A Cornish Wife Sale

Or, Two Shillings and Sixpence

Reading time: 5 minutes

The many incarnations of Redruth Market…

A sketch of Fore Street, Redruth, by JMW Turner, c1811. The lean-to roofs of the old market are just visible on the left below the clock. Matthew Imms, ‘Fore Street, Redruth, with Carn Brea in the Distance 1811 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, June 2011, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-fore-street-redruth-with-carn-brea-in-the-distance-r1137259, accessed 12 July 2021.
The Buttermarket, Redruth, c1870. First built in 1825-6 for Sir Francis Bassett. By kind permission Kresen Kernow, corn02860
The Buttermarket, Redruth, 2021. By the author

One of the many admirable achievements of Redruth Revival, a Community Interest Company working to breathe new life – and new business – into Redruth’s town centre, has been their restoration of the old Buttermarket. They have sought to forge a link with Redruth’s history as a busy market centre and reimagine the area as a thriving platform for local businesses. So keen are Redruth Revival to present their Buttermarket as the continuation of the past market, they carry the following quote when outlining their aims and objectives for the revamped space:

Oh, ye who never knew the joys, try it! Remember Redruth Market, there you can have all in perfection and in no town in the kingdom is there greater abundance or quality…

This was apparently written in 1778. What its author would have made of the current goods and services on offer from the market is unknowable. The Redruth Town Market Facebook post for 29 June 2021 advertises an organic bread stall, a vinyl clock stall, a jewellery stall, a handmade soap stall, a print stall, and recycled fabric crafts, to name but a few, all accompanied by live folk music. My research has shown me that, historically, such luxury and expense was rarely on display at Redruth Market in the late Georgian and early Victorian era: it was an established and important rural trading centre. “Abundance” and “quality” of livestock and crops are what the diarist from 1778 probably had in mind.

My work on Redruth Market has also thrown up a good many instances of crime and morally questionable occurrences on market days. One such was seemingly so out of the ordinary I felt compelled to investigate more thoroughly! From The West Briton, December 17, 1819, page 2:

On Friday last a man led his wife, by a straw band which was fastened round her neck, into the market at Redruth, and put her up to auction. This exhibition, the first of the kind at Redruth, drew together a crowd; but very few appeared disposed to become purchasers. After a considerable time, the sum of two shillings and six pence was offered, and the woman was delivered to the purchaser…

A Wife Sale?!

  • Who were the people involved?
  • How did it happen?
  • And, the question that everybody asks me when I read them the brief initial report from the West Briton given above, why did it happen?

And, if you’re curious to find out more, this article should be published in the Journal of the Cornwall Association of Local Historians, spring 2022. It’s a fascinating yet ultimately harrowing and dismal tale of people on the very margins of society.

Is there an historical event from your town or village that you would like me to investigate? Contact me to discuss!

Many thanks

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