From Caister to Yarmouth Gaol

August 1818

I follow the dressmaker as she slips quietly out of the house and heads towards the coastal path that will take her to Yarmouth Gaol. She has longed for this day when her vocation will begin. The project seems such a visionary one. She dares not admit to anyone her desire to visit the prisoner. No one must dissuade her or place obstacles in the way. Yesterday, startled by the stranger’s appearance at the Gaol, the Governor refused her entry without authorization. She must not be denied today.[1]



Now, there’s a blue plaque by the door of the house ,commemorating where the prison visitor Sarah Martin was born. It’s the first in a small row of cottages on Beach Road leading east to the sea, just off the crossroads where the turnpike runs three miles to Great Yarmouth, and close to the church where her mother is buried. Built with soft-russet brick and flint-stones from the shore, the cottage is picture-book pretty. Set back from the street, with gable windows in the thatched roof and a walled garden at the rear, this was the comfortable home of industrious people.

Carrying her precious Bible in a basket, the dressmaker walks quickly around the women chattering in front of the bakery, and past the Lord Nelson Tavern and the entrance to the tannery. Most villagers make their living from the fields or the sea. Caister is the second largest of the East Flegg communities that are dotted around the broads—the rivers interlinking with shallow lakes in this low-lying land north of Yarmouth. Just over six hundred people lived in Caister in 1811. By mid-century it will be over a thousand when, in one of the lanes of small cottages towards the fields, the liberated prisoner Eleanor Simmonds will support her daughter by binding shoes and boarding farm labourers to cover the rent.[2]

At the far end of the street, a gaggle of boys come chasing from the sea, their limbs and faces brown with sun and dirt. Yelling and whooping, they swerve around the lady and disappear into the low-ceilinged cottages where the beachmen’s families are clustered near to the shore. Peering behind her mother’s skirts, a little girl looks shyly at the sombre woman striding past, her face shaded by a plain muslin bonnet.

The air is sweet and salty as the path opens onto the wide stretch of sand and sea from Lowestoft in the south to Winterton-on-sea to the north. Up on the grassy ridge, Thomas Clowes solicitor enjoys the commanding view from his Georgian manor house, long since lost to the sea that eats away at this coastline. His wives and daughters will be regular subscribers to the prison visitor’s charities. From the tideline below, fishermen drag their wooden smack up the beach to heave their catch into baskets as the gulls swoop around them.

Taking off my shoes I watch Sarah Martin lifting her skirt to climb the sandy dune, and follow her southwards, letting my feet get used to the prickles of dry grass that peek through the hot sand. On warm summer days like this, the young Sarah Martin would run to the beach with her friend, their borrowed books tucked into pockets. Wandering along the shore, they sheltered out of sight in one of the dunes, nestling in a sunny bank of sand, and taking turns to read while the other gazed out over the wide horizon.

Eighteenth-century fiction is full of plucky orphans and abandoned heroines who must make their way in the world and defend their virtue from the vices of men: the maidservant who fights off seduction and rape to reform her lascivious pursuer in Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740); and Evelina, disowned by her rakish father, who must prove her legitimacy in Fanny Burney’s eponymous novel (1778). Injustice, imprisonment, and wrongful confinement loom over characters in early fiction, beginning with Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722); his wily protagonist born in Newgate, escaping the noose, finding fortune as a convict, and returning to London penitent, or so she claims. There’s even a prison reformer in the guise of Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield (1776), who, imprisoned for debt, civilizes the rowdy inmates and delivers them sermons on the comforts of religion. But those days of novel reading and idle amusement are far gone for Sarah Martin.

Up on the grassy denes a couple of young women are laying out their nets to dry. It’s a busy time for the beatsters, mending the nets in readiness for the herring shoals that are making their way down the east coast. In a few weeks, young men from the Norfolk villages will head for Yarmouth in hope of a place on one of the hundreds of fishing luggers that trawl the North Sea between September and November, when the herring is at its finest.[3] But in warm early August most villagers are resting when they can, conserving energy for the coming harvest.

From the watchtower, a beachman keeps his eye on the tranquil tide while others stand around its base, chewing tobacco and exchanging occasional words. Between twenty to thirty villagers man the Caister lookout, forming one of the many beach companies that guard the Norfolk coast, ready to rescue ships caught in the treacherous Yarmouth Roads or stranded on the sandbanks. They are entitled to a portion of any salvage they retrieve but some—like James Nudd—find themselves in court, charged with stealing wreck. Many villagers keep a pig or cow on the common land behind the watchtower. When liberated, James Nudd will graze his donkey there, bought by Sarah Martin so he can sell fish to the housewives of East Flegg.

The dressmaker keeps her eyes fixed on Yarmouth ahead, its skyline dominated by St Nicholas’s Church where so many of the prisoners she will come to know are christened, married, and buried. Nelson’s Monument, still under construction, comes into view. Standing on the South Denes at the mouth of the River Yare, it will be completed next year, in 1819, to honour Norfolk’s famous son, the hero of Trafalgar. Injured with Nelson aboard the Victory, James Sharman, the Yarmouth sailor and beachman, will become its Keeper. His feats in rescuing a stranded brig, regaled to Charles Dickens when he visits in 1849, will inspire the shipwreck episode in David Copperfield (1850) and the noble beachman, Ham Peggotty.

I stop a while to see if I can pick out the column but it’s dwarfed by the docks and warehouses that now cover the denes and by the funfair jutting out on the Victorian pier. Turner painted Nelson’s Monument in the late 1820s, looking north towards Yarmouth from the sandy cliffs above Gorleston, where an old washerwoman clambers to collect her drying clothes. In the middle distance snakes the River Yare, separating Yarmouth from Southtown and Gorleston in the near distance. The quay, just out of view, is sometimes so crowded it’s possible to cross the river by jumping from ship to ship. Turner catches the flow of ocean traffic waiting for the tide to turn, watched by the lookout at the harbour’s mouth, and the sweep of the denes where the Riches brothers will scavenge for dirt and sand.

I let a handful of sand run through my fingers.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour.[4]

The opening line of William Blake’s poem is often used to capture the approach of microhistory—of combing through the small and local to discover the fine detail of everyday life, so often obscured by the grand scale and sweeping drama of histories driven by events and historical forces.[5] How many lives would Sarah Martin touch at Yarmouth Gaol? one-hundred-and-fifty or so in each of the early years; around three hundred a year by the 1840s; and the families of prisoners, too. Each life is like a crystal speck, catching the light in its distinctive shape. But it’s not just in each individual minuscule that I can catch their world. It’s by rubbing the sand between my fingers, the grains brushing against each other, that I can feel its granularity. I cannot shake the prisoners off. They are stuck, like grit, under my fingernails.

The dressmaker does not linger but turns up St Nicholas Road towards the church, dedicated to the patron saint of fisherman. She can hear the looms at work in Grout’s Silk Factory, where Charlotte Yaxley and Mary Kerrison will begin their shifts together and leave excited before a night on the town. The only substantial manufactory in Yarmouth, it has just been reopened as a five-story mill, hiring over a thousand hands—mainly young women—for whom it is the main source of employment in the town. Many have come in search of work from the surrounding countryside and, in a port where men are often away at sea, females make up about 57% of the expanding population. At the next census in 1821, the population in Yarmouth—Norfolk’s second largest town—will be 18,000. By 1841, when it’s population will have grown to 24,000, cheap housing will have developed around the factory and spilled out onto the North Denes.[6]

At Market Place Sarah Martin heads left past the workhouse where she comes each Monday to teach the children. The Bridewell or House of Correction used to be inside its walls, where she first caught sight of prisoners and resolved to work for their salvation. This year, however, the Bridewell has moved to the Tolhouse, which has been enlarged to house offenders convicted of misdemeanours.


From Frank Meeres, A History of Great Yarmouth (2007]

The dressmaker picks up speed along King Street and crosses into the Rows, heading towards the quay. Great Yarmouth is one vast gridiron, reported Household Words in 1853, a parallelogram from north to south of which the bars are represented by “Rows”, to the number of one hundred and fifty-six. Here was where you came if you wanted a stout pair of hob-nailed shoes, or a scientifically-oiled dreadnought, or a dozen bloaters, or a quadrant or compass, or a bunch of turnips the best in the world, or a woollen comforter and nightcap for one end of your person, and worsted overall stockings for the other.[7] Among these streets, with their tempting signs—Live and Boil’d Shrimps are sold BY THE CATCHER—Robert Doyle will display the notices written by his prison teacherHair cutting done here and Shaving done here—in his mother’s window.[8]

Heart-pounding, Sarah Martin turns down one of the quieter, secluded lanes, keeping in the shadows of the overhanging houses. As she nears the Tolhouse prison, she slows down and breathes deeply, wiping the sweat from her forehead, and smoothing a loose strand of dark hair under her bonnet. At the heavy studded door, she rings the bell for the turnkey. Then stooping, she brushes the sand from the hem of her skirt and waits to be let in to speak with Mary Jones.


From John Preston, Pictures of Yarmouth (1819)

This is an early chapter in my book, Conviction: stories from a nineteenth-century prison. In writing I’m trying to show and not just tell but this chapter has to do a lot of scene-setting. I would be interested to know if you find it involving and want to read more, or if there is too much detail. If you know Caister and Yarmouth and you find any howlers, please let me know.

[1] 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. 13-14.

[2] David Higgins, Caister: The Sea Story (Kings Lynn: Phoenix Publications, 2010), pp. 18. Data Search Caister, 1851 Census, I-CEM, Integrated Census Data Project, 24 November 2016

[3] John Greaves Nall, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft (London: Longmans Green, 1866); C. Stacy Watson, The Silvery Hosts of the North Sea: With a Sketch of “Quaint Old Yarmouth” (“Home Words” Publishing Office, 1883).

[4] William Blake, ‘Auguries of Innocence’, c. 1803.

[5] For examples of microhistory, see Clifford Geertz (The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973); Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983); Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Vintage Books, 1985); Law, Crime and Deviance Since 1700: Micro-Studies in the History of Crime, edited by Anne-Marie Kilday and David Nash (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

[6] GB Historical GIS / University of Portsmouth, Yarmouth RegD/PLU through time | Population Statistics | Males & Females, A Vision of Britain through Time, URL:, Date accessed: 19 January 2017

[7] Edmund Saul Dixon, ‘The Norfolk Gridiron’, Household Words, 16 April 1853 (Vol VII, no. 160), pp. 163-5. Accessed Dickens Journals Online.

[8] Everyday Book, 5 and 19 April 1838, cited in Inspectors of Prisons… Fourth Report, 1839, p. 172-3.

7 thoughts on “From Caister to Yarmouth Gaol

  1. Fascinating and very evocative. I found the shifts between your present day discussions and the world as Sarah was seeing it a bit confusing in places. More separation of the two or ‘signposting’ would be helpful?

  2. Personally I love the references to streets and places I recognise and the extra information such as “Here was where you came if you wanted a stout pair of hob-nailed shoes.” I am not so keen on descriptions such as “she slows down and breathes deeply, wiping the sweat from her forehead, and smoothing a loose strand of dark hair under her bonnet.” That’s just me though, I like facts best. I would love to read this book!

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