‘They always ask to have the little books’

Sunday 12 January 1840

Sarah Martin gathers her strength to deliver her Sunday morning sermon in the prison chapel. Rarely does she miss a visit to the gaol but yesterday she regretted, ‘I am compelled by a bad cold to remain at home.’ In her absence, she now learns, the boys returned to their riotous ways. At 3 o’clock on Saturday, Walter, William and Christmas were put in their sleeping cells for the rest of the day, for ‘noisy conduct’.[1]

‘It seems positively necessary that I should devote more time to these little boys’, the teacher writes wistfully today. ‘Their attention is easily caught – is arrested in a moment, – but no improvement is yet evident.’ There is so little time. In just over a fortnight, three of the five will complete their sentence: ‘A month for them is short indeed. I shall be sorry to resign them.’[2]

The Honest Chimney Sweeper, c. Bodleian Library, Oxford

The Honest Chimney Sweeper, c. Bodleian Library, Oxford

But there is hope. ‘They always ask to have the little books I read to them left till the next day’, the teacher notes. The good little books can make them good little boys, like the child in the illustrated story verse, The Honest Chimney-Sweeper, they read the other day.[3]

The boys were ‘delighted’ with its tale of temptation and transformation. Alone at his work in a ‘stately mansion’, the little sweep spies a ‘glittering watch’:

Ah me! he thought, (as near he drew,

To feast upon a closer view,)

If ’twere mine! that one rich treasure,

Would make me happy beyond measure,

So neat and useful; or, if sold,

’Twould fetch almost a mint of gold![4]

 The simple rhyme and thumping rhythm beat out the thrill of temptation the five prisoner boys know so well and the heart-pounding fear of detection.

With hasty, longing, trembling touch,

He seized the tempting, glittering toy,

And felt a momentary joy;

But soon a gleam of conscience stole

Across the young transgressor’s soul:

‘What! shall I dare a thief to be,

And forfeit my integrity;


HCS7Virtue is rewarded. The lady of the house sees the sweep put back her watch and takes him in her care. ‘She gave him learning, clothes and food, /And he turned out a servant good’. [5]

The picture of the blackened sweep, welcomed by the lady’s family into their happy reading circle, beckons to the prisoner boys. They too can be kind and helpful like the children in their book and reap the pleasure of calm, attentive learning. They listen, hushed, as their ‘Lady’ turns the pages.

Miss Martin knows their hunger for stories. She learnt to read, as they do now, sitting at her grandmother’s knee. Stories were compensation then for the parents she had lost. But the glove-maker’s parables from the family Bible could not satisfy the little girl’s hunger. A school friend showed Sarah where she could borrow books from a circulating library. Its owner lent them cheaply to the poor orphan girl who read voraciously, gorging on romances.[6]

HCS8Books are seductive. Reading can be dangerous. The young Sarah lost patience with the Bible and her grandmother’s piety, discovering Shakespeare and the British poets. Insatiable curiosity brought her the attention of an atheist who introduced her to Bolingbroke and Voltaire and showed her how to read the Bible for its ‘contradictions’ rather than its ‘truths’. She was so nearly lost. Only God’s intervention saved her from damnation. Now she refuses all fiction, all doctrinal or philosophical discourse and, except for Scripture, reads secondary religious works only ‘sparingly’.[7] She must not rekindle her fascination with ideas or her intellectual ambition.

But still Miss Martin shares with her little scholars the pleasure of reading that will not leave her. ‘They always ask to have the little books I read to them left till the next day’, she writes proudly, happily.

[1] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book and Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 11 January 1840.

[2] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 12 January 1840.

[3] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 12 January and 7 January 1840. Anon. The Honest Chimney-Sweeper. n.p: n.d. Opie Collection, Bodleian Library. 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!

[4] The Honest Chimney-Sweeper, p. 5.

[5] The Honest Chimney-Sweeper, pp. 5 and 7.

[6] 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. 5-6 (Google book version available).

[7] Sarah Martin, pp. 7-12.

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