We need to talk about Walter

23 January 1840

We need to talk about Walter Tunmore because Sarah Martin needs to talk about him. Yesterday was no exception. ‘The boy Tunmore is so quick in movements and manner of speaking and impetuous in temper that it might seem he would be quick in learning to read’, she wrote in her journal, ‘which however is remarkably the reverse.  Whilst the other four are making a perceptible progress, he frequents [sic] forgets the names of several letters.’[1]

Walter is a conundrum to Sarah Martin. So sharp and lively, he struggles to learn his letters, her Rules, or the moral homilies she preaches. Eager to please and craving his teacher’s praise he seems constitutionally prone to troublemaking. In her journal she devotes much energy to puzzling Tunmore out.

The boy Tunmore from We need to talk about Walter

Sarah Martin’s Everyday Book, 22 January 1840. The second paragraph is one of the few places this month where Martin wrote in some detail about prisoners other than the five boys.

During their lesson, yesterday, the teacher confiscated the boys’ new combs when Walter and Christmas Patterson quarrelled over who had ‘the prettiest’. Tunmore remained undaunted by punishment. Later, as she passed them in the yard, he asked for a patch of material to mend his trousers: ‘I replied that I had not brought it, not being sufficiently pleased with him. “Very well Ma’am, said the boy, I am easy”’. In her journal, the teacher noted the boy’s presumption by underscoring the letter ‘e’ in ‘easy’. Yet she absolved him too, if only to reassure herself of her authority over the demanding pupil: ‘but it was not his intention to [be] rude – for his meaning I was aware would have been better exprest had he said – “I submit”-’.  Tunmore infuriates her but she wills him to be good and wants to think the best of him. The apparently wilful, foolish boy knows just how to placate her.

This month the prison visitor’s journal is dominated by Walter Tunmore and his four cellmates in the Bridewell. Between 28 December 1839 when Walter, William Hickling and Robert Harrod  enter the gaol and 2 February 1840 when Christmas Patterson and Walter Layton depart, her ‘General Observations’ on all the prisoners she teaches amount to just over 4,000 words. Three-quarters of these entries are about the five boys. But it is Walter Tunmore, consistently, who absorbs her attention. Of the incidents and conversations she relates concerning the boys, almost all revolve around or appear to have been instigated by Tunmore: taunting his companions, snatching their things, weeping in the infirmary, sobbing over stories, boasting of his exploits.

Wordle We need to talk about WalterThis word cloud, made up of the teacher’s ‘General Observations’ over the course of the boys’ sentences, graphically shows how Walter Tunmore thrusts himself into his teacher’s view.[2] It’s an object lesson in how even the most experienced teacher can overlook less attention-seeking students. We have to search for Walter Layton, the youngest and smallest of the five boys who, it seems, rarely catches his teacher’s eye. Do little Walter Layton’s infrequent appearances in the journal signal the child’s docility and compliance or his canniness in evading Miss Martin’s censorious gaze? Does her preoccupation with the more disruptive inmates imply she neglects those who obey instruction, or simply her need to work through strategies for dealing with the most challenging scholars?

Today’s journal entry vividly captures the dynamic between Miss Martin and Walter Tunmore.The boys were correct in their lessons today and I had no fault to find with any’, she writes with satisfaction. The teacher explains she has business elsewhere tomorrow afternoon so hopes they will be prepared for the lesson so she can leave promptly. ‘I should have been glad to have gone out for three or four days’, she tells them, asking, “Why is it that I cannot?” Tunmore, ‘with his usual quickness’, jumps in:  “Ma’am ’tis because you cannot leave us.” “True, that is the reason – ought you not then to reward me by profiting by all I teach you?”[3]

Tunmore’s perception is rewarded. Miss Martin gives him the much-requested patch to mend his trousers but then must remind him to ‘overcome selfishness’ and share his present with William Hickling. ‘Tomorrow they shall have more’, she writes. Perhaps the younger boys are happy to let Walter Tunmore speak for them. So often, by drawing attention to himself, he shields them from her scrutiny. Yet the fiery boy is unpredictable, the cause of conflict as well as jollity among the friends. Too volatile to be their leader, they challenge his status and jostle for power.

young male prisoners

Detail from ‘Sarah Martin the Jail Missionary’ Women of Worth: A Book for Girls (London: James Hogg, 1859), p. 58

The teacher’s willingness to forgive Walter’s irascibility when he can be persuaded to be good reflects her concern for his future welfare and well-being. ‘I am sorry Tunmore will have a bad example still in his elder brother who is now in the Bridewell.’ She knows of Walter’s attachment to his sibling. The five boys’ exchanges about William Tunmore are the reason the word ‘brother’ features in the word cloud.

Last autumn Sarah Martin mentioned William Tunmore several times in her journal. He arrived, like Walter, apparently knowing no letters and ignorant of the Bible. While the elder brother was treated in the Infirmary, she wrote out sentences for the Turnkey to read him so the lad might memorise a verse each day.  William appeared proud of his learning, asking to take his verses home so his father might see them. But, sharing a cell with a group of young men who tested the teacher’s authority, William grew resistant to kindly instruction.[4]  With another month’s confinement to come, Miss Martin now writes he is, ‘close and sly.’

In contrast to William and the other young men who, to Miss Martin, seem old in their hardness, Walter, ‘with all his wild impetuosity and always erring is ready to acknowledge his faults’, she writes, ‘and has no sullenness’. It’s his openness that makes Walter, already sixteen, seem a child to Sarah Martin who she can care for and nurture. Yet his ‘wild impetuosity’ is part of his ‘openness’. Sarah Martin wants to suppress it, but it’s what draws her to Walter. This is what pulls me to the teacher as well as her pupil and makes me side with each in the battle of wills between them.


[1] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 22 January 1840. Martin’s surviving prison books are held in the Tolhouse Museum, Great Yarmouth.

[2] Wordle word cloud, created from Sarah Martin’s ‘General Observations’, extracted from her Everyday Book for 28 December1839 -2 February 1840 (4,064 words). Her General Observations appear on the opposite page to the names of each prisoner she teaches that day, their lesson and occasionally short references to their conduct.  2,971 words relate specifically to the five boys. The passages where Walter Tunmore is the focus of discussion amount to 2,429 words. The names of four other inmates feature in the wordle: (John) Bevington, mostly because he was employed as wardsman in the boys’ room; Mark (Young) and James (Barley), two disruptive boys awaiting transportation; and Martha (Tan), a troublesome female prisoner. Made by using http://www.wordle.net/ © 2013 Jonathan Feinberg, accessed 21 June 2014

[3] Martin, Everyday Book, 23 January 1840.

[4] Gaol Register, 11 November 1839. William (18 years) was sentenced with another young man as a rogue and vagabond, suspected of theft, to three months Hard Labour. See also Sarah Martin’s Register 1839, no. 19; and Everyday Book, 29 November 1839; 1, 3, and 20 December 1839; and 9 February 1840.


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