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Poet’s failed attempt to ‘improve’ orphan girls
Published 23/01/12



SOME fascinating and strange stories of life in Berkshire are recounted in a new book by Duncan Mackay, from Twyford, who is the rear commodore of Henley Sailing Club.

Among the many unusal characters featured in Bizarre Berkshire is Thomas Day, who believed that people and animals could be improved by moral reasoning.

Day was born in 1748 and educated at Charterhouse School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He moved to Bear Place, near Knowl Hill, and turned his hand to writing. He published a poem and books attacking slavery.

His most bizarre act was an attempt to train girls to become his dutiful wife. Together with fellow poet John Bicknell, he turned up at an orphanage in Shrewsbury to select a “flaxen-haired beauty” for treatment.

Nowadays I am sure he would be arrested but in the 18th century such behaviour wasn’t considered out of order.


The poets identified a 12-year-old girl as being suitable for treatment and named her Sabrina Sidney after the goddess of the river Severn and Algernon Sidney, who was executed for plotting against Charles II.

They then moved on to London and claimed an 11-year-old brunette from the Foundling Hospital and named her Lucretia.

The foursome then relocated to Avignon in south-east France where the girls underwent treatment to strengthen their young minds and bodies.

However, Sabrina and Lucretia became quarrelsome, which made them difficult to train, as well as contracting smallpox and nearly dying in a boating accident. After eight months, the group returned to England.

Day came to the conclusion that Lucretia was “invincibly stupid” and she was palmed off on a local hatmaker.

But he decided to persevere with Sabrina, who was subjected to tests of stoicism and endurance, including having pistols loaded with blanks fired at her and hot sealing wax poured onto her naked arms.

With no prospect of proving his theory, Day gave up and packed Sabrina off to boarding school in Sutton Coldfield when she was 13. Later he settled her in houses in Birmingham and Newport.

When Sabrina reached 25, Bicknell asked Day for her hand in marriage and he consented. The wedding went ahead but theirs was not to be a long-lasting romance — Bicknell died three years later. However, the couple had two sons, one of whom went on to found the National Westminster Bank.

Meanwhile, Day, who was still seeking affection, bought a foal which no one else was allowed to touch. However, this experiment also went wrong. On September 28, 1789, the animal — by then fully grown — kicked its owner to death on a bridleway on Bowsey Hill, above Wargrave. Day is buried at St Mary’s Church in Wargrave.

lBizarre Berkshire is published by Two Rivers Press and costs 8.99.

Published 23/01/12

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