Making their Mark

Monday 13 January 1840

Today the prison visitor must chide ‘the little boys’ again: ‘it made me very unhappy every day I came to find either one or other had been put into the cell or behaving ill this way or that’.  ‘[I]f they wished me to teach them’, Miss Martin tells the sheepish boys, ‘they must act up to what I said.’[1]

Walter Tunmore is shame-faced and aggrieved: ‘he was sure he wished to be a good boy – and knew he had been very naughty – but cried because I always thought him the worst’. At 16, the tearful Walter is the eldest of the five boys but in some ways the most childish; quick to take offence and easily upset. ‘He is the noisiest’, writes Sarah Martin, ‘but in other respects they seem alike’.

The boys are canny, though, and are learning how to worm their way into the teacher’s affection. ‘Each said – he wished to be a good boy – and that if I did not care for them I should not go and teach them’. They know the teacher desires their company as much as they crave her attention. ‘I spent above two hours with them’, she writes (half her time in the gaol today), ‘and their interest was as much awake at the last moment as at the first’.

Harmony restored, the teacher tries a new strategy with her recalcitrant scholars. ‘Before leaving them it was agreed that if they wished to see me every day they must prove it, and make my visit happy by trying to observe a few rules which I would write on paper and read, and let each boy who was in earnest to practice, sign his name or his approval of each by a mark.’

Sarah Martin offers the boys an incentive to become good little Christian boys, promising ‘if the rules were kept each should have a present of a grey cotton shirt when he left the prison’. Their eyes light up. “I should like a grey cotton shirt” says Robert Harrod, “it would be so warm”. ‘He seemed highly pleased’, the teacher writes later.

Slowly, carefully, the boys peering over her shoulder, Miss Martin reads out each rule as she writes it down

1st  To try to become better boys before we leave the Jail.

2nd To get good long lessons reading every day before we have to say them to our teacher.

3rd To leave off quarrelling and fighting and swearing and stealing one another’s victuals.

4th To try to be good tempered to each other [and] to behave well to each other

5th Instead of being always finding fault with the other four – to be quiet and find fault with myself.

6th To mind what the Governor says – and not compel him to put me in the cell.

Each rule is discussed and deliberated so it is properly understood before each boy eagerly takes Miss Martin’s pen to sign his pledge. The teacher allows Walter, so needy of approval, to make his mark first: ‘We the undermentioned naughty and wicked Boys wish to become better and observe these rules’.

Taking her leave of her prison scholars, the teacher folds the precious document and encloses it in her Book. The boys remind her to bring more picture books tomorrow and cloth to cut out their new shirts.

Sitting in the record office above Great Yarmouth’s library, built onto the back of the gaol after it was bombed in World War 2, I open up the folded paper, browning and brittle, and gasp and weep. The crosses of five boys who could not write their names stare up at me. Grasping the pen, they had stabbed the paper: their first strokes pressed down hard with determination; their second strokes tentative and faltering as hands shifted awkwardly to complete the crosses. Somehow these jagged marks capture the boys’ edginess and their vulnerability.

Their marks have made their mark on me. Sarah Martin does not want the boys to leave her. I cannot let them go.

The Rules, pasted in Sarah Martin's Everyday Book

The Rules, pasted in Sarah Martin’s Everyday Book


[1] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 13 January 1840

10 thoughts on “Making their Mark

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  3. That everyday book photographed at the end of your post looks and sounds fascinating. Did she record personal information in it too, or mainly just things pertaining to her life? Did it become a record of individual children’s successes and failures, or were the entries more aggregate and abstract?

    I’m curious in part because I’m working on the sorts of narratives which teachers fashioned in the logbooks which the state required them to keep after 1862.

    • Thank you for your interest!

      Sarah Martin’s Everyday Book is an extraordinary journal. It concerned her work with prisoners exclusively. Each day she jotted down who had studied which Bible verses and a brief comment on their reading or spelling: ‘Improved’, ‘Idle’, ‘Good’ and so on. She wrote about any incident that stood out, especially those that revealed something about inmates’ characters. So she noted opposition to her teaching, sometimes recording what prisoners said, and also commented on disputes among inmates. When prisoners worked hard she also made a note. She would refer back to her notes if prisoners returned to gaol. She would also cross-reference with her ‘Liberated Prisoners Journal’ where she kept track of former inmates and her assistance those who had shown willing to reform in gaol.

      So her journals are principally aide-memoirs but they serve as very early kinds of registers. If you go to my About Page, you’ll find links to articles where I’ve discussed them.

      Look forward to hearing more about your logbooks!


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