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Sidney [married name Bicknell], Sabrinafree

(1756/7–1843)
  • Kate Iles

Sabrina Sidney (1756/77–1843)

by Richard James Lane, 1833 (after Stephen Poyntz Denning, 1832)

Sidney [married name Bicknell], Sabrina (1756/7–1843), subject of a study in child development, was one of two girls chosen by the author and political campaigner Thomas Day to take part in his experiment to educate a girl to become his wife. The name Sabrina Sidney, by which she was known from the age of twelve, was given to her by Thomas Day; her birth name, as given in the records of the London Foundling Hospital, was Manima Butler. Details of her place and exact date of birth, as well as her parentage, are unknown. On 24 May 1757 she was received into the Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children, otherwise known as the London Foundling Hospital. In line with the hospital's policy, she was sent out to a wet nurse in Dorking, Surrey, and in 1759 was taken to Shrewsbury, Shropshire, where a branch of the foundling hospital had been established. Here she was given the name Ann Kingston. Too young to reside in the hospital, she was cared for by a second nurse, Ann Casewell, together with another foundling girl, Deborah Venner. Both children lived with Casewell and her husband, John, until 1765, when they returned to Shrewsbury. She received a basic education at the hospital and may have worked in the woollen manufactory that had been set up to instruct the children in the textile trades.

In June 1769 the wealthy, unmarried, 21-year-old Thomas Day arrived at Shrewsbury with the intention of acquiring a female apprentice. A member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, Day was greatly influenced by the writings of the French philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He had decided to live a life secluded from society and sought a wife who would support him in this ambition; having read Rousseau's educational treatise, Émile, Day decided to educate a girl to fulfil this role. Accompanied by his school friend, John Bicknell (bap. 1746, d. 1787), Day travelled to the Shrewsbury hospital where he selected the twelve-year-old Ann Kingston whom he named Sabrina Sidney to take part in his experiment. As the hospital allowed only married men to take children as apprentices, Day gave the name of his married friend, Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Sidney was officially apprenticed to Edgeworth on 17 August 1769, without his knowledge, though probably with the tacit consent of the hospital authorities. At the London Foundling Hospital, Day selected a second girl—an eleven-year-old, Dorcas Car, whom he named Lucretia. After a brief stay in Avignon, France, with both children, Day concluded that Lucretia was 'invincibly stupid' and reapprenticed her to a milliner (Edgeworth, Memoirs, 1.217). Sabrina was taken to Lichfield, where Day took the lease of Stowe House in spring 1770.

Subsequent accounts of Day's education of Sabrina have highlighted the more bizarre elements of his regime—among them the firing of blank pistol shots at her petticoats and the dropping of hot wax on her arms to inure her to pain and to encourage a Spartan stoicism. However, Sabrina's education also included more practical and conventional aspects, such as reading the classics and training in domestic matters, as well as plenty of physical exercise. Music, dancing, and foreign languages, however, were dismissed as a waste of time. Despite Day's efforts, Sabrina did not develop as he wished and by the end of 1770 she had been sent to a girls' boarding school in Sutton Coldfield.

At seventeen, Sabrina—now an attractive and amenable young lady—returned to Lichfield. Still unmarried, Thomas Day reappraised her and for a while an engagement between the couple seemed possible. However, when Sabrina disregarded Day's orders concerning her dress, he ended their relationship and abandoned his ambition to educate a wife. Four years later, in August 1778, he married the 25-year-old Esther Milnes in what proved a stable and lasting relationship. Sabrina was now left to earn her own living. Day gave her limited financial provision, but made it clear he expected her to support herself and not resort to idleness. By 1784 Sabrina was working as a ladies' companion at Newport, Shropshire. At this point, Day's friend, John Bicknell—with whom he had written the celebrated anti-slavery poem, The Dying Negro (1773)—proposed to Sabrina. After obtaining the consent of her nominal guardian, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, and of Thomas Day, Sabrina agreed to Bicknell's offer. The couple were married at St Philip's Church, Birmingham, on 16 April 1784, and then moved to London where Bicknell practised as a barrister. For at least part of their residency in London the couple lived on Chancery Lane with their two sons, John Laurens, whose birth date is unknown, and Henry Edgeworth, who was born on 18 December 1786. John Bicknell died in March 1787 and was buried at St Dunstan's Church, Fleet Street, London, on 2 April 1787.

The widowed Sabrina Bicknell was left with little to support herself and her two young sons. Through her friendship with the Lichfield poet Anna Seward £800 was raised for her from the legal community. Another acquaintance, William Seward, introduced Sabrina to the Revd Charles Burney, brother of the novelist Fanny Burney, and by 1791 Sabrina had begun working for Burney as housekeeper at his school in Hammersmith and then, from 1793, in Greenwich. Sabrina remained in Charles Burney's employment until the mid- to late 1820s, when she retired to her own house in The Circus, Greenwich. Her portrait was painted by Stephen Poyntz Denning in 1832 and subsequently reproduced for former pupils of Burney's school.

Bicknell's association with Thomas Day was made public, much to her distress, by Anna Seward in her biography of Erasmus Darwin (1804). This came three years after a fictionalized retelling of Day's experiment in the novel Belinda by Maria Edgeworth, the daughter of Sabrina's guardian. A second biographical account was published in the Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1820). Sabrina disliked reference being made to her foundling origins and to her residence with Thomas Day, which she feared would undermine her reputation as a respectable widow, mother, and employee of Charles Burney's school. In a letter of 13 October 1818 Maria Edgeworth wrote that Bicknell 'wishes that part to be left out [of the Memoirs] on account of her sons' (Edgeworth, Letters, 121). Sabrina Bicknell died at 9 The Circus, Greenwich, on 8 September 1843 and was buried, on 14 September, in Kensal Green cemetery, London. Following her death, her unusual upbringing continued to be discussed in biographies of Thomas Day and of other members of the Lunar Society. More recently it has been identified by educational and social historians—including Cunningham and Porter—as an extreme example of Rousseau's influence on late eighteenth-century ideas of education and child-rearing.

Sources

  • London Foundling Hospital records, LMA
  • T. Day, The history of Sandford and Merton: a work intended for the use of children, repr. 2008 (1783–9)
  • R. L. Edgeworth and M. Edgeworth, Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, 2 vols. (1820)
  • Maria Edgeworth: letters from England, 1813–1844, ed. C. Colvin (1971)
  • J. Keir, An account of the life and writings of Thomas Day, Esq (1791)
  • A. Seward, Memoirs of the life of Dr Darwin (1804)
  • Anna Seward's Life of Erasmus Darwin, ed. P. K. Wilson, E. A. Dolan, and M. Dick (2010)
  • G. W. Gignilliat, The author of ‘Sandford and Merton’: a life of Thomas Day, Esq (1932)
  • P. Rowland, The life and times of Thomas Day, 1748–1789 (1996)
  • R. Porter, Enlightenment: Britain and the creation of the modern world (2001)
  • H. Cunningham, The invention of childhood (2006)
  • W. Moore, How to create the perfect wife (2013)

Archives

  • BL, corresp. with Edgeworths, MS 70949
  • NL Ire., corresp. with Edgeworths, MS 22470

Likenesses

  • R. J. Lane, lithograph, 1833 (after S. P. Denning, 1832), NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

approximately £3000: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1986/204, proved 9 Oct 1843

London Metropolitan Archives