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THOMAS DAY, 22nd June 1748- 28th September 1789, Called to the Bar, 1776.


Thomas Day was born on 22nd June 1748 in London, the only child of Thomas and Jane Day. Thomas Day Senior died when Day was about a year old, leaving him fatherless but wealthy. Thomas Junior first attended  school in Stoke Newington, Middlesex, but after a bout with smallpox he removed to Charterhouse School. From 1764, he attended Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he became a star debater, but he did not graduate and left the college in 1767.


Day moved back to his family estate at Barehill, Berkshire. There he met the progressive educator Richard Lovell Edgeworth, from whom he became almost inseparable, and who lived nearby at Hare Hatch, near Maidenhead. Together the two resolved to educate Edgeworth's son, Dick, in the style of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's ‘Emile.’ Edgeworth and the project converted Day to Rousseauvianism. He declared in 1769 that the two books he would save, were all the world's books to be destroyed, would be the Bible and Emile; he, Edgeworth and Dick even visited Rousseau in France.


After his first educational project, Day undertook a second: he tried to train a wife. After failing to find the perfect wife - several women, including Edgeworth’s sister, and Honora and Elizabeth Sneyd (both of whom later married Edgeworth!) turned down his proposals of marriage - he decided to adopt two foundlings and, using Rousseau's maxims, educate them to be the perfect partner; the idea being, perhaps, that choosing two would ensure that one of them would prove suitable! In 1769 he visited an orphanage in Shrewsbury with his friend John Bicknell, and adopted a ‘flaxen haired beauty’ 12-year-old whom he named Sabrina Sydney, and from the Foundling Hospital in London he chose an 11-year-old whom he renamed Lucretia. Day took them to France to educate them in isolation. Unfortunately, the girls became ill and "squabbled" and he decided to give up on Lucretia, who he did not think could satisfy him intellectually; she was said to be ‘invincibly stupid’ and was placed with a milliner. Sabrina, he felt, was still a possibility, but he believed her character needed to be further strengthened.


In 1770, Day settled in Lichfield, and was introduced to Erasmus Darwin and the circle of intellectuals who formed the Lunar Society, the members of which, industrialists, theorists, philosophers, were, at heart, philanthropists like Day. Day became a member of the Society.


Eventually, he gave up his project of moulding Sabrina’s character. Sabrina was placed in a boarding school at Sutton Coldfield, and eventually married Day’s friend Bicknell who had accompanied him on his original visits to the orphanage.


Although Day was wealthy, he decided to study the law and in 1776 was admitted to Lincoln's Inn; he rarely practiced.


Day did finally meet his "paragon" of a woman in Esther Milnes (1753-1792), an heiress from Chesterfield. They were married on 7th August 1778. The couple subsequently moved to a small estate at Stapleford Abbotts, near Abridge in Essex. They lived a very ascetic lifestyle and Esther was never allowed contact with her family. In 1780, the couple moved again, to Anningsley in Surrey, when Day bought a new estate there. It was a philanthropic project for both husband and wife and they laboured to improve the conditions of the working classes around them, believing ‘We have no right to luxuries while the poor want bread.’


In 1773, Day published his first work ‘The Dying Negro’ a poem he had written with John Bicknell that tells the horrifying story of a runaway slave. It was a bestseller and one of the first pieces of literature in the campaign in Britain to abolish the slave trade.


Three years later, in 1776, Day argued for the rights of the American colonists in his poem ‘The Devoted Legions’ and in 1780 he argued in Parliament for an early peace with the revolutionaries, as well as parliamentary reform. His speeches were also published as pamphlets.


But it was as a writer for children that Day made his reputation. ‘The History of Little Jack’ published in 1787 was extremely popular, but it could not match the sales of ‘The History of Sandford and Merton’ published in 1783 which was a bestseller for over a hundred years. Written in response to Edgeworth’s complaint that there was no suitable reading for his children, an embracing Rousseau's dictates in many ways, it narrates the story of the rich, noble but spoiled Tommy Merton and his poor but virtuous friend Harry Sandford. Through trials and stories, Harry and the boys' tutor teach Tommy the importance of labour and the evils of the idle rich.


Day was thrown from his horse while trying to break it using kindness at Barehill on 28 September 1789 and died almost instantly. He was much mourned by his fellow Lunaticks for his moral courage and humanitarian commitments, and was buried at St Mary's Church, Wargrave, Berkshire.


Content derived from Wikipedia and other sources

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other members of

The Lunar Society?

Richard Edgeworth James Keir William Small Jonathan Stokes John Whitehurst William Withering

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James Keir’s list of

Thomas Day’s works?


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