Skip to Content

Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899

R. v. Malkins [1811] NSWKR 8; [1811] NSWSupC 8

wife sale

Magistrates Court, September 1811
Source: Sydney Gazette, Supplement, 14 September 1811 [1]

           By a letter from Windsor, dated the 10th Instant, we have been favored with an account of a most disgraceful transaction which has lately taken place there, and we feel it a duty owing to Society to give it public notoriety, as well for the purpose of exposing the parties themselves to the contempt and disgrace which they have so highly incurred, as also to put the ignorant and abandoned on their guard against the commission of a crime which every sense of manhood should revolt from with detestation.

           "A person (for a man I cannot call him) of the name of Ralph Malkins, led his lawful wife into our streets on the 28th ultimo, with a rope round her neck, and publicly exposed her for sale; and, shameful to be told, another fellow equally contemptible, called Thomas Quire, actually purchased and paid for her on the spot, sixteen pounds in money, and some yards of cloth. I am sorry to add, that the woman herself was so devoid of those feelings which are justly deemed the most valuable in her sex, agreed to the base traffic, and went off with the purchaser, significantly hinting, that she had no doubt her new possessor would make her a better husband than the wretch she then parted from. This business was conducted in so public a manner, and so far outraged all laws human or divine, that a Bench of Magistrates, consisting of Mr. Cox, the Rev. Mr. Cartwright, and Mr. Mileham , had it publicly investigated on Saturday last, and all the odious circumstances having been clearly proved, and even admitted by the base wretches themselves, the Bench sentenced this no-man to receive 50 lashes, and put to hard labour in irons on the gaol gang at Sydney for the space of three calendar months; and the woman to be transported to the Coal River for an indefinite time.

           "The public indignation at so gross a violation of decency was most unequivocally expressed, by the acclamations with which the sentence was received by a numerous concourse of people who assembled to know the event of so extraordinary and unprecedented a business - Their feelings were worthy of Men, and judging from them, I trust with confidence that the recurrence of such a crime will not take place here at least for the present generation. The laudable promptitude with which our Magistrates took up the business, and the quantum of punishment (still less than they deserve) which they pronounced, will, I have no doubt, produce the most salutary effect throughout the Colony, and check the progress of a crime, which if persevered in, would degrade the Inhabitants, and intail perpetual disgrace on their children and families."


[1] This has the elements of the traditional English practice of wife sale.   See E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common, Penguin, 1993, ch. 7. Thompson suggested that the women were not always passive victims of the practice, but sometimes sought it out as a form of informal divorce.   It continued well into the nineteenth century.

Wife sale was the basis of the plot in Thomas Hardy's novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University