Great Yarmouth Borough Gaol, House of Correction dayroom
Have you never heard the words “Thou shalt not steal?”
The young boy will not meet the teacher’s gaze. His eyes drift across the prison ward to the other boys, burying their faces in their books and suppressing the urge to giggle.
Her voice pulls him back. Do you know who made you?
He looks shyly at the lady, her greying hair pinned into a tight knot, her pale face lined and pox-marked. She tries another tack, searching his hazel eyes.
Do you know where good people go when they die?
What becomes of wicked people when they die?
I don’t know I am sure, he replies in a small voice.
Did you ever learn who Jesus Christ is? The teacher knows how the boy will answer as she asks the question—No—but presses on.
What do you do on Sundays and do your parents go to any place of worship?
The boy shakes his head. Father goes out—I don’t know where. I play about.
Dusk is falling when Sarah Martin steps through the heavy prison gate, leaving the Tolhouse where she teaches the prisoners. With her basket of books and papers over her arm, she heads briskly down Gaol Street to the harbour. Following the River Yare northwards along the quayside, she hears the men hollering as they heave the black haul from the Newcastle colliers and shoulder sacks of corn, flour, and herrings on to clanking ships for Ostend, Rotterdam, and Cork. At the Star and Garter, she looks fixedly ahead, ignoring the sailors and young women in its doorway, laughing and smoking.
Turning through the narrow passage into Row 57, she weaves past children at play and silk-throwers returning, arm-in-arm, from the factory. In the tightly-packed houses, a shipwright, a mariner, a hairdresser, and labourers live with their families, and the charwoman Mary Swanston who rents two small rooms to the prison schoolmistress. Miss Martin nods politely to her neighbours as she makes her way home and exchanges a few words with Mary’s elderly mother before withdrawing to her apartment. As she coaxes a small fire, she is still thinking of Isaac Riches.
Can he have forgotten all she taught him that first month he spent in the House of Correction, when he was just shy of twelve years old? Lighting the oil lamp low, she places the contents of her basket on the plain wooden table, a bundle of little tracts, linen to cut for the women, the ends of papers for copying out sentences. She opens her Everyday Book at the register where she lists the names of her scholars and Brief Remarks on their characters. Running her finger down each page’s columns, she finds Isaac Riches in an entry made last May, one of four boys sent down by the magistrate for lifting wood chooks from a gardener’s stack. Rogue and Vagabond, she had written. An Idle Boy; Behaved very well. Very Ignorant. Then he could neither read nor write. Today he no longer remembered the letters she had shown him how to form.
The teacher fills her pen from the inkwell to begin her observations. This boy has not received any Instruction either moral or Religious. Never entered a place of Sabbath Worship. Hastily she writes out his faltering replies to her questions as they whirl around her head. I pity this child greatly. He was infested with vermin. His Father drives the Scavenger’s cart. Occasionally Sarah Martin notices Christopher Riches rattling through the Rows, a gaggle of rowdy boys scurrying about his cart and darting between the passers-by. Does she remember teaching Christopher Riches in 1832—when Isaac was still an infant— and he served three weeks with his brother for digging up soil from the grassy denes that stretch out to the long sandy beach and the North Sea?
This time, it was the cabinet-maker Samuel Maddison who had complained against Isaac Riches and the boy’s two friends for thieving a till containing four shillings from his workshop on Row 112. We stole the Till and spent the money, little John Major told Miss Martin, his eyes wide-open and frank. Perhaps there is insufficient evidence to prosecute the boys or “Maddy” decides not to press charges for, after a week, they will be released.
Before he is discharged Isaac will be joined by his elder brother—admitted, for the fourth time, for carting soil off the denes. Fourteen-years-old, Christopher cannot afford to pay the fine for breaking the by-law, so he will spend a week in the House of Correction. The case of this poor child is truly pitiable, Sarah Martin will write. A nice boy—so docile and ready to learn and obey—yet neglected, ignorant and wicked he must be, and worse and worse he must become while nothing short of absolute removal from his parents would prevent that ruin. Often she introduces herself to the families of prisoners and must have visited the Riches in their home on Row 3 at the north end of town. The state of filth and vermin in which the family lives prevent my recommendation of him to a Sunday School, the teacher adds regretfully to her entry on Christopher. As if she might forget, she leaves a reference for herself. See “Isaac Riches” no. 130. Page 120. Bowing her head, she closes her book and prays.
This is my first draft of the opening scenes for my book, Conviction: stories from a nineteenth-century prison. Sharing my blog posts here, I’ve been experimenting with a different kind of history writing that uses literary devices to bring to life voices and experiences from the past. One such device is to dramatise scenes from the prison and from the lives of those confined there, before and after they passed through its gates. Some scenes will be recreated using dialogue from historical records, indicated by italics, but all are imaginative reconstructions drawn from immersive reading and research. The stories will be intertwined through these vignettes which, I hope, will tempt readers to keep turning the pages.
Ancestry.com. 1841 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2010: Sarah Martin (H.O 107/793/4); Riches family (H.O. 107/ 793/8); Samuel Maddison (H.O. 107/794/3); William Teasdall, gardener (H.O. 107/765/5)
Baptism registers for St Nicholas, Great Yarmouth, 1813-1880, Baptism Project Great Yarmouth St Nicholas http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~tinstaafl/Church_Pages/yarmouth_gt_1829.htm#Top
Great Yarmouth Gaol Registers, January 1841-December 1845, Norfolk Record Office (Y/L2 48): 26 May 1841; 3 February 1842; 7 February 1842
Norfolk Chronicle, 14 July 1842, p. 3; 5 and 12 February 1842, p.3
Sarah Martin, ‘Successive Names’, [Prisoner Register, November 1839-1842] in ‘Everyday Book from November 7 1839–April 6 1840’: John Major (1842, no. 129); Isaac Riches (1841, no. 44; 1842, no. 130); Christopher Riches (1842, no. 140), Great Yarmouth Museums Service
William Whyte, History, gazetteer, and directory, of Norfolk, and … the city of Norwich, (1836) p. 290