Thursday 30 January 1840
Somberly, Miss Martin calls the two little boys to her. Tomorrow their thirty day sentence will be up and they will leave her charge. Since their boisterous cellmates departed last weekend, the hours have slipped by slowly without incident. The Gaoler has not been required to reprimand the young boys who pass their days with their warder, the ‘rogue and vagabond’, eighteen-years-old John King. Lessons orderly and calm, the teacher has not needed to comment on the boys in her Book, noting only the Bible verses they memorised each day.
They bow their heads as Sarah Martin delivers her parting sermon. They know the drill. Last Friday they chimed in with the elder boys to chant the Rules the teacher is determined they will follow. But now her eyes are on them. “Will you be glad to leave the jail?” she asks. “Yes” blurts out Walter Layton, breaking into a smile. “And will you be glad too Patterson?” Christmas shifts uncomfortably and whispers “No.” The teacher is taken aback. “What”, she repeats, “will you not be glad to go out?” He twists his hands, scanning the floor to avoid her searching gaze. “Yes,” he begins in a small voice that trails off, his pale cheeks colouring deeply, grey eyes filling with tears. “He will like to go out”, John King jumps in, coming to the boy’s rescue, “but he says he likes to have you teach him every day.”
Miss Martin cannot put her arms around the boy to absorb his heaving sobs. She looks at Patterson tenderly, telling him softly to come and see her once a week to say his lessons. This is all she can do. It is what she does now.
The teacher watches the two small boys sitting opposite on the wooden bench, their legs swinging gently as their fingers trace the Bible verse she has written out in large careful letters. Brows furrow in concentration as mouths work their way round the strange words of Luke 1:1, ‘Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us’. They open a new page in their Easy Lessons and pick up their pencils to copy the short phrases made up of the letters they have begun to learn. She remembers how tightly they used to grip their pencils in their fists. Now they hold the nib between thumb and forefingers and begin slowly to write.
‘I do not perceive any evil traits in the character of the two young boys over in the Jail, but in Patterson especially quite the contrary’, Sarah Martin writes later. ‘Layton is a little boy of only ten. Patterson has no mother and his father comes to Yarmouth for only a few hours every Sunday being employed in the country as a maltster this little boy is placed out at lodgings with nothing to do and neglected.’ Do her eyes brim with tears as she pencils the boy’s faltering answers to her questions, as do mine each time I read them? ‘Would that I had the time to instruct him every day – and to take care of him.’
The teacher thinks of Patterson returning to his lodgings and of the mother he lost six months ago. She remembers her head nestling into her own mother’s breast, the rise and fall of her breathing, as she read from the family Bible, resting heavily on the kitchen table. How she had missed her mother and how she had hated that Book and the God who took her from her. It was so long before she heard His voice once more, calling to her.
Now she is nearly fifty. Long ago she knew she would never be a mother. She was chosen to be a teacher. The prisoners are her children. God’s children. Will Christmas Patterson come to her?
‘Patterson and Layton were discharged to-day’, is all she writes the following evening; ‘Their Lessons were learned.’
Thursday 18 July 1844
Christmas Patterson is waiting to leave gaol. Since the month they spent together with the prison visitor at the start of 1840, all five boys have been in and out of gaol. This time, his sixth stay in prison, Christmas did not need to meet Miss Martin’s disappointed stare. She died of a tumour last October.
The Gaoler looks up the entry in the Register where, three months ago, he entered the boy’s description. Grey eyes, light hair, freckled, pale. At 5”1 ½, Patterson is four inches taller than when first he shuffled down the steps from the magistrate’s court into the prison gloom. Aged 17 and approaching manhood, he has been working as a labourer. According to the Gaoler he can read but not yet write.
Three months ago, the lad had stood before the Gaoler and turned out his pockets to hand over his meagre personal possessions: one pence halfpenny and ten buttons. Now he takes up a pen to acknowledge the return of his property. In a hand still a little childish he signs his name in the letters Miss Martin taught him to form.
Thank you for following this blog about the five ‘little boys’. I have been touched by how many of you have returned again and again to keep up with their antics and the earnest efforts of Sarah Martin. I am moved by how you share my fascination with these children and encouraged me to find new ways of writing about the intense bonds between them and their teacher.
I am still searching for the boys. In the future I will piece together the fragments I have discovered about their lives to imagine what their prison experience may have meant to them in the round. But next I shall explore what I have found by blogging about Sarah Martin and the boys, for in their cell I too have been learning about reading and writing, and feeling my way to a kind of history that breathes dignity, humour and emotion into past lives.
 See Sarah Martin’s account of her childhood, loss of faith, and eventual conversion back to Christianity in 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. 5-12.
 In this article exploring the boys’ prison schooling, I sketch an outline of their subsequent histories. Please send me your email if you would like a copy but do not have access: Helen Rogers, ‘“Oh, what beautiful books!” Captivated Reading in an Early Victorian Prison’, Victorian Studies, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Autumn 2012), pp. 57-84. For Sarah Martin’s death and her funeral sermon, see 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. 81-104.