Trouble in the Family

Sunday 5 January 1840

Underground cells, Tolhouse, Great Yarmouth Borough Gaol

Underground cells, Tolhouse, Great Yarmouth Borough Gaol

On Friday, Sarah Martin wrote of a sixteen-year-old factory girl imprisoned for stealing clothes from three women: ‘Martha Tan is improving in working and reading. Her manners are improved.’ Today she observes in her Everyday Book: ‘Martha Tan was in the cell for being overheard when using bad language.’ The girl had been knocking on the wall between the female dayroom and the male ward to engage the men in ‘filthy conversation’. She will be kept in solitary for three days.[i]

So far, the prison visitor has not referred to the five boys in the House of Correction, except to list the verses they were learning from Scripture. Tomorrow, however, she will begin to chart their progress, capturing their voices and behaviour in far more detail than in the hastily-written jottings she usually made about prisoners, as in her cryptic notes on Martha Tann.

Before spending time with the boys in their lessons, in this post I explore the family histories of the eldest children in the House of Correction. Like Christmas Patterson and Walter Layton, who Sarah Martin considered ‘neglected’,  census and parish documents point to the pressures on their families.

Ann must have been at the end of her tether in 1837 when she dragged her son Robert Harrod before the magistrates to be sentenced, just twelve years old, to a week’s imprisonment for being ‘absent from home’.[ii] We can only imagine the heated arguments and pleadings that surely took place between mother and son before she took such drastic action. Parish and census documents offer tantalizing glimpses of the trouble that beset her family.

Hand dressing hemp for rope, The Museum Of Knots & Sailor's Ropework

Hand dressing hemp for rope, The Museum Of Knots & Sailor’s Ropework

Robert was baptised in 1825, his sister Elizabeth three years later in 1828. Their father John was entered in the christening register as a sailor.[iii] But at the Census in 1841 Elizabeth was listed under her birth name while her mother was now registered as Ann Holmes, living with the twinespinner Edward Holmes. In 1832 Ann bore Edward’s first son Richard when her eldest boy Robert was six years old. Her two subsequent children, like Richard, were named Holmes.[iv]

So far, I have not discovered when Robert’s birth father died and nor have I found a marriage between Ann and her second husband Edward. Had sailor John passed away or had he jumped ship and deserted his family?

Apprenticeship Indenture paper for Cyril Yallop, Great Yarmouth

Apprenticeship Indenture paper for Cyril Yallop, Great Yarmouth, courtesy Mark Rumble

One of the principle responsibilities of working-class fathers was to introduce their sons into the world of labour. Skilled men often did so by placing their sons in apprenticeships – a considerable expense for poor families.[v] Edward made such an arrangement for his stepson Robert, finding him an apprenticeship to a ropemaker in his own trade. Perhaps tension between stepson and stepfather, however, caused Robert to wander from home? For absenting himself from his master’s service, Robert, aged 14, was now back in gaol.[vi] Rejecting Edward’s trade may have been his way of rejecting Edward’s paternal authority.

Luke Fildes, Houseless and Hungry, Graphic, 4 December 1869

Luke Fildes, ‘Houseless and Hungry’, Graphic, 4 December 1869

William Hickling, aged 14, had also lost his father.[vii] I can find no record of Matthew’s death. Probably it was shortly after the birth of William’s younger brother Robert for in 1836 Matthew’s widow Maria Hickling took her three sons to the workhouse from where they were removed to her husband’s native village of Buxton in Norfolk. Twice more the young family made its way to Yarmouth only to be sent back to Buxton under the settlement laws which allowed poor law guardians to dispose of paupers by returning them to their own parish.[viii]

At the 1841 Census, the Hickling family were living in lodgings at Row 51, home of an elderly married couple. Another young woman resided there too with her infant son. It is probable the two single mothers resorted to casual prostitution. When Rachael Hannant was imprisoned she was listed as a prostitute by the Gaoler. Maria Hickling was treated for venereal disease when she was charged with being in receipt of stolen goods in 1841.[ix]

Maria’s eldest son Matthew was working as a mariner in 1841, as his father had before him. When William was imprisoned in 1840, however, he had yet to win a berth aboard a ship and was working as a labourer at a fish office.[x]

Rampart Row, Great Yarmouth c. Norfolk County Council

Rampart Row, Great Yarmouth
c. Norfolk County Council

William was committed to Yarmouth Gaol for the first time 28 December 1839 with Walter Tunmore. The Gaoler recorded Walter as being 12 years-old but in fact he was 15, the eldest of the five boys in the House of Correction.[xi] He too was the son of a sailor but by 1841, his father, now 57, was working as a labourer. Six of William Tunmore’s children were with him for the Census though the youngest, Christopher aged 4, may have been a grandson for his wife Lucy was 50 years-old.[xii] Few poor law records have survived for Great Yarmouth but on one occasion at least William had needed to apply to the guardians for poor relief for his family.[xiii] It seems the Tunmores could not afford education for their children. Most entered the gaol in the early 1840s; none could read or write.

In 1841 the Tunmores lived on Rampart Row, the longest of the town’s network of crowded rows where four boys in the House of Correction resided. Perhaps this was where Walter and William Hickling had been caught stealing chickens for, as this illustration suggests, neighbours kept birds in the alley.  Only Robert Harrod lived on the North Denes looking out towards the North Sea where his father had sailed.

Shipwrecked sailors, Great Yarmouth Sailors' Home, 1909

Shipwrecked sailors, Great Yarmouth Sailors’ Home, 1909

It is striking that all three boys, discussed in this post, were sons of mariners. Sailoring was a respectable occupation in Yarmouth. Work at sea required strong discipline among the crew and, except for young boys imprisoned for offences committed while in between sea voyages, relatively few sailors were admitted to the town gaol. In the same month the boys were imprisoned four sailors were held in the House of Correction. Working hard at their lessons, the prison visitor thought they set a good example to other inmates who referred to them as ‘Gentlemen’.[xiv]

But death, desertion, casual employment, illness and old age could swiftly compromise the ability of families to maintain the comfort and security of children. The line between ‘independent’ and indigent poor was fine and easily crossed. Of the five boys in the House of Correction, only Robert Harrod, believed the prison visitor, had ‘good and careful’ parents. Yet historical records hint at tensions between step relatives that disturbed this apparently ‘steady’ family. The behaviour of the boys – which marked them out to the authorities as rogues and vagabonds – can instead be interpreted as hardiness. Boys learned this on the streets. Creating trouble was a form of survival and companionship but also, as we shall see, of much fun.


[i] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 5 January 1850; Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 5 January 1840.

[ii] Great Yarmouth Borough Gaol Register, 26 September 1837.

[iv] Ibid, 23 April 1832; 1841 Census, HO107/793/1, Ancestry.com. 1841 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2010.

[v] Andrew Walker, “Father’s Pride? Fatherhood in Industrializing Communities,” in

Gender and Fatherhood in the Nineteenth Century, Trev Lynn Broughton and Helen Rogers,

eds (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007), 113–25.

[vi] Gaol Register, 28 December 1839.

[viii]  Index of Examined Paupers, 1756-1844, Norfolk Record Office, Y/L16/8, mf/RO 597/6, 3 Dec 1836 and 14 Apr 1838. Elizabeth, Matthew Hickling’s widow, and children are almost certainly the same family, removed to Buxton 25 February 1837.

[ix] 1841 Census, HO107/793/4; Gaol Register, 14 August 1841 and 4 February 1842 (Rachael Hannant), and 2 December 1841 (Maria Hickling); Gaol Keeper’s Journal 15 December 1851.

[x] 1841 Census, HO107/793/4.

[xii] 1841 Census, HO107/793/8.

[xiii] 4 May 1837, Minutes of Board of Guardian Great Yarmouth, Apr 1837-Sept 1840, Norfolk Record Office, Y/WE 69.

[xiv] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 29 January 1840. The men were from Hull and had refused to sail back the ship under its current master. Gaol Register, 27 January 1840.

5 thoughts on “Trouble in the Family

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