Samuel Gist was born in Bristol, England in the early eighteenth century. But he was soon orphaned and sent as an apprentice to Virginia. He not only survived this tough start in life; he became a successful tobacco planter, a colleague of George Washington and eventually rose to be one of the most successful businessmen on both sides of the Atlantic. He developed an almost Midas-like passion for money, even though he had no male heir to inherit his wealth. Gist was famously mean towards his former neighbours in America, but his former slaves praised him and his daughters for their kindness and concern for their welfare. When he died, Gist was an impressive ninety-two years old, and left large sums to a wide range of charities. But in North America he is largely known for freeing his slaves, the largest manumission by a single person. He left money for their care and for their education, but his legacy was never fully realised. Only a small settlement survives in Ohio, but the descendants of his freed slaves now form a community to commemorate their ancestors and the confusing, complicated man who once owned them.
In 1786 a man in Spalding, England, delivered his wife in a halter to another man. The woman agreed to be sold and an agreement was signed and witnessed. The event ended when they dined with friends.
Wife selling is often described as the means for a brutal husband to be rid of his oppressed wife. But the above event and others provide a fascinating challenge. In France, it was widely believed that any man in England could dispose of an unwanted wife at Smithfield beast market, which confirmed their low opinion of the nation.
This book describes many varied examples of the practice, and puts it into the wider contexts of public and private behaviour in the Georgian Age. It shines a light on this unusual practice, and investigates the relationships between couples and within families involved couples from many regions and social classes. It also challenges the notion that the women involved were both passive and powerless.
Wife selling is generally seen as an act of brutality, confirming notions that women were its victims. But many women agreed to the sales; some seem to have initiated them, so the situation is complicated. Sales could be brutal, intriguing, and a few had happy endings. Just as every person is unique, so is every couple.
In 1733 a carpenter named Henry Bridges placed and advertisement in the London press. He announced that his giant musical and astronomical clock was on display at his house in Waltham Abbey near London. In the ensuing four decades it became the most widely viewed touring show of its age, visiting much of Britain as well as the Caribbean and North American colonies. It vanished from the record in 1775, but was found in Paris, and after restoration, it now lives in the British Museum. The clock was called The Microcosm, or Little World, as its four storeys described the worlds of art, architecture, commerce and carpentry, as well as playing a range of popular tunes. It was an example of precision technology, was frequently updated to display the latest astronomical discoveries, and acted as a focus for the exchange of ideas, for inspiration to craftsmen, and even for couples to court. It thus encouraged the spread of knowledge of marine navigation and timekeeping, fine art, engineering, and curiosity in its widest sense. Though largely forgotten today, the machine and its huge audience, were central to both the Industrial Revolution and the English Enlightenment.