‘Thus were the Rules again broken’

Tuesday 14 January 1840

the rules - Crop

The Rules, Sarah Martin’s Everyday Book

The Gaoler stops the prison visitor on her way to teach the boys in the House of Correction, informing Miss Martin that, once more, her young scholars have been in trouble. Only yesterday, the boys signed up to a set of rules drawn by their teacher, pledging to give up ‘quarrelling and fighting’, learn ‘good long lessons’, and not ‘compel the Governor to put me in the cell’. Making his mark against his name, each had promised ‘he wished to be a good boy’. But today, as Sarah Martin ‘had expected [ ] the rules were broken.’ After class yesterday, Robert Harrod poured soot into Walter Tunmore’s drinking pan just as his cellmate was about to take a gulp and was sent to solitary ‘for his offence’.[1]

When Sarah Martin enters their ward, the boys are ‘in an angry mind to each’. Robert Harrod tries to conceal his fault by casting ‘unjust blame on the others’, much to Walter Tunmore’s indignation. ‘Both boys required severe reprimand’, Harrod ‘for doing an unkind thing. . . and trying to excuse himself’ and Tunmore for ‘not resting to reproach him for it’. To the boys’ dismay, the teacher tears in half the copy of their Rules. The shirts they were to begin making today, their reward for good conduct, are now forfeited she tells them.[2]

Names and marks of the five boys

Names and marks of the five boys

Dressing-down over, the teacher introduces the feuding boys to the principle of Christian forgiveness by relating the account of Jesus praying for the soldiers who are about to crucify him (Luke 23: 33-34). ‘Their attention seemed fixed on the subject.’ They plead with the teacher for a new copy of the rules. ‘After each rule had been proposed, written & read to them and each boy said he liked that rule – They were allowed in turn each to make his mark.’

Shipwreck title pageTheir lessons over, the boys remind the teacher of a story about a shipwreck she has promised to read them. Their lives spent by the sea – three with a sailor father – the boys are used to sea-faring yarns and songs and eager to hear more. Almost certainly, she reads them The Shipwreck…, a verse narrative containing An Account of a Poor Sailor Boy, published by the Religious Tract Society, from whom Miss Martin acquires most of her books. The millions of tracts peddled by the Society, often doled out free to the poor, demonised what evangelicals saw as the ‘cruel’ and ‘irreligious’ features of popular culture.  In The Shipwreck, it is the ‘wreckers’ who are condemned – the coastal bands who reputedly lured boats into dangerous waters or onto the rocks in order to plunder their cargo and rob their crew.[3]

The boys are familiar with tales of shipwrecks. But they also know the other side to ‘wrecking’ stories. After all, they know of men who never return ‘from the fish’, and friends who have lost fathers and brothers to the sea. After a storm, they comb the long stretch of beach, searching for free pickings. They pester the beachmen who make their living, scouring the shore for drift, heaving boats onto the sands, shouldering their contents to land. On a wild night, these are the men who come out with their lamps to guide floundering ships to safety.

The Shipwreck, frontispiece

The Shipwreck, frontispiece

Whatever the boys know, they are suckers for sentimentality. They listen, riveted, as the teacher regales how only the ‘poor little sailor boy’ makes it to shore. They hold their breath as he gasps his last, lamenting the fate of his poor widowed mother and calling on the Lord to forgive his murderers. Walter Tunmore begins to sob. Young Walter Layton snaps out of his reverie and laughs at the elder boy. Unmanned by his tears, Walter flies back into a rage. This time it is the teacher who forgives. ‘Thus were the Rules again broken’, she writes, ‘but I passed it over.’

The Shipwreck start poem


[1] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 14 January 1840.

[2] The ‘Rules’ shown here and in the last post are actually the copy Sarah Martin pasted into her book 14 January 1840.

[3] The story was first published by the Religious Tract Society (established 1795), in its second series designed especially for children and Sunday-school scholars. Subscribers could purchase 200 copies of the story for 2 shillings to distribute to the poor. It was re-issued frequently in the nineteenth century. See The Proceedings of the First Twenty Years of the Religious Tract Society (London: RTS, 1820), pp. xii-xiii. The edition used here was published by the American Tract Society, New York, 1829. The author is ‘R.M.’ For the popularity of shipwreck stories in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, see Carl Thompson, Romantic-era Shipwreck Narratives (Nottingham: Nottingham Trent University, Trent Editions, 2007) and Margarette Lincoln, ‘Shipwreck Narratives of the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries: Indicators of Culture and Identity’, Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies (2008), 20.2: 155-72. For the history of wrecking see, Bella Bathurst, The Wreckers: A Story of Killing Seas, False Lights, and Plundered Ships (London: Harper Collins, 2005) and, for the most recent work, Cathryn Pearce, Cornish Wrecking, 1700-1860: Reality and Popular Myth (Boydell and Brewer,  2010).

One thought on “‘Thus were the Rules again broken’

  1. Pingback: The Prisoner’s Tear | Conviction

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