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
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.