‘Oh, what beautiful books!’

‘Sarah Martin the Jail Missionary’

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

Tuesday 7 January 1840

Yesterday the boys in the House of Correction were restless and quarrelsome. Today, when Sarah Martin arrives to teach them, she asks ‘are you all prepared for me?’ ‘Yes, yes’ they cry. The prison visitor shows them ‘a handful of little books’ she has brought with her, ‘such as “Short Stories,” &c., with a picture on every page.’ Their eyes light up. ‘Oh, what beautiful books!’ they all exclaim, excitedly. ‘If you have learned your lessons well’, she promises, ‘I will read one or two of them.’[i]

First the boys must prove they can repeat the verse the teacher left them yesterday to memorise. She gives them another from the Book of Exodus to learn for tomorrow and their lessons from The Charity School Spelling Book. Before they can enjoy a picture book, they must listen to a Bible story. William Hickling has an eye defect; the teacher will catch his mates calling him ‘Blindy’. Is this why she selects Mark 10, where Jesus restores the blind man’s sight? She tests the boys to see if they have grasped the parable’s meaning but will note in her journal, ‘they understood, or perhaps rather, remembered it’.

The History of Dick Wildgoose (London:  J. Davies, c. 1839). Courtesy of the Bodleian Library

The History of Dick Wildgoose (London:J. Davies, c. 1839). Courtesy of the Bodleian Library

Then, the moment the boys are waiting for. Miss Martin leafs through her collection of  cheap religious story books – the boys watching eagerly – apparently taking her time to make her selection. But no doubt she has already chosen the title, picking out one she deems particularly appropriate for her troublesome charges,  The History of Dick Wild Goose, ‘shewing that “idleness leads to mischief and trouble.”’[ii]

The book is small – just 9cm – and well-thumbed through much use. The boys eagerly gather round the story-teller to peer at its illustrations. ‘They all stretched their heads forward, as I pointed, with my pen, to every picture, and made their own observations, which were, to me full of interest.’

dog fightingDick is none too keen on his lessons. He skips Sunday School to idle about with the aptly named Bob Loiter. They set cocks to fight, chase a poor man’s geese, steal apples from a widow’s garden. Dick gets his comeuppances, but never learns the moral lessons the book spells out. ‘Here you see Dick trying to get two dogs to fight’, tuts the teacher, tapping with her pen. ‘Harry Manly’, she pauses approvingly over his name, ‘was passing by, and pushed Dick away, and told him he was sure he was a cowardly fellow, or he would not try to make poor dumb creatures hurt each other.’ Moral leads into Scripture, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain Mercy.’

dick beggingCareless Dick never learns the errors of his ways. ‘I told you Dick had always been an idle and mischievous boy, so that nobody loved him or cared for him’, intones the teacher, shaking her head. ‘His father died about this time, and Dick had no friend left, and was forced to beg his bread. See what a ragged figure he is’, she warns. ‘“He that being often reproved, hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy.”’

beating assTwo of the boys have lost their father, a third his mother. Most will have gone hungry. But it is not Dick’s woes that arrest their attention but his mischievous adventures. Clearly they recognise themselves in the pictures. ‘That boy is cruel to donkeys’ cries one, pointing at another, who protests vociferously attacking him in return. ‘I know one’, shouts Walter Tunmore, ‘who threw seven cats into the river, from the bridge, in one night.’ ‘That was your brother, in the bridewell’, Robert Harrod taunts. ‘My brother! My brother! I dare say it was my brother, indeed!’

Dick beating ass againThe teacher attempts to calm the fractious boys. ‘Tell me who it was’, she demands. ‘It was Scotten’, they report, ‘the one who was transported.’ The teacher knows John Scotten well, the seventeen-year-old, apprenticed to a coach-painter. First taught by Miss Martin three years ago, he abandoned the Sunday School she recommended him to, took up poaching and then burglary. He was taken from the prison to the Ganymede hulk just over a month ago to await transportation. ‘It was then time to dwell on the end of such a course, to warn and instruct them.’

Sarah Martin will leave the prison, the boys preying on her mind. Tomorrow she will continue to fret about them in her journal. Perhaps John Scotten, only a few years older than the boys, is also on her mind. He slipped through her fingers just as, all too likely, will her new charges.

Next year, in Van Diemen’s Land, the convict John Scotten will be seen chasing and ‘worrying’ a kid goat that later will be found dead. He will spend six weeks in irons for his cruelty.[iii]

[i] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 7 January 1840. This diary entry is included, almost in full, in 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 (Google book version available).

[ii] The History of Dick Wildgoose, Shewing that Idleness leads to Mischief, and Mischief to Misery (London: J. Davies, circa 1839), Opie Collection, L 301 (11), Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.  For more on this book and Sarah Martin’s reading with the boys, see Helen Rogers, ‘“Oh, what beautiful books!” Captivated Reading in an Early Victorian Prison’, Victorian Studies, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Autumn 2012), pp. 57-84. Contact me if you cannot access this article and would like to read it.

[iii] Conduct Record, 9 August 1841; see John Scotten, 429, Asia (5), 1840, Conduct Registers of Male Convicts Arriving in the Period of the Probation System. 1 Jan. 1840–31 Dec. 1853. Hobart: State Archives Office of Tasmania, CON33/1/2. For his gaol admissions, see Gaol Register, 3 January 1836, 4 April 1836, 22 September 1839.

5 thoughts on “‘Oh, what beautiful books!’

  1. Am fascinated by the naming of ‘Harry Manly’ in the books. My collection of ‘manly’ and ‘manliness’ from various digitised sources turned up a few other characters named thus. I wonder if these boys just found Harry Manly irritating thoug!

    • How interesting that Harry Manly crops up elsewhere! originality was not a strong point of the ‘little books’! I am sure Sarah Martin did her best to emphasise Harry Manly’s positive attributes to the boys. But I suspect they didn’t notice him very much & were just waiting for the exciting bits when Dick acts up just like them!

  2. Pingback: Thick as thieves | The History of Emotions Blog

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

  4. Pingback: Departure | Conviction

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s