Christmas in Prison, 1839

The Tolhouse, Great Yarmouth Gaol, mid 1900s c. Norfolk County Council

The Tolhouse, Great Yarmouth Gaol, mid 1800s c. Norfolk County Council

On Christmas Day 1839 inmates at Yarmouth Gaol tucked into a hearty meal of roast beef and plum pudding paid for by the Mayor. I hope it was washed down with ale, as it had been in 1837. The festive dinner must have made a welcome change from the monotonous prison diet of bread and treacle, bread and cheese, potatoes, gruel and soup. The prisoners obligingly thanked the Mayor for their ‘plentiful dinner’.[i]

Though prison food was plain, it will not have differed greatly from the regular diet consumed by the labouring poor. For most Yarmouth inmates, roast beef was a rare treat, outside as well as inside gaol. May Churchill Sharpe recalled a similar Christmas dinner at Aylesbury Gaol in 1910 when ‘we got roast beef and plum-pudding. The heavy meal nearly killed many of the convicts, they appreciated it so much.’[ii]

The Mayor’s annual gesture of Christmas hospitality to the prisoners was designed to demonstrate the charity and majesty of the law; justice might be severe but it could also be benevolent.  As Justice of the Peace, the Mayor frequently sent down offenders for misdemeanours such as vagrancy, petty theft, and disturbing the peace, and continued to do so over Christmas. On 23 December, George Mills aged 17 was hauled before the magistrates for stealing a plum-cake from a butcher’s shop. [iii] Oh-dear-plum-pudding

This was the fifth time in three years that George had been before the magistrates but, since ‘his parents are honest persons’ who had laboured to prevent their son’s errant ways (and perhaps because it was Christmas) the magistrates chose to exercise discretion and released the boy from custody on Christmas Eve.[iv] We do not know if George spent Christmas at home or if the Mills family enjoyed plum-pudding together. But a fortnight later, George was back in gaol having stolen six handkerchiefs from a linen draper. This time the magistrates did not look kindly on him. At the Quarter Sessions they sentenced him to seven years transportation.[v]

Christmas passed peacefully at Yarmouth Gaol. On 21 December, Martha Tann was sent to solitary for six hours for singing but there were no more punishments until 29 December when three men were put in the cells for ‘conducting themselves exceedingly improperly’. [vi] Perhaps the prisoners were mindful of their Christmas dinner for misconduct could lead to forfeiting the treat, as did four refractory inmates who went hungry in 1843.[vii]

‘Sarah Martin conducting service at Yarmouth Gaol’ in Edward Hodder, 'Heroes of Britain in War and Peace', London: Cassell, c. 1878, p. 186.

‘Sarah Martin conducting service at Yarmouth Gaol’ in Edward Hodder, ‘Heroes of Britain in War and Peace’, London: Cassell, c. 1878, p. 186. The image of the fiddler is probably fanciful!

Had Martha Tann been singing Christmas songs?[viii] Prisoners were punished for singing but it seems to have been loud, disruptive behaviour that landed them in the solitary cell, often a combination of singing, shouting and swearing, rather than merely singing.[ix] They had ample opportunity over Christmas, however, to vent their voices during hymn singing in the prison chapel. On 22 December the prison teacher Sarah Martin led the morning service followed in the afternoon by Reverend Pellew who returned for another service on 27 December. No doubt communal singing was a relief from the long and earnest sermons. When the Prison Inspector attended Sarah Martin’s service in the prison chapel in 1835 he reported the congregation sang ‘extremely well, much better than I have heard in our best appointed churches’.[x]

Sarah Martin did not visit the prison on Christmas day. Perhaps, instead, she went to the workhouse for her account books, where she listed subscriptions to her various charities, included her purchases for ‘THE CHILDREN’S CHRISTMAS TREAT IN WORKHOUSE’: nuts, small oranges, buns, gingerbread, apples, coffee, and books.[xi] In her absence from the gaol, however, Miss Martin had left her prison scholars with nutrition for the soul. They were to memorize passages she had set from the Bible.[xii]

On Boxing Day, the teacher was pleased some prisoners had applied themselves to studying their religious verses. Approaching the end of a six month sentence for stealing rope, the labourer John Bevington aged 23 was ‘was so thankful for his Christmas Dinner from the Mayor’, Sarah Martin found, ‘his diligence in his lessons was superior to any former effort.’ Between Sunday and Thursday he had memorized sixteen verses from Scripture – ‘an arduous task for him’ – and the women prisoners had also been ‘very diligent’.[xiii]


An example of the moral fables from the Religious Tract Society that Sarah Martin read with young prisoners

Not all inmates had been ‘improved’ by the Christmas spirit. Fourteen-years-old James Barley had learned no lessons, having been ‘more exclusively thoughtful of his dinner’. [xiv] The boy, who worked selling pies, seems sometimes to have gone hungry. He had been imprisoned once for enjoying a meal in an eating house without the means of paying and on another another occasion was discharged from prison into the care of the workhouse since he was destitute. [xv]  His cellmate, Mark Young, claimed James was hiding from the teacher being too ashamed to admit his failing.[xvi] More likely James hoped to avoid Miss Martin’s sermonizing. He and Mark Young soon revealed what they made of her Christian instruction. On 2 January each was locked in a cell for twelve hours for ‘writing obscene language’ on the cover of a religious tract the teacher had left for them to read.

That same day, Sarah Martin turned her attention to a new prisoner, Eleanor Davis aged 19. Admitted on 27 December, Eleanor had missed out on the Christmas roast dinner, a meal she had badly needed. She had been picked up as a rogue and vagabond, wandering abroad and, according to the Gaoler, was a ‘common prostitute’.[xvii] The story she told Sarah Martin casts a different light on her circumstances and throws into relief the destitution that led many inmates to Yarmouth gaol.

Grout's Silk Factory, Great Yarmouth Museums

Grout’s Silk Factory, Great Yarmouth Museums

When Eleanor’s fisherman father died when she was six years old, her mother left her four children in the care of her sister in Yarmouth while she went into service in London. Eleanor followed her mother into service but after four years took up with a young sailor who promised her marriage, only to desert the serving girl. The affair probably lost Eleanor her place for she started work at the silk factory where, she intimated to Sarah Martin, she had lost her character: ‘I became quite bad. I lodged at a house in a row where such people lived’. [xviii] No doubt, this was what the Gaoler meant when he labelled her a ‘common prostitute’.

In search of a fresh start, Eleanor left Yarmouth with a pedlar who played the pipe and his wife who sold lace. She followed them as far as Lincoln but they abandoned her when she developed a skin disease. Slowly Eleanor made her way back to Yarmouth by begging and sleeping rough, as she told Sarah Martin:

‘I did not take my clothes off at all for one whole month. I had vermin about me. I walked about eighty miles with neither shoes nor stockings – perhaps that is why my feet are so bad now. I reached Yarmouth on the night of December 27th. It was a rainy night. I crept into a market chair standing under the Blacksmith’s shop cover – when the Police took me up I think I could not have outlived another week.’[xix]

Eleanor Davis among 21 inmates at the Magdalene Asylum, Norwich, Census, 1841

Eleanor Davis among 21 inmates at the Magdalene Asylum, Norwich, Census, 1841

In gaol, the surgeon ordered the services of a nurse to attend to Eleanor who ‘was dreadfully infected with the Itch and otherwise much diseased’.[xx]  Sarah Martin was clearly affected by her story, writing it out in full. She believed the girl to have been made ‘obedient’ by her suffering and that she had left prison at the end of the month, committed to ‘a correct life in future’.[xxi]

It seems that Eleanor was true to her word for she entered the Magdalen Asylum in St Mary’s in the Marsh, Norwich where she was living with twenty other ‘penitent’ young women at the census in June 1841.[xxii] The home was established in 1827 for women ‘who having deviated from the path of virtue, may be desirous of being restored to their station in society, by religious instruction and the formation of moral and industrious habits.’ In 1836 the Asylum claimed to have successfully reformed 41 out of the 90 women to whom it had offered shelter.[xxiii]

Row 10 at Great Yarmouth, c. 1870s where Eleanor and Robert were living in 1851.

Row 10, Great Yarmouth, c. 1870s where Eleanor and Robert lived in 1851. From Mark Rumble, ‘The Revised History of Great Yarmouth’

Reformation appears to have paid off for Eleanor. In July 1842 she married the Norwich hairdresser Robert Plumstead who in 1851 was working as a fruit dealer in Yarmouth. By 1861 the couple had moved to Norwich where Robert was again working as a hairdresser and Eleanor with her two daughters as shoe binders. Undoubtedly Sarah Martin and the matron at the Magdalen Asylum would have disapproved Robert’s subsequent change of occupation to publican. But on his death in 1871, Robert had the means to make out a will to his wife, even though his effects were less than £100.[xxiv] The census records cannot tell us if the marriage was happy but it was a long one and moderately comfortable. Eleanor, we can hope, was never again cold, hungry and friendless at Christmas.

[i] Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 25 December 1837; 21 and 25 December 1839.

[ii] May Churchill Sharpe, Chicago May – Her Story (London: Sampson, Low, 1929), p. 188. Cited by Philip Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives: English Prison Biography, 1830-1914. (London: Pimlico, 1985), p. 164.

[iii] Gaol Register, 23 December 1839.

[iv] Gaol Register, 23 December 1839.

[v] Gaol Register, 11 January 1840.

[vi] Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 21 December 1839.

[vii] Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 24 December 1843.

[viii] For an autobiographical recollection of singing at Christmas in a convict gaol in the 1870s, see Ticket-of-leave-man, Convict Life; or Revelations Concerning Convicts and Convict Prisons (London: Wyman & Sons), p. 229, cited by Priestley p. 226-7.

[ix] Helen, ‘Singing in Gaol: Christian Instruction and Inmate Culture in the Nineteenth Century’, Prison Service Journal, 199 (January 2012), pp. 35-43.

[x] 1836 (117-II) Inspectors of Prisons, First Report, p. 69 and Sarah Martin, p. 137.

[xii] Anon, Sarah Martin, the Prison Visitor of Yarmouth: A Story of a Useful Life (London: Religious Tract Society, 1872), p. 115.

[xiii] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 26 December 1840.

[xiv] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 26 December 1840.

[xv] Index and Receiving Book, 29 April 1839, 30 June 1839 and 10 July 1839.

[xvi] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 26 December 1840.

[xvii] Gaol Register, 27 December 1839.

[xviii] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 10 January 1840.

[xix] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 10 January 1840.

[xx] Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 27 December 1839.

[xxi] Sarah Martin’s Prison Register, 1839, no. 39.

[xxii] 1841 Census, HO 107/789/12,, accessed 19 December 2013.

[xxiii] William White, History, Gazetteer and Directory of Norfolk. . . (Sheffield: W. White, 1836), p. 146 (Google Book)

[xxiv] Robert Plumsted and Eleanor Davies married at St Nicholas Church, Great Yarmouth, 19 July 1842, Film Number: 1526456, England & Wales Marriages, 1538-1940 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2008, accessed 19 December 2013. 1841 Census (Robert), HO 107/788/9; 1851 Census, HO/107/1806; 1861 Census, RG 9/1219; 1871 Census RG 10/1820, accessed, 19 December 2013; England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966 [database on-line] (Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2010), accessed 19 December 2013.

12 thoughts on “Christmas in Prison, 1839

  1. I’ve now had a longer look – really interesting, impressive and beautifully laid out. Lifts the curtain on a generally unknown corner of Victorian society. I read endless stories of people being committed to prison but what then happened remained rather a mystery. It gives me ideas. Merry Christmas!

  2. Pingback: Serving Time at Yarmouth Gaol | Conviction

  3. Pingback: Inside an early Victorian Prison | Conviction

  4. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added
    I get several e-mails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that
    service? Bless you!

  5. Pingback: ‘And have you brought the combs?’ | Conviction

  6. Pingback: Slow Blogging | Conviction

  7. Pingback: Blogging Our Criminal Past, part 3: Public and Creative History | Conviction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s