‘Improved’

16 January 1840

Walter Tunmore, who has been alone and tearful  in his cell, is back with the boys and the prison visitor finds them bright and cheerful.  ‘They conducted themselves today, quite as I wished’, she writes later. ‘The difference for the better is truly astonishing.’

Before they settle down to spelling, the teacher gathers the young prisoners together to read the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Eyes follow her finger as she traces each line, the Bible resting in her lap. Miss Martin does not need to read the words. She learned them long ago, as her prison scholars do now, chanting back each clause: ‘And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him’ (Matthew, 5:1).

For once the boys are calm, their attention fixed: ‘Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth’. The teacher loves this incantation. How many times has it brought consolation, answered her longing? ‘Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.’ So simple, so pure: surely the boys must be touched. Watching intently, they shape their mouths around her words, echoing her voice, clear and certain, with their stumbling, faltering drone.

16 Jan 1840 Boys Improved 16 Jan 1840 - Copy

Sarah Martin’s Every Day Book, 16 January 1840. Courtesy of Great Yarmouth Museum Services.

Feeling their teacher’s pleasure, the boys busy themselves with their slates and primers, mumbling their spellings quietly. The lesson over Miss Martin takes out her book to make a show of her approval: ‘Each boy was delighted to see me write the word “Improved” at the end of his line’. Walter Tunmore beams with pride: “The Governor will be finely pleased when he sees that.”

Short Story Scripture Knowledge

Scripture Knowledge (Religious Tract Society, c. 1830). An example of the RTS short stories Sarah Martin lent to prison scholars. In this one, Sunday School children memorise Bible verses, just like the five boys in their lessons. Courtesy The British Library

After an hour-and-a-half, the teacher rises to take her leave but the boys will not let her go. She has not read the book she promised yesterday. Staying a while longer, she elicits more pledges of good behaviour in return for the story. Tomorrow, she will bring ‘each boy a needle and thread and a dozen little books to stitch into covers’ so he can make himself useful by mending books for the workhouse children. She appoints the boys her assistants now, giving each a book or her paper case to carry as she makes her way to the next prison ward.

‘Every day they ask for a little book each’, Sarah Martin writes fondly, ‘ – and I lend them one of the “Short Stories”’. Little books. Only William Hickling can read these stories, but he reads them aloud and his companions are ‘much interested in looking at the pictures – which alone give some good lessons.’ The little books bind the prisoners to the teacher and make them her little boys.

There is another reason for the boys’ good humour. This morning John Bevington, the prisoner put in charge of the boys, was released. John King has taken his place. Since they were convicted last November for vagrancy and suspected felony, John King has been imprisoned in the Bridewell with Walter’s elder brother, William Tunmore. Tonight the prison boys will swap stories of their own.

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