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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A Lost Place

A couple of years ago, I learned that there had once been a place in Lichfield known as Bessy Banks Grave. Appearing on several old maps, the name is also referred to in a newspaper advertisement from 1914, but seems to have disappeared shortly afterwards. The plot of land was in The Dimbles area and I suspect that the name may have been lost when the council began building houses there in the early twentieth century.

Attempts to discover the story behind the name led to a poem written by Anna Seward for her friend Honora Sneyd, at the place known as Bessy Banks Grave, which Miss Seward refers to as ‘the grave of a suicide’.

“It suits the temper of my soul to pour
Fond, fruitless plaints beneath the lonely bower,
Here, in this silent glade, that childhood fears,
Where the love-desperate maid, of vanish’d years,
Slung her dire cord between the sister trees,
That slowly bend their branches to the breeze,
And shade the bank that screens her mouldering form,
From the swart Dog-Star, and the wintry storm….”

David Garrick also knew the place, adding that it was supposedly haunted and in 1805, John Jackson remarked that the spot was ‘once the famous rendezvous of lovers….now no more is remembered than that poor Betsy (sic) is said to have fallen victim to hapless love’.

After reading the original post, “Margaret” left a comment to say that she had found a poem called ‘The Circuit Lane’, in the 1859 book ‘Rustic Rhymes’, by Frederick Price. The Circuit Lane marked part of the boundary of Lichfield, as can be seen in the following extract which appears in several history books from the early nineteenth century:

“… and so along that little cross lands unto another lane that leadeth from Lichfield to King’s Bromley and then along that lane towards Lichfield unto a little lane lying between the Grange Ground and Collin’s Hill Field commonly called the Circuit lane unto the further end of it betwixt two fields the one called Hic filius and the other Piper’s Croft and so over across a lane that leadeth from Lichfield to Elmhurst and then into another little lane between Stichbrooke Ground and Gifforde’s Crofte and so along that little lane to a green lane at the further side of the Lady Leasowe being the land of Zachary Babington Esquire and down that lane to a brook called Pone’s Brook and so over that brook into another lane called Stepping stones lane…”

As well as painting a picture of a disappeared landscape, Frederick Price’s poem also refers to the lost story of Bessy Banks. The full poem is here, but I have included an excerpt below

Daisy, ladysmock, and kingcup,
And the broad-leaved flag so gay,
With which we in pride would prink up
Doorsteps on the first of May –
Where bright flies their wings are sunning
Where shells strangely marked are found
Where the rippling brook is running
In which Bessy Banks was drowned.

Pass we these, and onward pressing
Where o’er head tall elm trees wave,
‘Tween banks rich in Nature’s dressing
Till we come to Bessy’s grave:
Here four cross-roads meet; a green mound
Indicates her place of rest;
Few spots are more lone, I ween, found
On old England’s face imprest.

Hawthorn blossoms fall and slumber
O’er where the betrayed one lies –
One more victim to the number
Sung in great Hood’s ‘Bridge of Sighs’
The betrayer, in corruption,
Lies in fetid church-yard soil,
Where e’en earthworms meet destruction
Fit ‘last home’ for one so vile.

Hence the lane has been neglected
From that time : the rustic swain
Since that hour the road rejectes
Nor dare traverse it again
Burdocks, thistles, nettles, tansy,
And the nightshade flourish there;
But the primrose or the pansey
Scarce are known to blossom near.

You’ll notice that Price’s version of the story differs from the earlier one told by Anna Seward. Perhaps the clue to this lies in the reference Price makes to ‘Hood’s Bridge of Sighs’, relating to the poem by Thomas Hood, written in 1844 and said by the Victoria and Albert Museum to be a ‘classic stereotype of the harlot and her destiny‘?

 

 

The Grave of Poor Bessy Banks

I spotted a place labelled Bessy Banks’ Grave on the 1815 Ordnance Survey drawing of Lichfield by Robert Dawson 1815.

Immediately, I thought of the story of Kitty Jay on Dartmoor. A little investigation has revealed a few details. In ‘History of the City and Cathedral of Lichfield’ by John Jackson (1805), I found the following;

“…of Betsy Banks grave* once the famous rendezvous of lovers….now no more is remembered than that poor Betsy is said to have fallen victim to hapless love.

*there is a spot in a field in Lichfield still distinguished by that name”

Anna Seward wrote to her friend Honora Sneyd about the place in a letter dated May 1772, that she described as ‘Written in a summer evening from the grave of a suicide’. I’ve only included the first part as its quite long.

“It suits the temper of my soul to pour
Fond, fruitless plaints beneath the lonely bower,
Here, in this silent glade, that childhood fears,
Where the love-desperate maid, of vanish’d years,
Slung her dire cord between the sister trees,
That slowly bend their branches to the breeze,
And shade the bank that screens her mouldering form,
From the swart Dog-Star, and the wintry storm….”

Another reference can be found in one of David Garrick’s letters.  He wrote that “the name Dimble is given to a sunken road leading north from Lichfield past a spot, supposedly haunted called Betty Honks Grave. Two sister trees form an elegant arch over a stream”.

By 1791, it was found that the sister trees had been recently cut down.

So who was Bessy Banks, did she really exist? If so, is her grave still there, now unmarked and unremembered?

Edit 5/9/2011

I recently had the St Chad’s tithe map (1849) out in Lichfield Record Office, looking for something else. A whole plot of land is listed as ‘Bessy Banks’. Born a Lichfeldian has kindly worked out where the stream in this area would have been. Taking into account this and the tithe map it seems that ‘Bessy Banks’ was somewhere in the region between Dimbles Lane and Greencroft.
John Jackson’s description suggects that in 1805 the story is already an old one. It does seem a fairly well-known tale, to have actual places on maps marked after it, as well as being mentioned by Garrick (albeit with the name Betty Honks!) & Seward.  Was it just a made-up story, or did it arise from actual events? I wonder when (and why?) the people of Lichfield stopped telling the story? Or could there even still be people who could tell us the tragedy of Lichfield’s ‘love-desperate maid?’

Edit: 15/4/2012

A notice in the Lichfield Mercury 20th February 1914 lists a lot for sale as garden land, known as Bessy Banks, adjoining a plot of arable land let by T Chapman and located next to Gaiafields House and Gaia Fields Cottage.