The Dairyman's Daughter
The Dairyman's Daughter is an early 19th-century Christian religious booklet of 52 pages, which had a remarkably wide distribution and influence. It was a narrative of the religious experience of Elizabeth Wallbridge, who was the person after whom the book was named.
Elizabeth Wallbridge was born, lived and died in the Parish of Arreton, Isle of Wight, England. Her parents although worthy were of the lowly ranks of the poor, and their children were put to service at an early age. The author of the narrative was Rev. Legh Richmond, a religious writer of the period, who was the curate of the nearby parish of Brading.
According to the account in the book, Miss Wallbridge's life until the age of 26 was of the most worldly character. Never immoral, she was willful, proud, selfish and irreligious. Her life was, however, transformed by a sermon and she became very devout. With exceptional strength of mind, a retentive memory, the mastery of a few religious classics and enforced leisure because of illness, she devoted time and strength to the study of the Bible in which she became remarkably proficient. Miss Wallbridge, after a lingering sickness of a year and a half, died May 30, 1801, at the age of 31 years. During her illness Rev. Richmond often visited her and talked with her, and these discussions inspired him to write the book.
The religious meaning of the book
Her spiritual experience, excepting its intensity, was very normal and free of excess. She said,
"Often I mourn over my sins and sometimes have a great conflict, through unbelief, fear, temptation, to return to my old ways--I was laughed at by some, scolded by others, scorned by my enemies and pitied by my friends, but I forgave and prayed for my persecutors, and remembered how very lately I had acted this same part toward others myself."
Her religious experience was neither morbid nor morose but always winsome and cheerful. She met her serious difficulties with rare heroism, humility, altruism and unwavering faith in her Lord. It is this simplicity, the strength and normal character of her experience which gave it such extensive influence.
Publication and popularity
"The Dairyman's Daughter" was first issued in tract form in 1814 and that same year was published by the New England Tract Society in Boston. The National Society in 1825 published it as tract No. 9, and has circulated at least half a million copies of this narrative, being the chief agency for its distribution in America. In fact, it was in America, far from Arreton, that the popularity of this publication was greatest.
In 1828, 14 years after its first publication, its circulation exceeded four million copies in 19 languages, and the number of conversions from its perusal estimated in the thousands. Its popularity increased for several decades and it is estimated that more than ten million copies have been distributed in many languages. Some writers have ventured the claim that "The Dairyman's Daughter" has had a more extensive influence and a wider circulation than any other similar publication.
The success of the story led many to make the pilgrimage to Arreton to visit the grave of The Dairyman's Daughter, including Queen Victoria. Some even came from America, or further afield, and the lasting power of the story was such that the simple chair on which Miss Wallbridge sat when talking with Rev Richmond was preserved and in 1836 sent to America, where it remains in the possession of the American Tract Society. A chapel was erected in her memory on the main road between Arreton and Apse Heath. Now closed and converted to a residence, the foundation stone is still visible from the road.
(Parts of this account adapted from The American Tract Society Reports 1938-46)
During most of the 19th century, Christian writers favoured and extensively used sickness and deathbed experiences. However, and partly because of this morbid theme, the book, while extremely popular for three-quarters of a century, is not well adapted to the tastes and the requirements of the 20th century and beyond. The book is now not widely known, although the short text of it has been reprinted innumerable times in various anthologies, and publications including the text are still in print today.
- Queen Victoria Her Girlhood and Womanhood, Grace Greenwood, 1883.
- The Dairyman's Daughter pub description and pictures