Sabrina Sidney Bicknell:   Bespoke Wife?

Yet another instance of truth being stranger than fiction is the life of Sabrina Sidney Bicknell. Though the most extraordinary events in this young woman’s life occurred before the turn of the nineteenth century, Mrs. Bicknell was still living during the Regency. And, even before the Prince of Wales became Regent, Mrs. Bicknell’s story had been published, much to her chagrin and that of her children, so many people living during the Regency knew something about how she was treated in her early years. Nevertheless, she persevered against great difficulties and went on to live a long and productive, if rather retired, life.

The singular life of Sabrina Sidney Bicknell . . .

A baby girl was born in Clerkenwell, an area of central London, sometime in 1757. Not long after her birth, she was left by some unknown person at the Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children (known more commonly as the Foundling Hospital, which had been founded by Thomas Coram). A note was left with the baby, stating that she had been baptized Manima Butler, in St. James’s Church, in the parish of Clerkenwell. However, no baptismal record for a child of that name was ever found in the parish archives. The Founding Hospital had a requirement that babies must be less than six months of age in order to be accepted, but they did not keep detailed records of the age of the babies they received. Another policy required that each infant be given a new name. Thus Manima Butler became Ann Kingston, no. 4759, Girl. It was also the policy to send infants out to a wet nurse soon after arrival. The usual practice of the Foundling Hospital was to leave a child with their wet nurse/foster mother for five to six years. But in 1759, the London hospital had taken in so many infants that the older children, those who did not require nursing, were sent to their branch in the market town of Shrewsbury, in the county of Shropshire. Perhaps fortunately for Ann, the hospital building in Shrewsbury was seriously over-crowded. Therefore, she and another young girl, were sent to the home of a local nurse for a few more years. Eventually, Ann Kingston was sent to the Foundling Hospital in Shrewsbury, probably in 1765, when the building was expanded.

While the little girl known as Ann Kingston was growing up in Shrewsbury, a young man of means, Thomas Day, by name, was getting a gentleman’s education. After boarding school, he entered Corpus Christi College at Oxford. Though many young men of this era spent most of their time in college drinking and carousing, the puritanical Thomas Day was a teetotaller. He was usually to be found at his desk, deep in his study of the Classics or honing his debating skills. Day’s father had died when the little boy was barely a year old, but he left his son with a substantial inheritance. Day’s mother had remarried, and he usually spent his vacations from Oxford at his country estate, Barehill, in Berkshire, where his mother and step-father had taken up residence. It was during one of these rustic vacations that Thomas Day met Richard Lovell Edgeworth, who had also studied at Oxford. Both Day and Edgeworth were interested in education, particularly in the theories of the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as set forth in his novel, Emile, or On Education. What neither Day nor Edgeworth seemed able to understand was that Rousseau did not intend all of the theories he expounded in Emile to be taken literally.

By 1767, Thomas Day had become disillusioned with his classmates and his studies and left Oxford without earning his degree. He returned to his estate, Barehill, where he became involved in assisting his friend, Edgeworth, in the education of Edgeworth’s son, Dick, according to the principles of Rousseau. Day frequently engaged in long and derisive diatribes on the evils of womankind. (Therefore, it may come as no surprise that Edgeworth’s wife held Day in considerable distaste). Even before he went to college, Day had become hostile to fashionable society, particularly to most ladies of fashion. Perhaps as a physical statement of his feelings, though he was a fairly tall man, Day adopted rather poor posture and tended to stoop. He had pockmarks on his face, caused by smallpox, and he seldom combed his long, dark hair. He took little care with his appearance in general and was usually quite dishevelled. Even worse, he put little effort into his own personal hygiene, with the exception of an occasional quick wash in a nearby stream. Richard Edgeworth, wrote of his friend in his memoirs, "Mr. Day’s exterior was not at that time prepossessing." Day was also known to be a man little patience and a short temper. In keeping with his views of Georgian society, Day made no effort to acquire any of the social graces, so his manners also left much to be desired.

Despite his personal shortcomings, Day was quite surprised and very disappointed when his proposal to Richard Edgeworth’s sister, Margaret, was rejected. In fairly quick succession, he then proposed to at least three other young women, all of whom refused him. He was despondent for quite some time, as he knew no other women whom he considered worthy of his suit. Nevertheless, he felt it was his duty to marry and carry on his family line, as he would come into his full inheritance when he turned twenty-one. Day found most women ignorant, immoral, frivolous and selfish. Then in 1769, as he approached his twenty-first birthday, Day came to the conclusion that his only option was to train his own wife. One of his friends, Anna Seward, wrote of his plans, "He resolved, if possible, that his wife should have a taste for literature and science, for moral and patriotic philosophy. So might she be his companion in that retirement, to which he had destined himself; and assist him forming the minds of his children to stubborn virtue and high exertion. He resolved also, that she should be simple as a mountain girl, in her dress, her diet and her manners, fearless and intrepid as the Spartan wives and Roman heroines.".

In order to achieve his ends, Day took his friend, and fellow student at the Charterhouse School, John Bicknell, into his confidence. In late June of 1769, shortly after his twenty-first birthday, Day and Bicknell travelled to the Shrewsbury branch of the Foundling Hospital. There, Day gave the staff to understand that he wished to adopt a girl. He did not tell the administrator there that he was seeking a girl to train as his wife. Instead, he claimed that she was to become an indentured servant at the country house of Richard Edgeworth, a married man. Day, as a bachelor, would not have been allowed to adopt or otherwise gain control of a young girl from the Foundling Hospital. A long line of adolescent girls, all dressed in identical brown woolen dresses, white aprons and white caps, were marched passed Day and Bicknell. Day could not make up his mind which girl to choose, and left it to Bicknell to select his first guinea pig. Bicknell chose a slender, pretty, twelve-year old girl with dark eyes, auburn hair and a pleasant voice, named Ann Kingston. Day promised that when she was old enough, Ann would be apprenticed to learn a trade and would be given £400 upon her marriage. Despite the fact that he was not present and was not even aware of Day’s actions, Richard Edgeworth would be legally responsible for Ann Kingston.

Day and Bicknell were allowed to take custody of Ann Kingston a few weeks later. In September, they traveled to the London branch of the Foundling Hospital, where they told the same story, in order to get custody of another young girl. Day had decided he should train two girls and would then select the one who best conformed to his training as his wife. The men’s pretence was not questioned and, unaware of their activities in Shrewsbury, the administrator of the London Foundling Hospital allowed them to select another young girl. This second girl was a petite eleven-year-old, with pale blue eyes and blond hair. Though she had been christened Ann Grig, when she entered the Foundling Hospital, she was given the name of Dorcas Car. Day made promises similar to those he had made in Shrewsbury and a few days later he and Bicknell were allowed to collect Dorcas, Day’s second trainee. Completely unbeknownst to him, Richard Edgeworth also became leg ally responsible for young Dorcas Car.

Both girls were initially kept at Day’s lodging house in London, where he began the training he had planned for them. Soon after he took custody of the two girls, he gave them both new names, apparently to remove any links to their past as foundlings. Ann Kingston was renamed Sabrina Sidney. "Sabrina" was the Latin name for the River Severn, which flowed through Shrewsbury, while her surname, Sidney, was given to her in honor of Day’s hero, the seventeenth-century Whig patriot and martyr, Algernon Sidney. Dorcas Car was renamed by Day as Lucretia, though it is not clear if he gave her the same surname as he gave Sabrina. The two girls were friendly, happy children and they soon became good friends.

After a short time in London, Day decided that he should take the girls to France. Not only was it the homeland of his hero, Rousseau, Day felt that, since the girls could not speak French, they would be isolated from any corrupting outside influences. Day eventually decided to settle with his two young trainees in the town of Avignon, located in southern France. The girls were subject to a rigorous schedule of study. first, they were taught to read and write, then they were expected to study the Classics and natural history as well as science and mathematics. Day also regularly lectured them on the evils of luxury and privilege, warning against fine clothes and obsession with fashion. He also did he best to convince the girls of the frivolous behavior of many members of high society, particularly those who held aristocratic titles. His intent was to develop young women who were immune to what he perceived to be the foibles of society.

But all did not go according to plan. Day came to the conclusion that most Frenchmen, with the exception of Rousseau, were lazy, ignorant and immoral. Frenchwomen were even worse, as he considered them obsessed by fashion and much too independent and dominant in their behavior towards men. In addition, Day found French roads to be atrocious, and the food was not to his taste. Kept so closely to a rigorous course of study and unable to speak French, Sabrina and Lucretia became lonely and bored, which led to increasing squabbles. They often importuned Day on a host of issues he considered spurious. He was already feeling homesick when there was an incident with a capsized boat on the Rhone River, when Day had to rescue both girls, since neither could swim, and nearly drowned himself in the process. Not long after, the girls both came down with smallpox and the burden of nursing them fell on him. Fortunately, both girls recovered from smallpox, but another issue seems to have finally convinced Day he could not remain in Avignon with his wives-in-training. One of the French officers stationed in the area spoke too freely with the girls and Day felt he had to challenge him to a duel. The officer apologized, claiming he had meant no harm and the duel was averted, but Day came to the conclusion that Avignon was not the quiet sanctuary he needed to train the girls. After eight months in France, Day decided he and his trainees should to return to England.

By the time he returned to Britain, in 1770, Day had come to the conclusion that Lucretia was either resolutely stupid or so mulish and intractable that she could never be trained to be a wife who would suit him. There is also some suggestion that he had come to prefer the soft-spoken and more mild-mannered Sabrina. While stopping in London, Day apprenticed Lucretia to a chamber milliner with premises on Ludgate Hill. A "chamber milliner," according to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, was a milliner who exercised their trade in a quasi-public manner. In most cases, such milliners either did business from their homes, or they lived in the same premises as their shop. Lucretia seems to have done well in her new position and eventually married a respectable London linen draper. Day did keep his word and, upon her marriage, provided her with the dowry he had promised when he took her from the Foundling Hospital in London. At that point, Lucretia disappeared from history, hopefully to go on to live a happy and productive life with the man of her choice.

Once he had settled Lucretia in London, Day decided not to take Sabrina to his country home, perhaps because he did not wish his wife-training scheme to be known by his parents and his neighbors. Instead, he left her with the mother of his friend, John Bicknell, while he traveled to the town of Lichfield, in the county of Staffordshire. Day chose this town in the Midlands because he wished to be near his friend, the physician and philosopher, Erasmus Darwin, who was a prominent resident of the town. Day rented Stowe House, a large villa situated near a lake and close to Lichfield, where he installed young Sabrina, now thirteen years old. She was a lovely young girl, with a soft voice, long eyelashes, rich auburn ringlets and large dark eyes. He kept only a few servants and expected Sabrina to do most of the housework, in addition to her studies. Remarkably, it seems that no one in Lichfield initially questioned Day’s actions, since he was considered to be a principled and philanthropic gentleman. However, many of his neighbors there did think he was wasting his time and some of them even advised him to give up his plan to train the perfect wife.

In Lichfield, Day determinedly continued Sabrina’s singular training, but increased his efforts to develop her fortitude and physical resilience. He routinely took her on long walks though muddy fields and on multiple occassions, he ordered her to wade into an ice-cold lake fully dressed, in order to test her stamina and endurance. Since he intended her to teach his children courage and hardiness, he wanted her to become stoic in the face of pain. So, he routinely dropped hot sealing wax on her bare skin or stuck pins in her arms. He became quite annoyed when she screamed out at such treatment. He also fired pistols (though Sabrina did not know they were loaded only with powder), at the floor near her petticoats. But instead of remaining quietly seated as Day wanted, she shrieked and leapt away. Day’s test of loyalty was to tell Sabrina he was in grave danger, and that the danger would increase if she told anyone about it. He was furious when he discovered that Sabrina had shared the story with some of his servants not long after he had sworn her to secrecy. Because she looked upon Day as her benefactor, the man who had saved her from the orphanage and fed, clothed and educated her, she did her best to submit to his demands, no matter how outrageous. But over time, she came to resent his cruel treatment and the boring lessons which seemed never ending. She began to loathe books in general and seems to have taken a particular dislike for the study of science, which especially enraged Day.

Finally, in 1771, disappointed in the results of his training, and at the urging of several of his friends, Day came to the conclusion that Sabrina could no longer live alone under the same roof with him, without a chaperon. At the urging of his friend, Richard Edgeworth, Day agreed to send Sabrina away to a boarding school in Sutton Coldfield. When she graduated three years later, she was apprenticed to a dressmaker who took the girl in as part of her family. Upon completion of her apprenticeship, Sabrina then returned to Thomas Day and was employed as his housekeeper. After a time, Day came to believe that Sabrina would now make him a conformable wife and proposed marriage to her. She was unaware that all of his training of her when she first came to him had been to that end, and she accepted his proposal. But soon thereafter, Sabrina did not follow the strict instructions which Day had given her about what she should wear on a certain occasion. In a fit of temper, he withdrew his proposal. Day sent Sabrina away again, this time to a boarding house, providing her with a modest allowance. Sometime after that, Sabrina accepted a position as a lady’s companion. She had become fond of the Darwin’s and came to Lichfield when she could, to visit them and even Thomas Day, on occasion.

A few years later, Sabrina met Jarvis Wardley, an apothecary, who proposed marriage to her in a poem. She was pleased with his suit, but wrote to Day for advice. Even though, by then, Day had married an heiress and had no further need of a wife, he advised Sabrina to refuse the young man’s proposal, as he thought him frivolous due to his love of poetry. In 1783, while working as a lady’s companion in Newport, she met John Bicknell, the man who had chosen her for Day at the Shrewsbury orphanage. Bicknell was a barrister in the court of King’s Bench, and was single at the time. Bicknell found this former foundling a charming, graceful and attractive young woman. He proposed marriage to Sabrina, who once again sought Thomas Day’s advice. Again, Day advised her to refuse Bicknell, this time, with a little more altruism. By then, Bicknell was a confirmed rake as well as a gambler. However, the objection which Day offered to Sabrina was that Bicknell, at thirty-six, was too old for her (she was then twenty-six), even though he was only two years older than Day. Bicknell, angered at Day’s interference, told Sabrina about how Day had taken her from the orphanage with the intention of training her as his wife. At first she did not believe Bicknell, and wrote to Day, who did admit the truth, but offered no apology. Eventually, Day finally gave his consent to the marriage, but in the same letter, informed Sabrina it would be his last communication with her.

In April of 1784, Sabrina Sidney and John Bicknell were married in Birmingham, at St. Philip’s Cathedral. Day terminated the allowance he had been paying Sabrina upon her marriage, but he also sent her £500 as a dowry, which, of course, was actually given to her husband. The Bicknell’s settled in Shenfield and soon had two children, both boys. However, John Bicknell continued his gambling and, over the course of the next three years, he squandered most of the family’s money. His years of carousing had ruined his health, and in March of 1787, John Bicknell died of what was described as a paralytic stroke, leaving his wife and young children nearly destitute. Though Bicknell’s parents were financially comfortable, Bicknell’s mother had never approved of Sabrina, even when she had cared for the girl for Thomas Day, after her return from France. She was fully aware of the young woman’s origins and never considered Sabrina a proper wife for her son. The Bicknells were unwilling to provide any financial support to their son’s widow or his children.

After John Bicknell’s death, Thomas Day provided Sabrina with an annual stipend of £30 per year. It was £20 less than the allowance he had provided her after she had refused his proposal and moved into a boarding house. It seems he did so because he did not want to foster sloth and felt she must work if she wanted a less frugal lifestyle. Fortunately, his friend, Richard Edgeworth, did not agree with Day and provided Sabrina with another £30 a year. John Bicknell’s friends in the legal profession raised £800 for their friend’s family. However, this was not enough money to maintain a middle-class family of three, particularly with two young boys who would need a good education. Even with the generous financial support from her friends, Sabrina needed additional income and found a job as housekeeper to the family of the Reverend Charles Burney, brother of the author, Fanny Burney. The Reverend Burney had had some early experience with scandal himself, so he was sympathetic to Mrs. Bicknell’s situation and did not hold her early life against her. Reverend Burney was a schoolmaster who ran a private school for boys in Hammersmith. Both of Sabrina’s sons were educated at Charles Burney’s school. When Thomas Day was killed in a fall from his horse in September of 1789, his widow continued to pay Sabrina’s stipend.

In time, Sabrina showed herself to be such a competent manager that she became the general manager of the Reverend Burney’s school as well as his housekeeper. In 1793, Burney relocated his school to Greenwich, and Sabrina and her sons moved there as well. Sabrina continued to work for Burney and his school for the rest of her life. In fact, throughout the Regency and into the reign of George IV, she worked for the Reverend Burney and lived as quietly as she could in Greenwich. Perhaps because of the treatment she had suffered from her bitter and hostile mother-in-law, Mrs. Bicknell valued her privacy and the company of close friends and family who did not let her experiences as a young girl affect their respect, admiration, and affection for her.

The first published account of Thomas Day’s wife-training experiment came as a work of fiction, in which no real names were used. Maria Edgeworth, the daughter of Thomas Day’s friend, Richard Edgeworth, published the novel, Belinda, in 1801. In this story, the hero, Clarence Harvey, has been secretly raising and training the innocent young girl, Virginia, to become his ideal wife. Then, Clarence falls in love with the heroine, Belinda, but feels himself honor-bound to marry young Virginia, even though his wife-training efforts have not gone according to his plan. Eventually, Virginia reveals to him that she does not love him, but does love another. Clarence feels that he is released from his obligation to Virginia and finally proposes to Belinda. She accepts his suit and they are married. Those who had known Thomas Day and Sabrina Sidney would have recognized them as the models for Maria Edgeworth’s characters in Belinda. However, the general reading public would have been unaware the characters in the story were based on an actual event and real people, so Mrs. Bicknell’s anonymity was not seriously compromised by the publication of that novel.

Unfortunately, for both Mrs. Bicknell and her sons, the story of her early life as the subject of Thomas Day’s wife training experiment was made public only a few years later. Anna Seward, who lived most of her life in Lichfield, was a member of the literary circle which included Thomas Day, Richard Edgeworth and Erasmus Darwin. Seward had even known and been friendly with Sabrina, when the girl was living in Stowe House. Since she was older than Sabrina, Seward was also well aware of Thomas Day’s attempt to train a conformable wife for himself, and that his subject had been Sabrina Sidney. In 1804, Anna Seward published Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin, an account of the life of Erasmus Darwin’s life in Lichfield. But she did not confine her story Darwin himself, and in the first chapter of her memoirs, she related the story of Thomas Day’s experiment in training the perfect wife, naming all of the parties involved, including Sabrina Sidney. Even though Seward did not include Sabrina’s married name in her tale, there were enough people who knew her maiden name that she was subject to many cruel remarks and became the butt of a host of rude jokes about her life with Day. Similar remarks were sometimes also made to Sabrina’s sons, both of whom were in their teens at the time.

However, Anna Seward’s book was not the last in which Thomas Day’s wife-training experiment and his subject were mentioned. In 1807, in the second volume of a series of sensationalized biographies, The Eccentric Mirror:   Reflecting a Faithful and Interesting Delineation of Male and Female Characters, . . . was published in London. This publication not only included an account of Thomas Day’s attempt to train the prefect wife, it also included an illustration of him shooting his pistol at Sabrina’s skirts. Greenwich was not that far from London that the outrageous tale recounted in The Eccentric Mirror escaped notice there. Once again, Mrs. Bicknell and her sons were subject to many unkind remarks.

The whole story was put before the public once again, just after the Regency, when Maria Edgeworth published her father’s memoirs in 1820. Fortunately for Mrs. Bicknell and her sons, Maria did not sensationalize the events and presented a much more factual and even description of Thomas Day’s experiment to train his own ideal wife. In particular, Sabrina was presented as a kind, gentle and virtuous young girl, and Day was shown to be a very upright and moral man. It was made clear that though he might be considered rather eccentric in his habits, he had never compromised his trainee’s virtue at any time during their association. This book does not seem to have caused little unpleasantness or distress for Mrs. Bicknell or her sons.

Dear Regency Authors, might Mrs. Bicknell feature in one of your upcoming novels? Perhaps one of your characters is appalled at the idea of sending a boy to Reverend Burney’s school in Greenwich, because they know something of Mrs. Bicknell’s history? Will another character come to the defense of this kind and hard-working woman who is criticised and castigated for something which happened in her youth and over which she had no control? Or, rather than introduce the actual historical figure of Sabrina Sidney Bicknell, might you develop a plot in which a man attempts to train a young girl to become his ideal wife? How might that play out? Are there other ways in which some or all of the events from Sabrina Sidney’s life might provide inspiration for a Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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