25th March 2013 - Wendy Moore
Historian Wendy Moore's latest book, How to Create the Perfect Wife, recounts the true story of Thomas Day, an 18th-century philanthropist, who decided he could never marry a woman with brains, spirit or fortune, but instead adopted two orphan girls from a Foundling Hospital, and set about educating them to become the meek, docile women he considered marriage material.
In this blog written exclusively for Foyles, Wendy explains how she began by investigating the girls' history in official records and the extraordinary experiment she uncovered.
I can't resist a puzzle. The most exciting part of writing non-fiction books for me is the detective trail through tattered letters and grubby archives before I even begin to put words to paper or on screen. It's the challenge of tackling a cold case mystery, digging up the bodies, putting flesh on the bones, then coaxing the characters to walk, talk and open their eyes that drives me. Writing my third book, How to Create the Perfect Wife, proved to be my most thrilling detective hunt so far.
When I first came across the story of Thomas Day, an 18th century poet and philanthropist who decided to train a young girl to become his ideal wife, it seemed too improbable to be true. Biographies of Day described how he travelled to a Shrewsbury orphanage, a branch of the London Foundling Hospital, with his friend John Bicknell in 1769. There the pair told orphanage officials they wanted a girl as an apprentice maid for a married friend named Richard Lovell Edgeworth. This last detail was crucial, since the charity only apprenticed girls to married men. The two men were invited to select a candidate from a line of girls but Day was so overwhelmed by the choice that it was Bicknell who picked the 12-year-old girl with auburn hair and brown eyes. Day brought the girl to London, secreted her in a lodging house and renamed her Sabrina Sidney.
A few weeks later Day visited the Foundling Hospital's London headquarters and chose a second girl, an 11-year-old with blond hair and blue eyes. He brought her back to his London hideaway and renamed her Lucretia. Day planned to educate them both in a real-life version of the Pygmalion myth and choose the best pupil for his wife. But after a few months he concluded that Lucretia was 'invincibly stupid' and apprenticed her to a London milliner with a £400 farewell gift. Then settling in Lichfield, he concentrated his efforts on educating Sabrina as his future child bride.
Past biographers gave barely any details of the two girls' lives, let alone their views on this outrageous experiment. Indeed the whole story was generally related as an unfortunate aberration in an otherwise honourable man's life. One 19th century writer even asserted that there was no trace in the Shrewsbury Foundling Hospital records of Day apprenticing Sabrina and later writers simply accepted this statement. The story seemed almost urban myth. I had to follow the clues and establish for myself whether the tale was fact or fiction.
Since Day had renamed both girls I feared it would be impossible to find them in official records. With trepidation I began searching the Foundling Hospital's gargantuan archives.
The Foundling Hospital was created by the retired sea captain Thomas Coram as a refuge for abandoned babies. From the day it opened in 1741 until it stopped receiving all but a handful of babies in 1760, the charity accepted more than 16,000 babies - most of them illegitimate - from desperate mothers. On admission every child was given a new name and a number - essentially a complete new identity. The babies were despatched to foster mothers in the countryside until the age of seven or eight then returned to the Foundling Hospital, or one of its country branches, to be educated for a job in a reputable trade or domestic service. And throughout the children's time within the orphanage, charity officials maintained meticulous records charting every development in their lives.
I quickly discovered that it was true that there was no record of a girl being apprenticed to Day at the Shrewsbury Orphanage. That was because all apprenticeship records were handled centrally in London and the fact that the two girls were, of course, apprenticed to Day's friend Edgeworth. With little hope of success I began scouring the apprenticeship register for 1769. And there, to my amazement, it was plainly written that two girls were apprenticed to Richard Lovell Edgeworth on 17 August and 20 September 1769. Their names - and more importantly their numbers - were given as Ann Kingston, no. 4579, and Dorcas Car, no, 10,413. I had found my foundlings.
Armed with the girls' numbers, I could trace them from the day they were admitted until the moment they left the orphanage. The charity's billet books, which recorded every baby on entry, revealed the girls' original names and origins. Their foster mothers, their travels and their education were all carefully logged in the huge orphanage ledgers.
That was the easy bit. Now the detective work really began. I wanted to give Sabrina a voice for the first time. Following Sabrina throughout the rest of her life until her final resting place was a fascinating journey with surprises, tragedies and triumphs along the way.
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