‘Not Forced to Learn’

Monday 6 January 1840

Martin's boys

Detail from ‘Sarah Martin the Jail Missionary’ Women of Worth: A Book for Girls (London: James Hogg, 1859), p. 58

‘The young Boys have been very Idle’ the prison visitor Sarah Martin writes today in her Everyday Book.  As wardsman, the inmate John Bevington is supposed to supervise the boys in the House of Correction and report any bad behaviour. Walter Tunmore, he tells Miss Martin, ‘does not like his book – he likes to play about’. The five boys, observes the teacher ‘have all got the notion that they are not obliged [] to learn or to use their own words “not forced to learn”.’[i] These are the first words we have heard the boys say.

All five boys are expected to learn a verse from the Bible each day. Today it is the first verse from John’s Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ Small wonder they struggle to apply themselves to this feat of memory. For the Christian visitor this will have been one of the most important verses in Scripture. Her vocation was to bring God’s Word – and his promise of salvation – to the outcast of Yarmouth. She will have explained the meaning of the verse to the boys but to them it must have been incomprehensible.


charity school spelling bookAnd yet, the verse – ‘In the beginning was the Word’ – aptly sums up the boys’ prison schooling. They are invited to receive the divine truth of the Bible by learning to read words. The boys work on their spelling – almost certainly from the first leaves of Mrs Trimmer’s Charity School Spelling Book, first published by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge in 1791 and by 1840 one of the most widely-used primers. In April Sarah Martin will purchase six copies to replace the worn-out copies that inmates thumbed through each day.[ii]

‘Not perfect’, Martin writes of Walter’s and William’s learning. Chistmas is ‘not at all perfect’, learning nothing: ‘Idle none’. Robert Harrod ‘upon the whole behaves best’. He is a little more advanced in reading than these boys and is studying an ‘Easy Lesson’ from the Charity School Spelling Book, comprising simple sentences of just a few words. The boys will learn one phrase that no doubt was frequently applied to them: ‘a bad boy’. They will also learn their place through learning their letters: ‘Boys and Girls who will not work when they may, will go in rags all their lives.’[iii]

sarah trimmer a bad boy

‘Easy Lessons’ from Mrs Trimmer’s Charity School Spelling Book

In her Book, the teacher writes her comments on the boys and reads them out to her pupils. She informs them ‘“they were not forced to learn” if they liked better to be locked up in the cell alone’. The boys plead with her not to show the Governor her book ‘and each boy began to blame another for preventing his being quick and learning his lessons’. They start telling tales: ‘One declared the other had stolen butter & half a cheese & & – another said – “You stole ten shillings …” – One said – you set me to steal herrings & – -.’

After more of this, the teacher insisted she must show the Governor her Books. But since ‘they promised to be obedient and diligent and orderly for the future’, she will give them another chance. If they followed her to the prison gate, she ‘would request the Governor to come to hear what they had to say and ask him to pass it over & try them one day more.’ Martin’s finishes her journal entry, ‘They did so most eagerly’.

sarah martin preaching

Seymour Frederick Harris, Sarah Martin: The Prison Visitor, Excellent Women Series, (London, 1897) p. 109

The boys had very limited education and struggled with their lessons. But they had the wit to understand the power dynamics within the gaol. They were right. They were not forced to learn. The gaol made no provision for education but relied on the voluntary work of Sarah Martin to keep inmates occupied.  When prisoners complained – as they often did – that they were content to learn but not to memorise Scripture, she told them the gospel was a ‘gift’ they must freely accept; no one would be forced to learn. But in practice prisoners were expected to comply and the teacher reported ‘idleness’ to the Governor. Unwittingly, therefore, the boys exposed the disciplinary nature of Christian instruction in prison.

But in this fracas between the boys and prison teacher the dynamics between the children and teacher also began to shift. Telling on each other, the boys started to open up their lives to her. For all Sarah Martin’s severity, she will grow more and more fond of them. They will return her attention and affection.


[i] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 6 January 1840. Most of this journal entry was included in the edited memoir published initially in 1844, the year after her death: see Anon. Sarah Martin, the Prison Visitor of Great Yarmouth, with extracts from her Writings and Prison Journals, a New Edition with Additions. London: Religious Tract Society, n.d. [1847], pp. 121-2. This edition is available as a Google Book.

[ii] Sarah Martin’s Account Book, ‘Donations for General Purposes, 1824-1841’, Great Yarmouth Museum Services.

[iii] Mrs. Trimmer, The Charity School Spelling Book. Containing the alphabet, spelling lessons, and short stories of good and bad boys, . . . (London, SPCK, 1799). Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Oxford, pp. 15, 17.

2 thoughts on “‘Not Forced to Learn’

  1. Pingback: ‘Oh, what beautiful books!’ | Conviction

  2. Pingback: “Will you not be glad to go out?” | Conviction

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