“I have a right to think as I like”

Great Yarmouth Borough Gaol. The Men’s Ward. 2 February 1841

Why are your lessons not learnt?

The prisoners shuffle sullenly. Francis James can bare it no longer. She knows the reason. They’ve had no pens or paper. Not since the note was thrown into the female ward three days ago.[1] He leaps to his feet.

I want to writeThat will do me some goodI can read already. Why should I learn the Scriptures? I am sure it will do me no good.

His vehemence takes the teacher by surprise. Francis James is always quiet. She has barely noticed him. Reaching for her Bible, she prepares to convince him.

As for that, snaps Francis James, I won’t believe one word of it. It is all a pack of nonsense. Victuals is what I want.

The prisoners raise their voices in assent.

Yes! John Brown joins in. Victuals is what we want. And not to be put in here for nothing! We don’t want religion. We want victuals.

Sarah Martin takes in a sharp breath and launches on the speech she has practiced so often on such occasions.

Religion enforces justice and industry… In the absence of its principles, there is want and destitution… Believers are rewarded with plenty…

Francis James is defiant. I have a right to think as I like.

If such be your thoughts, the teacher rejoins, you have no right, like a viper, to cast forth your poison on other people.

She turns to the rest. Is it your wish that I should keep away? I will not go where I am unwelcome. If you will not listen to the Bible, I will never enter this room again until you are all gone.

Except for Francis James each pleads that she return. On no account must she leave them… They are quite sure she means them good.

Although I am bad, I am convinced your views are right, John Brown assures Miss Martin. What you teach from the Bible is true. And those who follow up such views are the best people.

The rebel scoffs as his cellmates nod in agreement.

If any of you think proper to learn more from the Scriptures, the teacher says as she takes her leave, I shall feel happy to hear you, except Francis James. With his views I shall not hear any from him.


3 February 1841

Francis James sits in the corner, digging his fingernails into his palms, his knuckles white with anger. He watches them troop up to the teacher to mumble the lines they have rehearsed over and over. They call themselves men. But they are no more than children sent to Sunday School.

All that bravado when they mocked and joked at the teacher’s expense but now they let John Brown—that stupid oaf—speak for them.

What you said yesterday, Madam, was satisfactory. It removed all doubts. You are in the right. You can have no motive but our good.

He has no trade, for God’s sake, and no pride either. How often has John Brown boasted he got himself arrested, thinking they would send him to Australia?[2]

There must be a Creator, another is saying. It sets her off again.

The Creator is good… His works are good… Man is not good… That is why He sent his son, The Redeemer.

Five more months of this before he’ll see his little boys.


9 February 1841

It’s a week since Francis James has spoken with the others. The days drag so slowly without their banter and nothing to do. The anger is eating him up.

He thinks of Elizabeth constantly. How she cried when the constable fetched him away on Christmas Eve and baby Robert, not two weeks old, screaming.[3] Elizabeth would have listened to Miss Martin. All those times she asked him to take her to church. Why did he sit in the tavern from morning till night when he might have kept her company and played with little Francis? Elizabeth would never get herself sent here. Her face when she heard he had robbed his master.


10 February 1841

John Brown follows Miss Martin to the gate. May he speak on behalf of Francis James? The poor fellow hopes she will be kind enough to receive him again and that she will allow him a private conversation. He wishes to take back everything he said against the Bible and religion.

He thinks you were wrong in casting him off so hastily, says John Brown tentatively. And, you will excuse me Madam, but I think so too.

The teacher looks quizzically at the prisoner. Do you frequently think me personally severe then?

We do, he replies. And the prisoners talk of it. But if they feel offended at the moment, he adds hastily, they feel the justice of it afterwards. That has been my own case. But I have done the same thing, and have been as bad as they.


11 February 1841

Francis James is relieved when Miss Martin asks him for a favour by carrying her Bible to the gate. He is nervous, too.

Do you love your wife? she asks.

Oh yes, and my wife love me, he answers.

And do you love your children?

Oh yes, I love my children. His eyes are brimming with tears.

And were I, or any other to say, “I hate your wife, I hate your children”, would you like it? And yet you spoke against my God. And of this lovely book, she says, placing her hand on Bible he is holding, you said, “It is all a pack of nonsense. I do not believe one word of it!”

The teacher’s book weighs heavy in his hands, its binding fraying at the seams. But as he speaks he feels the burden of his shame begin to lift.

He should be sorry to bring up his children with such views, he says. He has reflected much and knows that he was wrong. He expects to be ridiculed by the other prisoners but he will bare it. He is determined to adopt a new line of conduct altogether. No more will he desert his family for the alehouse. He thinks only of the day when he can take his wife to church and ask for her forgiveness.


28 June 1841

Sarah Martin begins her observations of Francis James’s character.[4] Today she spoke with him for the final time before his release from the solitary cell where he has spent the last fortnight of his imprisonment, in accordance with his sentence.

Bad character, she writes. Led a younger servant of his master into the offence.[5]

In April she visited his master at the Iron Foundry, after the prisoner begged her to pass on his regret at robbing 58lbs of copper and to ask for forgiveness. Since the trial, William Yetts has learned that Francis James was dishonest before he took him on. But it comforted the prisoner to hear that Mr Yetts forgave him, in the hope he would become an honest man in future.[6]

Used to sit whole Sunday at the Public House, the teacher writes. Said the Bible was a pack of Nonsense. Improved in Prison. 

She remembers how patiently he helped the young lads with their reading and alerted her when they caused trouble.

Sought to reclaim others. Entirely changed.


1 July 1841

Sarah Martin begins a new entry in her Liberated Prisoners Book.[7]

Francis James called upon me, and of him I have the highest hope. 

After February 11, he seemed a new character, no longer close or sly on the one hand, nor presuming on the other, but simple, honest, and open. The poor fellow has obtained no work. His children are ill, and his excellent wife, whist rejoicing at the change in her husband, is cast down by extreme poverty. 

Believers are rewarded with plenty, the teacher had promised. She cannot afford to question her conviction.

I gave them an order for some flour, she writes.


Sarah Martin was unusually confident in the strength of Francis James’s commitment to reform. How can we know whether he—or other former prisoners she believed to be reclaimed—continued to practice the values she had instilled? The theft from the iron foundry would be the only offence for which Francis James was convicted. But this is only evidence he was never caught re-offending.

Tracing individuals who kept out of the reach of the law is challenging. Plotting occupational profiles, household location, and family ties through the census, parish records, and civil registrations can, however, provide indications of stability or mobility, and of connected or fractured relationships. Such records can also hint at how individuals—and their significant others—met the challenges of poverty, illness and bereavement, and the many crises to which the labouring poor were vulnerable.[8]

The foundryman was twenty-one years old when he married the servant Elizabeth Marsh in June 1839, two months before their first child Francis was born.[9] Three years older than her husband, Elizabeth seems to have adjusted to marriage and parenthood more readily than Francis who, like many young men, was reluctant to loosen his ties with companions, made in the workplace and the public house.[10]

Genealogical records suggest his six months imprisonment was one of many hardships faced by Francis and his wife in the early years of marriage. At the end of 1839, the newly-weds applied for poor relief, probably because Francis was out of work.[11] Calling on kinship networks for assistance, however, was the primary survival strategy of the destitute. With another baby on her hands when Francis was arrested in 1840, Elizabeth and her two infants moved into her father-in-law’s home, where they were living with the cabinet maker’s family at the 1841 Census, shortly before her husband was released.[12]

Anguish and poverty must have taken its toll on Elizabeth, along with the illnesses she and her children suffered that summer. The prison visitor stepped in to help, once more, spending seven shillings on a bench for Francis James—that he may work at home. My other book will show the strong necessity of this step: to rescue four human beings—himself, his excellent wife, and two children.[13] In September 1842 Elizabeth gave birth to her next child, Mary Ann, who was dead by the end of the year.[14] She would lose two more infants—Edward, when less than a year old in 1847 and William, just three years old in 1848.[15] By the time Mary Ann was christened, Francis had found a new occupation as a mariner. The census returns and the baptism records of four more surviving children, the last born in 1856, show that Francis continued working at sea into old age.


The docks, Great Yarmouth c. 1856. Credit Nick Stone Invisible Works

The Jameses were a close-knit family. In 1851, Elizabeth’s father, the carter Robert Mason, was a visitor at their home on South Street. By 1861, the family had moved to Row 133, where the household included their second son Robert, a shipwright, and his young wife and one-year-old daughter. By 1871, Robert and his family were living next door to his parents, where he and his wife had moved as soon as they could afford to set up house.[16]

At some point after Elizabeth’s death in 1873, Francis migrated to Elswick in the dockyard area of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, along with the families of his eldest son Francis—a boatmaker—and his daughter Elizabeth. He was working there as a labourer in 1881, sharing his house with Elizabeth and her family. Francis James died in 1884, aged 66. If he lived to see his first-born son become an engineer, he missed the gatling gun accident at the Elswick works that killed Francis junior in 1888. The engineer’s widow and children moved into Herbert Street where her in-laws were living, mitigating catastrophe by turning to kinship support, just as her husband’s parents had done in 1841.[17]


Armstrong Works, Elswick, c.1880-90s. Credit Tyne Built Ships

The census returns indicate the strength of family ties that bound this extended family together and seem to confirm the love that Francis James had expressed for his wife and children when he was in gaol. They cannot tell us if the former prisoner stayed out of the alehouse or became a devout believer, as his teacher had hoped. But the baptism records of the James’s children do hint that their family values were girded by religious faith and practice. Most children were christened within days of birth, as were the couple’s first four babies. However, the christenings of their last four arrivals—born after Francis became a mariner—were delayed by several months.[18] Elizabeth, it seems, waited for her husband to return from sea so that together they could welcome each newborn child into the church.

Sarah Martin had not brought about Francis James’s rehabilitation alone. In his change of heart, the prisoner had been persuaded by his cellmates, who would not jeopardize their chance to learn nor the prospect of the teacher’s assistance. But above all, it was his excellent wife who motivated Francis James, whose homely Christian principles echoed those of the pious prison teacher.

Many thanks to Nick Stone for allowing me to use the extraordinary early photographs of Great Yarmouth he has lovingly restored.

[1] Gaol Keeper’s Journal Jan 1841-Dec 1845 (Norfolk PRO Y/L2 48), 29 January 1841. The account of this lesson and those following are drawn from extracts from Sarah Martin’s Everyday Book, 1841, Anon., Sarah Martin, the Prison Visitor of Great Yarmouth, with extracts from her Writings and Prison Journals, a New Edition with Additions (1844; London: Religious Tract Society, n.d. [1847]), pp. 114-18.

[2] John Brown, aged 22 from Southwalk, London, was committed for three weeks for begging as an idle and disorderly vagrant, 7 December 1840. Three days after he was discharged, he was recommitted for stealing stockings from a draper’s shop and sentenced to three months hard labour: Gaol Register, 7 and 29 December 1840; Sarah Martin Prisoner Register (1840), nos. 176 and 183.

[3] Gaol Register, 24 December 1840.

[4] Sarah Martin’s Prisoner Register (1840), no. 187.

[5] Norfolk Chronicle, 2 January 1841, p. 3.

[6] Everyday Book, 15 and 16 April 1841.

[7] Extract from Sarah Martin’s Liberated Prisoners Book, Sarah Martin, p. 118.

[8] Barry S. Godfrey, David J. Cox, and Stephen D. Farrall, Criminal Lives: Family Life, Employment and Offending (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Helen Rogers, ‘Kindness and Reciprocity: Liberated Prisoners and Christian Charity in Early Nineteenth-Century England’, Journal of Social History 47.3 (2014): 721-45; Tanya Evans, Fractured Families: Life On The Margins in Colonial New South Wales  (Kensington: University of New South Wales Press, 2015).

[9] Marriage Francis James and Elizabeth Marsh, 2 June 1839. Church of England Parish Registers, Norfolk Record Office via Ancestry.com. Norfolk, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754-1940 [database on-line]; Baptism Francis James, 22 July 1839, via Ancestry.com. Norfolk, England, Bishop’s Transcripts, 1685-1941 [database on-line].

[10] Godfrey et al, Criminal Lives, pp. 78–105, 172–73.

[11] 18 December 1839. See Index of Examined Paupers, 1756-1844, Norfolk Record Office, Y/L16/8, mf/RO 597/6.

[12] Baptism Robert Harvey James, 16 December 1840 via Ancestry.com. Norfolk, England, Bishop’s Transcripts, 1685-1941 [database on-line]. 1841 Census HO107/793/2, via Ancestry.com

[13] [George Mogridge], Sarah Martin, the Prison Visitor of Great Yarmouth: A Story of a Useful Life (London: Religious Tract Society, 1872), p. 116.

[14] Mary Ann James, baptism record, 14 September 1842 (born 10 September 1842); Norfolk Baptism Project, St Nicholas Church, Great Yarmouth, http://tinstaafl.co.uk/nbp/Church_Pages/yarmouth_gt_1813.htm. Mary Ann James, death, last quarter 1842; FreeBMD. England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1837-1915 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2006.

[15] William James, baptism record, 5 January 1845 (born 11 December 1844); death first quarter 1848. Edward James, baptism record, 14 Feb 1847 (born 26 December 1846); death last quarter 1847.

[16] 1851 Census, HO107; Piece: 1806; Folio: 214; Page: 26; GSU roll: 207457-207458; 1861 Census, Class: RG 9; Piece: 1191; Folio: 23; Page: 40; GSU roll: 542772; 1871 Census Class: RG10; Piece: 1788; Folio: 118; Page: 12; GSU roll: 830833;

[17] 1881 Census (Francis James senior) Class: RG11; Piece: 5055; Folio: 73; Page: 17; GSU roll: 1342219/(Francis James junior) Class: RG11; Piece: 5053; Folio: 90; Page: 3; GSU roll: 1342219; 1891 Census (Lavinia James) Class: RG12; Piece: 4195; Folio: 116; Page: 51; GSU roll: 6099305. Death of Elizabeth James, Jan-March 1873, Yarmouth. Death of Francis James Oct-Dec 1884, Elswick. Both from England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1837-1915. Death of Francis James (junior), Sheilds Daily Gazette, 6 June 1888, p. 3. For the Elswick works, see Tyne Built Ships, http://www.tynebuiltships.co.uk/Armstrong-Mitch-Elswick.html, website of the Shipping and Ship-building Trust.

[18] William James, baptism, 27 May 1849 (born 2 November 1848); Elizabeth James, baptism, 2 March 1851 (born 27 December 1850); Mary Ann James, baptism, 17 April 1853 (born 27 February 1853); Edward, baptism, 13 April 1856 (born 5 Jan 1856). Francis James was listed as a mariner at all these baptisms. See Norfolk Baptism Project, http://tinstaafl.co.uk/nbp/.

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