevent the child growing up to be a thief. If the nails really needed trimming, the mother had to nibble them down with her own teeth.

But what if the marriage didn’t work out? Could a couple divorce? Bizarre as it seems, the quickie divorce of the past was for a man to sell his wife. This didn’t happen very often, but was not an uncommon practice in Sussex between 1700 and 1900, when the belief was a wife was simply a man’s property. Wives for sale were taken to market with halters round their necks, just like livestock, and stood on a stool or table, while bidding took place for them. What seems a very misogynistic and degrading experience was actually, most of the time, a pre-planned act by both husband and wife. Years ago, it was virtually impossible for ordinary people to get divorced because of the cost – who could afford a lawyer to process it? – so wife-selling was a cheap alternative. It was done publicly, meaning the event was witnessed and everyone would then know the new arrangement. In most cases, the wife was sold to an existing lover and the price had already been agreed beforehand. The bidding was largely sham and the cry “sold!” would come when the new husband shouted out the right price. By tradition, the husband would then use the money to buy drinks for everyone, including his ex-wife and her new ‘owner.’ In Brighton’s market building in February 1799, a man named Staines sold his wife for five shillings plus eight quarts of beer to James Marten. A century later, in 1898, at the Shoulder of Mutton and Cucumbers pub at Yapton, a Mr Marley sold his wife for the more modest 7s 6d and a quart of beer.

But reverting back to finding a bride, the most bizarre proposal of marriage ever in Sussex involves, of all things, a leg of mutton. Sir Henry Featherstonehaugh was owner of Uppark, the famous Sussex house at Harting, from 1774. He led a dissolute life – it was wine, women and song all the way – and there are any number of tales about dinner parties he threw for the likes of the Prince Regent (later George IV), and how his guests became so inebriated they were taken off to their bedchambers in wheelbarrows! There’s a well-known story of Emma Hamilton (Nelson’s mistress) dancing naked for Henry and his friends on the dining room table of Uppark. However in his early 70s, Henry decided to settle down. He took a fancy to a young dairymaid named Mary Ann Bullock, who worked on his estate. Apparently, the attraction began when he overheard her singing while she was milking the cows, and he was thoroughly captivated by the beauty of her voice.

He proposed to her in the cattle parlour, but the girl was so shocked she was rendered speechless. So he said: “If you’ll have me, cut a slice out of the leg of mutton that’s coming up for my dinner today,” and promptly left. Was it his looks, his charm, or – just possibly – his enormous wealth that turned young Mary’s pretty head?

Whatever it was, sure enough, at dinner time, there was his leg of mutton with a slice neatly cut out of it, signalling: “I will.” They married in 1825, were together 21 years (Henry died when 92), but no heir to the house and estates was produced.

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