In 1781, Thomas and Esther Day moved from their previous house, a damp cottage in Stapleford-Abbots in Essex, to Anningsley which Day had purchased along with large parts of the nearby Surrey countryside – areas in Chertsey, Egham and Cranleigh. Their two-storey, mid-eighteenth-century house was situated at the time in what was then rural and desolate countryside, where only a few poverty-stricken land-labourers resided.

Thomas Day shied away from the few members of the aristocracy who lived nearby and they considered him a misanthrope in return. The Days had just two or three servants and, extraordinarily, owned no carriage, having nobody nearby to visit.

A watercolour painting of Thomas Day’s home in Anningsley painted in 1824, some years after Day lived there. The artist, John Hassell, produces many more paintings of scenes in Surrey like this one (see details of this record here).

The Good Life

Spending the 1780s in the seclusion of Anningsley, Thomas Day carefully divided his time between reading, writing, and performing tasks on the farm, which was tended to by a large workforce. The farm was not a commercial venture but the realisation of Thomas Day’s ideal world, in which the greatest form of charity was to offer someone employment, rather than let them depend on poor relief.

Refusing to become wealthy from the labour of those poorer than him, Thomas Day boasted a £300 annual loss on his farm and allowed his workers an extra shilling for clothes and meat during the winter months.Locals heckled Thomas Day, pointing out that employing labourers was totally unnecessary during winter, when all work on the farm was frozen.

His dislike of the parish relief system led Thomas Day to take the strange decision to wage his farm labourers during winter, even though there was no work to do. The relief the parish offered them was barely sufficient to support most healthy families.

Decades before the nineteenth century philanthropists and Edwin Chadwick’s 1834 Poor Law reforms, Thomas Day was setting a precedent for a fairer system. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, wages were below the subsistence level, which was met only with help from parish relief. This left the labourer at the mercy of the parish for the whole winter, but suited a miserly farm owner well.

As a man who had inherited a large fortune, Day equally despised the idea that he should be entitled to feast and profit from the labour of others, simply because he was their employer. Thus, in his locality in Chertsey, the philosopher created his miniature welfare state and found it thriving.

Many farm labourers did not appreciate their employer’s philosophy and work regime. Thomas Day despised the expensive and extravagant lifestyle of his contemporaries but his sparing, reclusive and Spartan lifestyle did not enamour his employees either – they thought he was a miser. It was mostly the kind and caring Esther Day, who understood Thomas and could explain his actions to others.

Health and wellbeing in Anningsley

Thomas Day turned his studies to the benefit of those around him. Workers from around Anningsley would turn to Thomas Day for medical advice and attention and would be nursed back to health by Esther, as well as treated to dinner at the Days’ table. Mr. Day did not overlook more challenging maladies and illnesses, writing to his Lunar Society friends, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of the famous naturalist) and Dr. William Small, for some of the best medical advice that could be afforded in Georgian England.

Central to the medical attention which Day learned to give those in his charge was just one piece of advice: keep your house ventilated. Thomas Day despised air pollution and committed himself to filling the unsightly heaths around Anningsley with the pine trees which still stand there today. He also advised his farm workers to avoid public houses such The Otter, in nearby Ottershaw.

Day had his own unique approach to charity which spurned Christian traditions. He was scornful of the organised, parish-based charity believing that a man is happier and more dignified when given the opportunity to work for his keep. In a letter to Richard Lovell Edgeworth, he once wrote, ‘What is the lot of man in every country? To labour, and eat his bread by the sweat of his brow.’

Thomas did read the Bible, however, and he and Esther took responsibility for the religious instruction of the children in the area. Thomas read from the Scriptures on wet Sundays when the weather prevented the villagers from trekking to Horsell for the service at St. Mary’s.

Thomas and Esther dedicated themselves tirelessly to occupying the community in beneficial activities. Thomas ran his farm around the calendar and Esther engaged labourers’ wives and daughters in knitting stockings and clothing whole families, paying for the fabric and labour in lieu of those poorer locals who could not afford the clothes themselves.

Though Esther Day was forbidden by Thomas to practice her music (she loved the harpsichord), the family allowed themselves one expense, the library. Books contained invaluable ideas, and Day made space in Anningsley’s living room for a library.

The History of Sandford and Merton, A Work Intended for the Use of Children

Thomas Day used the seclusion of Anningsley to hide from those who once knew him as a political activist and commentator. He refused to join political meetings in nearby Guildford when he moved to Surrey and turned down a candidacy for Pitt’s party in the 1784 election, resolving to use only his writing hand when it came to political matters.

And, as his extensive library shows, literature was his real passion. His two closest friends, Richard Lovell Edgeworth and John Bicknell, were both literary men. Edgeworth was compelled to write children’s literature by a belief that children’s education was in dire need of reform, to nurture the child’s inquisitiveness, curiosity and invention in the natural world. Failing to find stories to read to his 22 children (though not all survived infancy), he decided to write his own. With his then wife, Honora, in 1778, he began a series of stories featuring the title characters Harry and Lucy.

Edgeworth abandoned his project eventually but not before Thomas Day could make his own contribution, namely ‘The History of Sandford and Merton, A Work Intended for the Use of Children’. This became an extensive work in its own right, published in three volumes, each three years apart, in 1783, 1786 and 1789.

The book was a moral tale portraying the mischievous, spoiled son of a plantation owner, Tommy Merton, who had grown up in the West Indies. Back in England, Merton encounters an honest, modest son of a farmer, Harry Sandford, who is kind and treats animals thoughtfully. Mr. Barlow, a clergyman, acts as their tutor to the two boys, who become good friends. By means of simple dialogue set in Mr. Barlow’s classes, the stories teach young readers a number of essential school lessons, as well as the merits of plain living.

The stories, written at Thomas Day’s desk in Anningsley, became phenomenally popular, an essential part of the Victorian nursery’s library and were read in childhood by many budding authors, including Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and P.G. Wodehouse.

More interestingly, the first volume was published just fifty years before the emancipation of slaves, which was given parliamentary assent in 1833. Exactly what contact the great abolitionists had with the stories of a plantation owner’s son turning away from his indolent and privileged ways and embracing a simple, modest lifestyle would be an interesting question to pursue.

Illustrated editions of The History of Sandford and Merton, first published in three volumes between 1783-9,  kept children entertained well into the nineteenth century. This one was published in 1813. Source: The Hockliffe Project.

Sean Canty

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