‘And have you brought the combs?’
21 and 22 January 1840
The five young prisoners are listening out for their teacher. They run towards Miss Martin to be the first to carry her Paper Case. “Ma’am, we have been waiting for you!” Endeavouring to keep her face stern, the prison visitor drills them: “Are your lessons then perfectly learned, and have you been keeping the Rules?” “Of course! Of course!” they cry in unison.
Unable to contain their excitement, the boys blurt out: “Have you brought the Pictures which you promised to show us?” The teacher looks knowingly at her paper case with the illustrations of Scripture characters she has brought for them: “Yes I have.” But it’s her other gifts they crave: “And have you brought the combs?” She pauses a moment, watching them pleading: “I have but not having seen the Governor, hope he has nothing to say about you that would prevent your having them.”
The boys must have received a good report from the Gaoler for the teacher is satisfied with their conduct. ‘Tunmore, as usual, talked too much’, she writes later, but ‘The others spoke no more than was desirable for my purpose.’ They please her by asking for more books: ‘Each as usual requested me to leave him a little Book. Those who cannot read look at the pictures and get Hickling to read them.’
Sarah Martin leaves the boys admiring their combs. Today they have been good boys. Yet tomorrow Walter Tunmore will quarrel with Christmas Patterson, ‘because he thought Patterson’s comb was the prettiest’. The teacher will sigh and confiscate their combs but only till the lesson ends. What might the boys’ animation over their combs tell us about personal appearance and hygiene among the labouring poor and their place in Sarah Martin’s approach to reforming offenders?
Cleansing bodies and minds was central to the evangelical drive to improve the poor from the late eighteenth century onwards. The phrase ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ is usually attributed to a sermon by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, in the 1770s and this Ngram, showing its use in Google’s digitised books, tells us something about the dissemination and popularisation of the ideal.
Cleaning up the state of gaols was one of the chief aims of the pioneering prison reformers who saw the dirty and disease-ridden condition of inmates as a damning indictment of the physical and moral neglect of offenders. Christian philanthropists like John Howard and Elizabeth Fry and utilitarian reformers like Jeremy Bentham held that sanitation was a prerequisite for the rehabilitation of offenders. Their desire to cleanse the prisons betrayed an obsession not just with eliminating dirt and disease, many historians claim, but with sterilising their inhabitants whose filthy bodies were the outward manifestation of degraded minds and habits.
The same charge is often levelled against nineteenth-century charity workers and reformers who are accused of imposing upon the poor middle-class standards of dress, decorum and decency. As cleanliness became more widely affordable, with the mass production of soap and other cleaning products, dirt became synonymous with the ‘heathen’, at home and abroad. Willingness to become clean marked out the deserving poor. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ‘before and after’ photographs taken from 1875 onwards by Barnado’s of the children it had rescued, in the hope that subscribers would put their hands in their pockets in aid of the children’s charity. A bath and haircut, these photographs implied, were the first steps in the ‘outcast’s’ transformation back into being a child.
What did it feel like for these children to be bathed and washed, have their own ‘rags’ taken from them, and to be buttoned up in a new suit of starched clothes, their hair cropped and parted or neatly plaited? This scrubbing down in a strange environment must have terrified some children but perhaps the keenness of the five prison boys to receive new clothes and groom themselves gives us an inkling of more positive reactions. Maybe it tells us something, too, about the practices and aspirations around comfort, cleanliness and style within their own community.
Considerable numbers among the Yarmouth poor were unable to keep themselves free of lice and dirt and related infections. In 1839, 16% of inmates entering the gaol were listed as ‘lousy’, ‘dirty’ or ‘itchy’ in the Index and Receiving Book. Sarah Martin noted the filthy state of some prisoners, often with compassion, especially when they were children. Christmas Patterson had lost his mother in 1839 and, later in 1840, his younger brother Henry was committed to prison, just eleven years old: ‘He is Idle, helpless and dirty in his habits and very dishonest. Babyish in manners. He improved in the last month but had a bad home to return to and no work.’ The teacher regretted she could not secure a place at Sunday school for some children because of the state of their homes and bodies. Little John Major, only nine years old was ‘A pitiable case’: ‘Though young, artful. Very ignorant of God and of duty. Was infested with vermin so that as he has not friends to keep him in this point sufficiently cleanly I could not recommend his being sent to a Sunday School.
It is likely prisoners were given a bath and haircut on entry. In 1840, the Prison Inspector was pleased to report that ‘Very proper attention appears to be paid to the personal cleanliness of the prisoners’ for, on his first inspection in 1836, he complained that no soap or towels were supplied to inmates. Some inmates resisted the gaol’s hygiene regime. When John Scott was committed his hair was long and full of lice and nits but he refused to have it cut. The prisoner used ‘very refractory language’ when the gaoler threatened to compel him but presumably submitted since no punishment was recorded. (Nit-combs at this time were made of natural plastics which bent and gave as they tugged through knotted hair, sometimes spreading rather than removing the eggs; a design flaw remedied by Joseph Sacker metal ‘hygienic comb’, patented in 1922).
A few prisoners vehemently resisted interference with their person. Thomas Spanton, a repeat offender aged about eighteen, spent two days in solitary for being ‘ill-behaved’ and refusing to have his hair cut. Fifteen-years-old Elizabeth Gedge viewed the obligation to wash as an infringement on her personal autonomy. In custody for a third time and ‘generally refractory’, she ‘refused to do such things as were necessary for her personal cleanliness &c.’ the Gaoler observed. When he ‘endeavoured to point out her folly’, she retorted, “Thank God they cannot Transport me this time, and you cannot do more to me than is done, for I can only be in the position I am now in.”
Washing, dressing and grooming represented an opportunity for mischief for other inmates. Edward Bailey was ‘foul’ and very ill when admitted, repeatedly fitting, and given frequent baths, clean clothes, and watched at night. After a month, perhaps in protest, he covered himself in soot, rolled up his trousers and went into the prisoners’ yard, presumably to cause mayhem. Following instruction from the surgeon and magistrates, the Gaoler locked Bailey in solitary for a week. William Passon spent a day in solitary without cheese for using scissors he had been lent for making prison clothes to cut another boy’s hair and thereby ‘disfigure him’.
However, between 1836 and 1845 the Gaoler recorded only a handful of occasions when inmates were punished for refusing to wash or have their hair cut. The rarity of these incidents strongly suggests that hygiene regulations were neither rigorously enforced nor regularly defied. The opportunity to wash and groom may not, then, have appeared coercive to most inmates and may even have been welcomed for, as we have seen, the Yarmouth poor were not indifferent to their appearance. Boys were used to dressing up their hand-me-downs with a flash of colour round their neck and looked forward to when they could afford a silk waistcoat and boast a watch and chain. Combing their hair could be a means of maintaining comfort and retaining a sense of style and dignity in prison.
Combs were becoming common personal items by 1840 when Walter and Christmas quarrelled over who had the prettiest comb. Before the invention of synthetic plastic, combs were fashioned out of horn and bone and, at the high-end of the market, from tortoise-shell. The traditional handcraft was labour intensive and therefore combs were a luxury item but, when a comb-making machine was patented in 1797, the cost was dramatically reduced and by the 1830s they could be mass-produced cheaply. Perhaps Sarah Martin’s combs were made by John Harvey who owned a comb-making business in Norwich or came from Aberdeen where steam-power was introduced at the Stewart comb factory in 1830 propelling the city to become a world-leader in comb-manufacture, employing thousands in a trade that was a by-product of the region’s cattle farming. Some of these combs found their way into the penal system. 8000 combs were ordered by the Ordinance Office in 1833 to be sent out to the convict settlements in Australia.
It is just possible that men at Yarmouth Gaol were employed in making combs for Sarah Martin brought in bone for them to carve spoons, stilettos, stamps for sealing letters and other items which the visitor sold, remunerating the maker on his release. She sold 16s 6d worth of spoons and seals for repeat offender Robert Doyle, for instance, when he was imprisoned in 1838. On his departure he found no work, ‘except a little shoe-mending which he had learned in gaol, where also he used to cut hair, and can shave.’ The resourceful teacher ‘gave him two papers to place against his mother’s window, on which were written ‘Hair cutting done here,’ and ‘Shaving done here’. In her journal, Sarah Martin added, hopefully, ‘perhaps he may earn a few pence thus.’
So grooming was becoming an everyday activity among the labouring classes, though less so for the very poor. If the five boys had a comb at home, it is unlikely it was for their own exclusive use. Their excitement for the teacher’s combs suggests these were objects of desire and part of what made them desirable was that they would be theirs alone. The combs were also ‘pretty’, at least to the boys who had an eye for decorative things – for pictures and for ‘beautiful books’. That Walter and Christmas could fight over ‘the prettiest’ tells us the Christian visitor had not purchased a job lot of plain, uniform combs but that each was different and special to its owner.
These little gifts, fondly given and rapturously received alert us to something we are not used to acknowledging in the early nineteenth-century prison: small acts of kindness, intimacy and humanity. Philanthropists like Sarah Martin expected inmates to be deserving, submissive and grateful but in their efforts to reform offenders through sympathy and instruction they were a world away from the retributionists who called for punitive forms of deterrence and correction. By 1849 when Punch ridiculed philanthropic approaches to Prison Discipline with its send-up of the prison barbershop (below), hard-line voices had almost drowned out more compassionate ones.
Under the regime of ‘Hard Bed, Hard Fare, Hard Labour’ that characterised the mid-Victorian prison system, the cutting of hair and removal of beards on admission marked the erasure of individuality as prisoners’ identities were reduced to a prison cell number. ‘They were shorn of their beards and whiskers, and clad in prison garb’, The Times reported of one group of prisoners to appear in court, ‘and no one, it is said, could have recognized them after the change in their appearance had been effected.’ In their autobiographies, former inmates recalled their appointment with the prison barber as humiliating and dehumanizing: ‘The warder then stepped quickly forward’, remembered Florence Maybrick, ‘and with a pair of scissors cut off my hair to the nape of my neck. This act seemed, above all others, to bring me to a sense of my degradation, my utter helplessness’.
Gifts to prisoners, including books and cosmetics, are again the focus of conflicting ideas about the purpose of imprisonment and rehabilitation in the UK. In November 2013 Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, introduced changes to the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme by which prisoners can win access to approved items and activities in gaol by good behaviour and pay for them out of paid employment. So that inmates have the incentive to earn such privileges, under the revised rules, families and friends can no longer send prisoners reading material, clothing, or other articles of comfort, instruction or entertainment.
Would the five boys have ‘earned’ their pretty combs under Mr Grayling’s rules? Kindness and forgiveness can work, Sarah Martin knew, and gifts may bring people together and create hope.  Little has been written on the history of grooming and the working class. For a fascinating examination of the politics and practices of barbershops in America, see Melissa Victoria Harris-Lacewell, Barbershops, Bibles and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, (Princeton University Press, 2006); and Hunter Oatman-Stanford, ‘Straight Razors and Social Justice: The Empowering Evolution of Black Barbershops’, Collector’s Weekly, accessed 6 June 2014.  Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Alan Sheridan trans., (Harmondsworth, 1991); Michael Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1950 (London, 1978); Randall McGowen, “A Powerful Sympathy: Terror, the Prison, and Humanitarian Reform in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain,” Journal of British Studies 25.3 (1986): 312-334.  Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (New York: Routledge, 1995); Alison Twells, The Civilising Mission and the English Middle Class, 1792-1850: The ‘Heathen’ at Home and Overseas (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).  Michael Pritchard, ‘Barnado’s Photographic Archive – Wider Issues’, Voluntary Action History Society, 1 August 2013, accessed 6 June 2014.  Index and Receiving Book from December 25 1838 (Norfolk Record Office, Y L2/7).  Sarah Martin, Prison Register, 1840, no. 163.  Sarah Martin, Prison Register, 1842, no. 129.  1840  Inspectors of Prisons of Great Britain II, Northern and Eastern District, Fifth Report, House of Commons Parliamentary Papers Online (2005), p. 123; 1836 [117-II] Inspectors of Prisons… First Report, p. 68.  Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 21 June 1843  Object Lesson 1, Bethlem Blog, 3 June 2014.  Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 24 Feb 1838.  Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 16 December 1841.  Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 15 May-13 June 1836 and passim.  Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 8 February 1843.  Similarly, in their evocatively titled article, Jane Hamlett and Lesley Hoskins explore how small personal items like jewellery, spectacles and false teeth allowed patients in Victorian asylums some room for self-fashioning and a modicum of decency and agency. See ‘Comfort in Small Things? Clothing, Control and Agency in County Lunatic Asylums in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century England’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 18.1 (2013), pp. 93-114. (Currently free access).  The Norwich Directory, (G.K. Blyth, 1842), Norfolk Sources, accessed 6 June 2014; Aberdeen Comb Works, The Doric Columns, accessed 6 June 2014; Powerhouse Museum Collection, accessed 6 June 2014. The Aberdeen Comb Works closed in the 1970s but its successor company, Licecomb Engineering, is now a world-leader in licecomb manufacture: Scottish Rubber and Rubber Association, accessed 6 June 2014.  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. ), pp. 23 and 138.  Everyday Book, 5 and 19 April 1838, cited in Inspectors of Prisons… Fourth Report, p. 172-3.  Helen Rogers, ‘Kindness and Reciprocity: Liberated Prisoners and Christian Charity in Early Nineteenth-Century England‘, Journal of Social History, Spring 2014, 47.3: 721-45.  Seán McConville, ‘The Victorian Prison: England, 1865-1965’,in Norval Morris and David J. Rothman (eds), The Oxford History of the Prison: the Practice of Punishment in Western Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)  Cited by Philip Priestley,Victorian Prison Lives: English Prison Biography, 1830-1914 (London: Pimlico, 1985).  ‘Bah Humbug Behind Bars’, Prison Reform Trust, 20 December 2013.
3 thoughts on “‘And have you brought the combs?’”
I have inadvertently deleted your article on “grey shirts” issued in May. Is it possible to forward another copy?
Many thanks and apologies for putting you to any trouble.
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