A Dark Chapter

I vaguely knew the story of Thomas Day and his attempt to mould a perfect wife from one of two orphan girls, that he ‘acquired’. However, until I read ‘How to create the perfect wife’, by Wendy Moore, I hadn’t appreciated just how much of an ordeal Day subjected the two young girls to.

After taking them from the orphanage, Day took the girls, Sabrina and Lucretia, to France, where they lived a life of drudgery and servitude.  On their return to England, Day decided to focus his efforts on Sabrina, and packed Lucretia off to be a milliner’s apprentice. Sabrina was brought to Lichfield, where they became part of the social circle that included Anna Seward, Erasmus Darwin and members of the Lunar Society. Sabrina and Day lived at Stowe House, and it was here that some of his worst treatment of the girl took place. As well as making Sabrina carry out all of the household tasks in the four storey house looking over Stowe Pool, Day subjected her to sadistic ‘training’ designed to develop stamina, strength and courage. Apparently, despite knowing that she was unable to swim,  Day even forced the poor child into the waters of the pool itself on one occasion. Once soaked through, Day made her lie in one of the nearby fields until she dried out.

Although many in Lichfield knew of Day’s experiment, Wendy Moore believes that a combination of Day’s money and background, and the fact that many of his Lichfield ‘friends’ had their own scandals to deal with, meant that a blind eye was turned to his treatment of the girl.

Day eventually decided Sabrina wasn’t suitable and so she too was sent away, whilst Day turned his attentions elsewhere. Whilst the book explores Day’s continuing quest for the perfect wife, it was the story of what happened to Sabrina that I was really interested in. Thankfully,  Wendy Moore does not abandon Sabrina as Day did and follows her life up until the end, thereby allowing us to know the full story of Sabrina as a person in her own right, and not just as part of a bizarre experiment carried out by a cruel and irresponsible man.

Stowe House, overlooking St Chad’s and Stowe Pool

‘How to create the perfect wife’ by Wendy Moore is published by Orion. Details here.

 

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17 thoughts on “A Dark Chapter

  1. I had come across the name of Day while searching through Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin: Chiefly During His Residence at Lichfield, by Anna Seward.

    It can be obtained as free ebook…

    http://books.google.pt/books?id=7IxAAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Anna+Seward&hl=en&sa=X&ei=5HpkUdf4E8Ku7AbsrYCgDA&redir_esc=y

    Intriguing for me…

    “Although many in Lichfield knew of Day’s experiment, Wendy Moore believes that a combination of Day’s money and background, and the fact that many of his Lichfield ‘friends’ had their own scandals to deal with, meant that a blind eye was turned to his treatment of the girl.”

    Over on BrownhillsBob’s Blog there may have been more blind eyes turned to the affairs at Whittington Barracks during WWII, concerning Colonel James Kilian…

    http://brownhillsbob.com/2013/04/05/in-the-soup/

    Regards Pedro

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    • Thanks. I shall have a read! With regard to the Whittington Barracks , I remember reading about it on Mark’s blog a while back. It’s interesting how these kind of things are still not widely known & I do have to wonder if a bit of a blind eye is still being turned? I know Mark was planning to include it in book he’d got some funding from Tamworth council for, about history in the area. I wonder if he ever did?

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  2. I had no idea about any of this- I have to ask, did Thomas Day name the girls himself? If so, that just adds one more layer of creepy to it, as he did not even let them keep the names they had been known by for most of their short lives.

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    • Yes he did rename the girls and actually now you’ve mentioned it I wish I had included their real names in the post. Sabrina was really Ann Kingston and Lucretia was Dorcas Car. Sabrina was apparently named after the River Severn which the orphanage was near to and Lucretia was apparently a virtuous Roman wife. There is an interesting article here by the author on how she traced them http://www.wnblog.co.uk/2013/02/finding-my-foundling/
      I think partly it was a control thing, but also possibly Day was keen to cover his tracks (hence the extended visit to France as well), as because he was a single man, he shouldn’t really have been allowed to take the orphans at all. He had to lie and say that the girls would be apprenticed to his married friend Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s. In fact it’s thought one of the reasons he came to Lichfield was that it was away from too many people who would ask questions, but at the same time had enough going on culturally to keep Day interested.

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  3. Hey everyone .. my wife works in Stowe House (not as a sevant =/ lol) but for City & Guilds, it is a funny place to walk around. You can sense the history, but for most of what I’ve heard.. it’s mostly bad coming from that property =( . .. anyhoo, talking about ‘odd’ houses of old.. my next property on my list for investigation is Davidson House (Up St John St) .. any leads??? best to all =)

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  4. Hi Simon,

    What is the house used for today, then? When you say bad, do you mean just bad feelings about the place?

    My own personal house to locate is the crooked cottages that Kate has mentioned in the past.

    As to the American troops at Whittington, will have to ask the grandparents if they remember anything.

    Thanks for all the wonerful stories you are bringing to light, Kate!

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    • Thanks! You should read the book if you get chance. And also if you do get the chance to ask your grandparents about Whittington (or anything else about what they remember about Lichfield history for that matter!) please do let us know! Enjoy exploring the Cruck houses, I think they are great and I’d love to know more about them too!

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      • Hi Kate,

        I did ask them, but they don’t remember anything about a scandal, though Grandad did add such things were normally hushed up. He did remember that there were some American troops stationed at Fradley Airfield, including Mickey Rooney the actor.

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      • Thanks! I would like to do something on RAF Fradley especially on the troops from other countries that were stationed there and how they got on with the locals. I know there were lots of Australians there too – I found a bench at the Cathedral & a blog by someone whose relative was posted there. And I would of course love to know what Mickey Rooney got up to in Lichfield!

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  5. I’ve passed Stowe House, but knew nothing of its history, or of Day, who must have been very odd, and quite arrogan reallt to embark on a scheme like that, and to make it all seem normal and OK. The book sounds interesting – I wonder if there is a copy in the library.

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    • A very strange & complex character. Anti-slavery, gave lots to the poor yet thought his behaviour re the two girls was acceptable. Do try & seek out the book, I think you’ll find it very interesting. I read it in two sittings!

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  6. Yes Day’s experiment was reprehensible by modern standards but was seen by Day and his many Radical friends as being a cutting-edge social experiment based on the writings of the French philophopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Day believed that women’s education at the time, such as it was, condemned them to a life of repression and low expectations and was hoping to show that it was possible to educate women to be independent of thought, stoical and well read. He took Sabrina and Lucretia to France in the hope that they would be removed from the ‘harmful,’ socialising effects of other people (i.e. English speakers) and did (unusually for a man in the 18th century) care for them quite tenderly when they both contracted smallpox. His methods of raising Sabrina to adopt a Stoical view of life, when they lived at Stowe House in 1770 and 1771, are by any modern standard cruel and unusual! They included dropping hot wax on her neck and firing (blank) pistols at her! He was most dismayed when she screamed and ran away, apparently! Day was a complex individual and very unusual for his time – a friend of Darwin and Anna Seward he was, in many ways, a hippy born ahead ahead of his time – scruffy, radical, anti-slavery, interested in nature and alternative education.
    Stowe House has an interesting history. Built in 1754 by Elizabeth Aston – a woman Samuel Johnson spent a great deal of time with. the House has been the home of many notable people over the years. As well as Day, his friend, Richard Edgeworth, another member of the Lunar Society lived there for a time as well as the banker Richard Greene who was declared bankrupt in 1856 causing the House to be sold for £4860. The House was owned by the Birmingham Hospital Board in the 20th century when it was used as a training centre. Today it is owned by an organisation called ILM which, in my experience, is not keen on members of the public visiting to look around.

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  7. Thanks for your comment Neil. I wrote the post in the hope that other people would read the book too. It’s very interesting to read someone else’s viewpoint regarding Day. As I mentioned, at the moment, most of what I know about Day and the experiment comes from Wendy Moore’s book. However…..

    I think the discussion about judging the behaviour of people in the past by modern standards is an interesting one. However, I can’t help but judge a man who amongst other things thought it was acceptable to use a young girl as a social experiment, without her knowledge or consent, and think it was acceptable as part of that experiment to drop hot wax on her shoulders amongst other things. I am still inclined to believe that he went to France, at least in part, as he knew what he was doing was wrong and illegal. If he was concerned about the ‘socialising’ effects of other people on the girls, it seems strange that after returning from France he was happy for Sabrina to become part of the Lichfield social scene. Interestingly, Wendy Moore also doubts that the two girls ever contracted smallpox, as it is likely that they would have been immunised at the Foundling Hospital, which just shows that there are always two sides to every story (if not more!).

    I’m inclined to think that any attempts to educate the girls was for Day’s benefit, not theirs. For me, his treatment of them seems to contradict his claims that he wanted them to think independently. Perhaps a better way of showing that women education could be improved would have been to set up a school, as I believe Erasmus Darwin did some time after?

    I’d also be interested in finding out more about Stowe Hill House, the other house that Elizabeth Aston built and the one that she lived in in, I think. Apparently there may also have been a third too. It’s a shame if the ILM aren’t keen on the public visiting, I think it would be a great place to open up for the heritage weekend.

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  8. Looking again at the Anna Seward book mentioned in the first comment, she does not seem to show much emotion towards the girls. Could this be because she was a member of the Lichfield “set”?

    Day could not have obtained the girls without the backing of his money, and taking them from an orphanage sounds awfully like recent events!

    Somes lines from the book…

    …Mr. Day went instantly to France with these girls, not taking an English servant, that they may receive no ideas, except those which himself might choose to impart…

    …They tiezed and perplexed him; they quarrelled and fought incessantly; they sickened of the small pox; they chained him to their bedside by crying, and screaming if they were ever left for a moment with any person who could not speak to them in English. He was obliged to sit up with them many nights; to perform for them the lowest offices of assistance…

    …crossing the Rhone with his wards on a tempestuous day the boat overset, being an excellent swimmer he saved them both, though with difficulty and danger to himself…

    …Sabrina…

    …preparations for implanting in her young mind the characteristic virtues of Arria, Portia and Cornelia.

    …when he dropped melted sealing wax upon her arms she did not endure it heroically, nor when he fired pistols at her petticoats, which she believed to be charged with balls, could she help starting aside, or supress her screams…

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