Thomas Day

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Thomas Day
Thomas Day by Joseph Wright of Derby (1770); National Portrait Gallery, London
Born(1748-06-22)22 June 1748
Died28 September 1789(1789-09-28) (aged 41)
Barehill, Berkshire
OccupationAuthor, Lawyer
GenreChildren's literature
Notable worksThe History of Sandford and Merton

Thomas Day (22 June 1748 – 28 September 1789) was a British author and abolitionist. He was well known for the book The History of Sandford and Merton (1783–1789) which emphasized Rousseauvian educational ideals.

Early life[edit]

Day was born on 22 June 1748 in London, the only child of Thomas and Jane Day. His father died when he was about a year old, but left him wealthy. He first attended a school in Stoke Newington, Middlesex, but after a bout of smallpox he was moved to Charterhouse School. He subsequently attended Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he became a master debater and developed a close friendship with William Jones; 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. Together they resolved to educate Edgeworth's son, Dick, in the style of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile. Edgeworth and the project converted Day to Rousseauism. 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 visited Rousseau in France. Because of his connection with Edgeworth, Day was able to join the Lunar Society in Lichfield and meet and converse with Erasmus Darwin as well as Anna Seward.

Wife training project[edit]

After this education project, Day undertook a second: he tried to train a wife. After failing to find the perfect wife (several women including Honora Sneyd and her sister Elizabeth[1] turned down his proposals of marriage), he decided to adopt two foundlings from orphanages and, using Rousseau's maxims, educate them to be the perfect wife (two would ensure that one of them worked out). He adopted a 12-year-old and an 11-year-old whom he renamed Sabrina Sidney and Lucretia and took them to France to educate them in isolation. The girls became ill, and quarrelled. Day decided to give up on Lucretia, who he did not think could satisfy him intellectually. Sabrina he felt was still a possibility, but her character had to be further strengthened. After dropping hot wax on her arms and hearing her scream, though, he gave up in despair.[2][3]

Day decided to study the law and in 1776 was admitted to Lincoln's Inn; he rarely practised.


In 1773, Day published his first work—The Dying Negro—a poem he had written with John Bicknell. It tells the story of a runaway slave, and sold well.

The contradiction between the claim that "all men are created equal" and the existence of American slavery attracted comment from some quarters when the United States Declaration of Independence was first published; Congress, having made a few changes in wording, deleted nearly a fourth of the draft before publication, most notably removing a passage critical of the slave trade, as there were members of Congress who owned black slaves.[4] Day was among those who noted the discrepancy, writing in 1776;

If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.[5]

Later works[edit]

Day argued for the rights of the American colonists in his poem "The Devoted Legions" (1776) 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 (1787) was extremely popular, but it could not match the sales of The History of Sandford and Merton (1783, 1786, 1789) which was a bestseller for over a hundred years. 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 labor and the evils of the idle rich.

Personal life[edit]

He met Esther Milnes (1753–1792), an heiress from Chesterfield, and they were married on 7 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 not allowed to contact her family. In 1780, the couple moved 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.


Day was thrown from his horse while trying to break it using kindness at Barehill, Berkshire, on 28 September 1789 and died almost instantly. He was buried at St Mary's Church, Wargrave, Berkshire.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Fraser's 1832, p. 556.
  2. ^ Moore 2013.
  3. ^ Bosch 2013.
  4. ^ Armitage, Global History, 76–77.bibliography?
  5. ^ Armitage, Global History, 77.bibliography?
  6. ^ Rowland, Peter. "Thomas Day." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved on 20 May 2007.


  • Blackman, John. A Memoir of the Life and Writings of Thomas Day, author of “Sandford and Merton.” London: John Bedford Leno, 1862.
  • Chandler, Anne. "Defying ‘Development’: Thomas Day's Queer Curriculum in Sandford and Merton." Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction. Ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.
  • "Miss Edgeworlh's Tales and Novels". Fraser's Magazine. 6 (November): 541–558. 1832. Retrieved 18 March 2015.
  • Gignilliat, George Warren, Jr. The Author of Sandford and Merton: A Life of Thomas Day, Esq. New York: Columbia University Press, 1932.
  • Keir, James (1791). An Account of the Life and Writings of Thomas Day, Esq. London: John Stockdale.
  • Moore, Wendy (2013). How to create the perfect wife Britain's most ineligible bachelor and his enlightened quest to train the ideal mate. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 9780465065738.
*Jefferson, Cord, "A British Intellectual's Mission 'To Create The Perfect Wife'" (review), NPR, 30 April 2013.
*Seymour, Miranda, "Do as I Say" (review), NYTimes, Book Review, 23 June 3013; p. 18.
* Bosch, Torie (5 April 2013). "Chauvinist Pygmalion: In 18th century England, Thomas Day adopted a little girl and tried to mold her into the perfect wife". Slate Book Reviews. Slate magazine. Retrieved 11 September 2015.
  • Rowland, Peter. The Life and Times of Thomas Day, 1748–1789: English Philanthropist and Author, Virtue Almost Personified. Lewiston: E. Mellen Press, 1996. ISBN 0-7734-8844-8.
  • Scott, S. H. The Exemplary Mr Day, 1748–1789, author of Sandford and Merton, A Philosopher in Search of the Life of Virtue and of a Paragon Among Women. London: Faber and Faber Ltd., [1935].
  • Uglow, Jenny. The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. ISBN 9780374194406.
  • Uglow, Jenny (5 October 2002). "Educating Sabrina". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 March 2015.

External links[edit]