Friday 24 January 1840
Tomorrow William Hickling, Walter Tunmore and Robert Harrod will leave the prison. Miss Martin meets them for their final exhortation before departure. “How are you to conduct yourselves so that when you meet me I may not feel ashamed to speak to you”, she asks. It’s a telling question. Shaming is one of the principle means by which the teacher strives to instil integrity into prisoners. They must abide by her Christian standards of morality and respectability and show a proper sense of mortification for the lives they have led.
But the boys know the script and chant back her Rules. Walter Tunmore is eager to make amends, having disappointed the teacher by failing to repeat his Bible verse; ‘not perfect’ she has written against his name. Her most trying scholar, Walter leads the chorus and the others join in unison, “We must not swear – We must not thieve – We must not lie – We must not break the Sabbath.”
Over the last month the boys have made a faltering start to their new lives. Sarah Martin knows she must keep her eye out for them, as she warns her young scholars. On their departure, she tells all her ‘Liberated Prisoners’, who have made some effort to improve, to make sure to visit their old teacher or send a letter to let her know how they get on. Often she gives them a Testament or hymn book to ensure they keep up their Christian schooling. Those who have sewn baby linen, woven straw hats or carved spoons, are remunerated for their labour to help them on their way. If they cannot find work, she advises the boys, they must come and visit her and she will give them a basket and some money so they can hawk fish around the town. Does she give them a Bible, a picture book, or a copy of the Rules they know by heart?
At home in the evening, Sarah Martin takes out her prison register and reads over the notes she wrote a month ago when she first met the boys, adding her cautious comments on their tentative progress.
William Hickling has proved the best reader. She has been pleased he reads her story books to his cellmates: ‘A boy of Idle & dishonest habits. Very noisy and troublesome in Prison there being five together. Apparently of good temper & not unkind disposition. Obedient, and in this respect Improved.’
Despite her frustration with Walter Tunmore she finds something good to say about the boy, for all his failings: ‘Impetuous in temper – angry in a moment, interfering with the other four young boys. Noisy. Quick in movement. Rapid in speech and utterance. Defective in memory. Could never repeat what was taught correctly – unable on his departure to remember all the letters of the Alphabet. Sensitive in feeling. Forgiving.’ She adds, as if she will ever need reminding, ‘See Account in Every Day Book.’
Can Robert Harrod be trusted she wonders, the boy who was so delighted to begin making his cotton shirt: ‘Obedient and tolerably diligent. Improved satisfactorily in Reading &c. He could be Sly: No correctness of principle. Seemed somewhat advanced in right views.’
As she closes her book, the teacher remembers the boys’ enchantment when she first showed them her picture books. Does she pick up her sewing and sit up into the night, finishing the grey cotton shirts as her small fire burns out?
Tomorrow she will work with little Walter Layton and Christmas Patterson who still have a week of their sentence to serve. But first she will watch the older boys as they walk out of the prison gate, their eyes blinking in the sharp winter light.
He hears them before he sees them, their whoops and cries shrieking like the gulls overhead. Looking up from the easel, he pulls his collar close and scans the horizon, eyes squinting against the biting salt air. Three figures come slowly into view, criss-crossing each other as they pick their way along the shoreline. They disappear behind the jetty until their heads bob up again and he watches them clamber the wall in their oversized coats, bent into the wind like the breakers he has been sketching in the low tide before him.
They eye the stranger suspiciously, skirting round the old man, but turn back to see why he has been observing them. Cautiously they approach to peer over his shoulder at the small picture on the easel. Lobster pots and breakers and the faintly pencilled outline of their town. There’s not much to see. They run off laughing.
The artist resumes the picture, quickly sketching in three boys. Back in his studio, he washes the scene blood-orange. Landscape with figures. Restless, yearning.