In My Fair Lady, a flower-seller from the streets of London fantasises the King of England announcing:

“Next week on the 20th of May,

I proclaim Eliza Doolittle Day…”

The musical featuring Eliza Doolittle was adapted from Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. The title comes from a Greek myth about a king who creates then falls in love with a statue, but it is widely believed that in creating Henry Higgins and his experiment to turn an urchin into a ‘Lady’,  Shaw took inspiration from the story of Thomas Day and his attempts to create ‘the perfect wife’.

Due to Day’s wealth and position in society, he was able to illegally isolate and manipulate two vulnerable girls, changing their lives forever. We will never know what psychological damage they suffered as a result of Day’s experiments, and his reprehensible behaviour went unpunished. We are glad to be able to share the stories of Sabrina and Lucretia cast light on this terrible behaviour.

Thomas Day is best known as a writer and abolitionist. He was born in 1748, the only child of a wealthy family. His father died when he was one, and he was educated at Charter House School and later at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Day’s first published piece was a poem about a runaway slave, entitled The Runaway Negro, which he co-authored with barrister John Bicknell. He was a member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a dinner club for industrialists, natural philosophers and intellectuals. Other members included the famous abolitionists Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgewood.

Day became obsessed by the book Emile, or On Education, which is a treatise on the nature of education written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. After several romantic disappointments, at age 21, he decided to adapt Rousseau’s theories to raise a young girl to become “‘he Perfect Wife.

Ann and Dorcas are taken from the Hospital

In 1769, Thomas Day approached the Foundling Hospital’s Shrewsbury site, claiming to be acting on behalf of his close friend, Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Day apprenticed a 12 year-old Pupil named Ann Kingston telling the hospital she would be trained as a maid.  The Hospital’s rules did not allow a single man, like Day, to take an apprentice but Edgeworth was a well-respected politician, writer and inventor and married.

Ann had been born Manima Butler, and was renamed Ann Kingston (Pupil number 4,579) upon being admitted to the Foundling Hospital as a baby in 1757. However, having been placed into the custody of Day, she found herself with another new name – Sabrina Sidney.

A few months later, Day visited the Foundling Hospital’s London site and selected a second ‘trainee’, an 11 year-old pupil called Dorcas Car (born Ann Grig – number 10, 413), whom he renamed Lucretia. Day thought that by training two girls, it would increase his chances of success. On this occasion, the apprenticeship papers were signed by Edgeworth, so it seems likely that the two men went to the Hospital together and that he fully supported Day’s scheme.

Initially, both girls lived in Edgeworth’s household, with Day visiting regularly to conduct their lessons, although neither girl was informed of Day’s longer-term plans.

Day’s experiment on the girls begins

Day drew up legal paperwork with his co-author John Bicknell, stating that after one year, he would decide which of the two girls showed the most potential to become his wife. She would remain with him and continue her education. He swore “never to violate her innocence” and, if he decided not to go through with the marriage, he would support her in the home of a “creditable family” until she married, at which point she would receive a dowry of £500. The other girl would still be provided for – she would be set up in an apprenticeship with a “reputable tradeswoman” with £100 for her maintenance and would continue to support her “if she behaved well” until she either married or set up in trade herself, at which point she would receive £400 (in this era, £100 was worth £18 708.89 today so these were significant sums of money).

It is important to note that Day’s actions were not just irregular for the period but were unlawful and would have been considered scandalous had his actions become widely known. The Foundling Hospital would not have allowed the two girls to be apprenticed to Day and Edgeworth had they been aware of the plans and they were quick to prosecute apprentice masters if they felt that pupils placed with them had been mistreated.

Changing the girls’ names made it harder for them to be traced and two months after taking Lucretia from the Hospital, he and the two girls set sail for France. As neither girl spoke French, they were completely dependent on him. Drawing on the book Emile, this also meant that the girls were unable to be influenced by any ideas or information except what he chose to impart, protecting them from what Day viewed as “external vices”.

Although Day was from a high social class, he did not value the accomplishments for which high-ranking ladies of the era were usually praised. He therefore did not allow Sabrina and Lucretia to play musical instruments or learn to dance. Instead, they were responsible for many of the household tasks which would ordinarily have been undertaken by students such as cleaning, cooking and the laundry.

The girls are separated

The following Spring, the trio returned to England and, as per his previous contract, Day chose between his two students. He felt that Sabrina showed the greater aptitude for learning and would continue the experiment with her. He found Lucretia an apprenticeship with a milliner’s shop in Ludgate Hill, to which he paid the £400.  She went on to marry a draper and Edgeworth recorded: “she went on contentedly, was happy, and made her husband happy”. Sadly, we have no way of knowing if Lucretia was genuinely happy in her marriage, or what impact her time with Day had on her adult life.

Day settled with Sabrina in Lichfield. Stowe House was four storeys and, as Day only hired a few servants, Sabrina was responsible for the majority of cleaning and housework. In addition, Day gave her lessons in philosophy, physics, mathematics and history. He also undertook a series of ‘”tests of fortitude” including forcing Sabrina to wade into a lake fully clothes, firing blanks into her skirts and dropping melted sealing wax onto her arms. These tests did not give the results which Day had hoped for, as 13 year-old Sabrina was understandably unable to stop herself from flinching in anticipation of pain.

Day’s behaviour is questioned

At Christmas 1770, Edgeworth, who was still legally responsible for Sabrina, visited her and Day in Lichfield. Concerned by Sabrina’s position as a young woman living alone with Day and without a chaperone, he sought to persuade his friend to abandon the experiment. In the New Year, Day conceded that it was no longer appropriate for Sabrina to be living with him and sent her to boarding school in Sutton Coldfield.

In 1774, after three years away at the school, Day arranged for Sabrina to be apprenticed to the Parkinsons, a family of dressmakers. They treated her well, in spite of Day’s instructions not to allow her any luxuries. Sadly, the family business went bankrupt, and Sabrina was left with no employment or place to live. Day arranged for his friends and neighbours, the Kiers, to take Sabrina in. Upon meeting her again, Day reconsidered the ‘failure’ of his experiment. She was now 18, and exhibited many of the qualities he valued in a woman. He took time to consider her suitability, during which time he suggested that he was seeking a new placement for her, until one of his friends informed Sabrina of Day’s real intentions. Sabrina challenged Day and while he admitted that he was now considering proposing, he did not inform her that it had been the case since he first removed her from the Foundling Hospital.

Sabrina agreed to marry Day, although the engagement was short-lived. Upon one visit, he found her wearing an outfit which did not meet his specifications and flew into a rage. The incident led to the ending of the engagement. He arranged for Sabrina to live in a boarding house in Birmingham, and paid her an annual stipend of £50 per year.

Sabrina marries

In 1783, Sabrina re-met Day’s friend and former co-writer, John Bicknell. Bicknell was still single, in poor health and had lost much of the money made through his law career through gambling. He remembered Sabrina and knew through his friendship with Day that she was unmarried and living in Birmingham. He renewed their acquaintance and proposed to Sabrina. She wrote to Day for advice, and he replied that the age gap was too great (although Bicknell was only two years older than Day himself) and that she should decline. Bicknell then advised Sabrina of the truth of her acquaintance with Day, and the experiment. At 26, this was the first time that she became aware of what Day’s plans had been throughout her childhood with him.  She confronted him by letter, and Day admitted the truth but did not apologise for it.

Sabrina married Bicknell, and they received the previously agreed dowry from Day but ended his annual payment to Sabrina and informed her that she would not hear from him again. Bicknell and Sabrina bought a house and had two sons over the next three years, at which time he passed away due to a stroke. He had continued to gamble throughout his marriage, so Sabrina and her children were left with nothing. Day and Edgeworth set up annual stipends for her of £30 each, and Bicknell’s barrister friends raised £800 for her.

Sabrina went on to work for schoolmaster Charles Burney, as housekeeper and general manager of his schools in Chiswick, Hammersmith, and Greenwich. She died in 1843 of an asthma attack.

Find out more

More information about Thomas Day, Sabrina and Lucretia can be found in How to Create a Perfect Wife by Wendy Moore.

Become a transcriber of our archives and learn more about our fascinating and moving history.

Copyright © CoramCoram licenses the text of this article under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 (CC BY-NC).