The Prisoner’s Tears

Detail from Mrs E.M. Ward, 'Mrs Elizabeth Fry Visiting Newgate, 1818' (1876), exhibited at World Columbian Exposition, 1893

Detail from Mrs E.M. Ward, ‘Mrs Elizabeth Fry Visiting Newgate, 1818’ (1876), exhibited at World Columbian Exposition, 1893

15 January 1840

Yesterday, when the boys’ lesson was over, Walter Tunmore was sent to bed so the surgeon could treat a puss on his side. Passing by his cell, Sarah Martin heard the boy sobbing and went to speak with him. He pleaded with his teacher to make sure to come and see him the next day.

At fifteen years old, Walter is the eldest of the five boys confined together in the House of Correction. According to the teacher’s notes he appears the most volatile; quick to fly into a temper and to break into tears. Only yesterday he wept over the death of the poor sailor boy in the story of a shipwreck then erupted into fury when ten-year old Layton mocked him for blubbering.

Today, in Walter Tunmore’s absence, Sarah Martin finds the younger boys calm and much improved. All have learned their spelling correctly and repeat their Bible verses clearly: ‘Lessons were well said, they were orderly and each looked good tempered.’ But the boys are missing their mate and thinking of him, alone in his cell. This pleases the teacher. At last, they are showing consideration and sympathy that all good Christians should have for their fellows. ‘They wished me to go and read to Tunmore’, she writes approvingly, ‘saying if they were there they would like it.’

But if she visits Walter Tunmore, the teacher points out to the boys, she must make up her time by cutting short their lesson: ‘I told them I wanted four hours and a half in the prison and in going to see him must have a half hour from their time or get it how I could.’ In a flash they tell her ‘to get it somehow else.’  They will not lose her attention; she must take the time from other prisoners.

Content with her eager, dutiful scholars, the teacher makes her way to Walter Tunmore’s cell. Careful of his feelings, she assures him his friends do not know he has asked her to visit, explaining only, ‘They all wished me to come and see you’.  But yesterday’s tears are forgotten and the boy, once more, is diffident and defensive. He has whiled away his time, straining to hear the prison’s noises: the turnkey on his rounds, the banging of doors, the shouts and muffled sounds of taunts and laughter. Bored and restless, he has been waiting to dob in his mates, jealous of the company from which he is excluded: ‘They have all broken the rules!’ he exclaims exultantly; ‘I heard Bevington scolding them’.

The teacher rebukes the boy’s ill-temper. He is the one who incites their disobedience. Now he is gone his classmates are quick to learn and ‘say they wish to try to keep the Rules’ she has set them. She is pleased, she tells him, they are learning that ‘Instead of being always finding fault with the others to find fault with myself’.  What does Tunmore mean when he replies, ‘I am glad of it Ma’am, I am sure I will’?

Back in the two rooms she rents, a few streets from the gaol, the prison visitor sits down to note the day’s events in her journal. She focuses, as she does almost exclusively this month, on her exchanges with the boys. Their insistence she must see them registers what Sarah Martin cannot acknowledge to herself: that she enjoys their company and is glad they desire her attention.

EDB 15 Jan 1840 - Copy

Sarah Martin’s Everyday Book, 15 January 1840. On display at the Tolhouse Museum, Great Yarmouth. Courtesy Norfolk Museum Services

In her observations, the prison visitor reveals something of which she is perhaps only dimly aware: the pressures on her scholar boys to act like men.  Alone in his cell Walter is frightened and lonely. His guard is down and his tears flow. The teacher hears a boy sobbing and comforts him. She tries to give him – to give all the boys – the chance to be a child a little longer.

But Walter is sixteen. He ought to be earning, becoming independent, he should be able to fight his corner. In Yarmouth, where so many sea-farers depend on their crew, mateship is crucial to working men’s identity. But a man must be strong and resilient, too. In vying for status within their group the boys test out each other’s hardiness, just as they find support in companionship. Through his displays of nonchalance, bravado and sensitivity, Walter exhibits the strains of living up to the ideal of the strong man to which all the boys aspire.

Walter’s sobbing is one of several instances in which the prison visitor recorded inmates crying. Sometimes her rebuke was the cause of their tears; at other times she was evidently moved by their weeping. On occasions, as I hope to explore in future, she was uncertain what to make of such apparent outpourings of shame, sorrow or grief. For us, too, these traces of feeling are difficult to interpret, especially since the emotional lives of the poor were rarely documented by themselves or others.

‘The Sailor’s Tear’ (c. 1835) F. W. N. Bayley (lyricist); Sidney Waller (composer)

And yet, as Joanne Bailey has observed, popular sentimental culture in the early nineteenth century retained some positive images of the labouring man of feeling. Though such men were rarely depicted weeping – unlike Sensibility’s ‘[gentle]man of feeling’ – there was a heroic exception in the fond farewell of the sailor or soldier,  who was not ashamed to show his love of family and country in the gleam of a manly tear.[1]

As masculine stoicism was idealised in the second half of the nineteenth century, it is telling that in fiction and art, the labouring rather than bourgeois man became the repository of manly feeling and tenderness.[2] What, if anything, can their imaginary tears tell us of the emotional experience of boys like Walter Tunmore and his mates? If you have found any evidence of such experiences whether in autobiographies, court reports, records of institutional homes or prisons, I would love to hear about them.


[1] Joanne Bailey, ‘Weeping Sailors and British Manliness, 1760-1860’, British Naval History website, 28 November 2013, accessed 9 March 2014.

[2] For a ground-breaking essay opening up the cultural history of tears and masculinity in the Victorian period, see Thomas Dixon, ‘The Tears of Justice Willes’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 17.1 (2012), pp. 1-23. For imagined examples of the labouring man of feeling, see Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels Mary Barton and North and South and the paintings ‘Worn Out’ by Thomas Faed (1868), and ‘The Widower’ (1875-6) by Luke Fildes.

4 thoughts on “The Prisoner’s Tears

  1. I wonder if Walter’s ability to cry in front of Sarah is because he sees her as something of a surrogate mother? Were there spaces where men could cry – even when there were strict demands for control of expressions of sorrow/despair/grief/fear through tears?

  2. It’s interesting you suggest the prison visitor is like a surrogate mother for Walter. I am reluctant to describe her role toward them as ‘maternal’, for unlike almost every contemporary woman philanthropist and reformer, there is no evidence she appealed to woman’s maternal ‘mission’.

    But you are right, I think, that the boys found something comforting in her care and attention, though I suspect she looked and acted very differently from their own mothers.

    I wonder if Walter was typical in his readiness to cry. I suspect not. The other boys, though equally prone to outbursts, seem less ready to cry – or at least reluctant to let Miss Martin see their tears. Perhaps Walter’ lack of restraint and guile was a sign of his immaturity and neediness. it’s not hard to imagine how he managed to get himself arrested twice in the space of two months!

    Where would men go to cry? I tried to search The Full English Folklore database for weeping men but most seemed to be Marys or Janes. But I bet many men wept into their beer when those laments we’re sung! Ditto patriotic ditties!

  3. It is interesting that Miss Martin didn’t justify her work as ‘maternal’ in origin. Is that because the other women did so in a public space while Miss M was talking about her work in a more personal space?

    Helen – yes, I think you might be right that men might weep in their ‘cups’! Must think about that. I haven’t looked the English Folklore DB. Shall have a look at that now.

    Thx. x

  4. Pingback: ‘Improved’ | Conviction

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