‘Them two boys have been shut up in the cell’

Detail from George Cruikshank’s illustration for original serialisation of Oliver Twist (1837-9). Courtesy David Perdue’s Dickens Page

Detail from George Cruikshank’s illustration for original serialisation of Oliver Twist (1837-9). Courtesy David Perdue’s Dickens Page

Wednesday 8 January 1840

Today, as soon as Sarah Martin appears at the door of the dayroom in the House of Correction, Walter Tunmore flies forward to take his teacher’s paper case. ‘Them two boys’, he blurts out, ‘have been shut up in the cell for behaving ill – for singing.’ Indignant at Walter’s snitching, his cellmate turns on him: ‘You took up your book when you saw the lady coming!’ Another joins the fray: ‘You threw a red hot coal in his face when he was studying his lessons.’[i]

This is not a promising start to the class but the teacher is pleased to discover ‘The little boys knew their lessons today’. Satisfied with their spelling and memorised verses, she reads them the obligatory Bible story. The moment it is finished ‘every eye was directed to the little books’ she brings to reward their diligence. Choosing a couple she starts to read, pausing ‘after every sentence or two for them to talk about it.’

The teacher enjoys this story-telling session as much as her eager audience. They are becoming her ‘little boys’ even though four are in their teens – Walter Tunmore the eldest fifteen, Walter Layton the youngest just eleven. But she is troubled too. They are so restless and volatile; one minute hushed listeners, hanging on her words, the next petulant and proud, full of bravado and deviance.  ‘Not one of them’, she writes later, ‘acknowledged aught that was bad in himself, but, whilst ill-nature prevailed, one accused another, and the other in return told what his accuser did.’

Sarah Martin at gate

Henry Ewart (ed), True and Noble Women (1889)

Sarah Martin is an experienced teacher. She has visited the gaol for over twenty years and now attends almost daily. There is little inmates can throw at her she has not heard before. Armed with the Bible she knows word-for-word, she has a ready retort for every complaint, every obscenity, every excuse. But there is something about these boys and her feelings for them that disturb her confidence and certainty.

Rarely does the teacher reflect in her journal on her teaching methods or approach to prisoner correction. Today is different. ‘One who had read the account I have given of the five boys’, she wonders aloud, ‘might ask why did I suffer them thus to speak to each other in my presence? And why did I not reprove them?’ Sometimes she writes her journal in front of her scholars so they can see she reports their conduct to the gaoler. But apart from the Governor, only the Prison Inspector reads her books when he visits each year to examine the prison.

Separate cell

Separate cell in Mayhew and Binney, The Criminal Prisons of London, 1862 (Google Book)

The Inspector, Captain William John Williams, approves Sarah Martin’s work and enjoys his annual discussions with her. Without the Christian visitor, he reports, there would be no instruction or employment for Yarmouth’s prisoners and therefore no improvement. An army man, he has a pragmatic take on prison discipline . He likes her practical efforts to get offenders back on the straight and narrow and recommends her strategy of supporting ‘Liberated Prisoners’ find work.[ii] But Crawford and Russell, who dominate the Prison Inspectorate, are too busy devising national guidelines on solitary confinement to give his proposals attention.[iii]

coldbath house of correction prisoners reading in dorm

Silent association in Mayhew and Binney, Criminal Prisons of London (1862)

Sarah Martin knows something of debates in policy-making circles over whether the separate confinement of prisoners should be the focus of penal administration or their silent association, where they work and sleep together but are prohibited from speaking. Sometimes she notes she would like inmates kept in individual cells. ‘Happy should I be to teach these boys an hour every day for a few months, and have them separate the rest of the time’, she muses.

The teacher fears the boys will corrupt each other. Yet part of her senses they reveal more of themselves together, in their group, than if they were left alone, surly and defensive. To her imaginary critic, who asks why she lets them speak freely and why she does not chastise them, she answers ‘I suffered it awhile as an observer, as it presented a remarkable disclosure of character, such as can rarely be obtained from older persons who are skilled in the concealment of each other’s crimes.’

The boys are captivated by Miss Martin’s little books. It is the boys’ own stories – compelling and repellant – that captivate the teacher. She wants them to be good. They must be good. Yet it’s their boyishness that wins her over – their enthusiastic greetings, their clamour for stories, their lack of guard. They cannot help themselves. But she can help them.


[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). For more discussion of issues explored in this post, 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 – but you might want to wait till we get to the end of our story!

[ii] See extracts from his reports and letter in Sarah Martin, the Prison Visitor of Great Yarmouth, pp. 137-43.

[iii]For a useful overview of these debates, see Richard Johnson, ‘Prison Reform 1835-1850’, Looking at History blog, 28 March 2011, accessed 15 Jan 2014.

One thought on “‘Them two boys have been shut up in the cell’

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

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