National Student Survey

30 May 2008

Update on 19th century prison visitor research supported by 2007 HEFCE Promising Researcher Scheme

LJMU's Senior Lecturer in Cultural History, Dr Helen Rogers, was allocated funding by LJMU under the HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) Promising Researcher Scheme in 2007. Her 'Prison Voices' research explores the relationship between the prison visitor and dressmaker, Sarah Martin and the inmates of Yarmouth Gaol in the early 19th Century.

The 'Tolhouse' dungeons of Yarmouth Gaol were two dark rooms packed with prisoners, rats, mice, lice, and layers of human filth. Men, women and children were crammed together in festering cells with no toilets. At a time when people were still being hung for petty crimes, 'justice' was never speedy and many languished for as long as 10 years on a diet of grey prison gruel, before even making it to court.

For the majority of prisoners in the Tolhouse the sun never shone. For a handful however, a sliver of light came into their lives in the shape of a seamstress from Caister-on-sea. Sarah Martin began visiting Yarmouth gaol in 1818, walking the six miles to Great Yarmouth to give Sunday services to 'uplift' the inmates of the Tolhouse. A devout Christian, Martin gradually gave more and more of her free time to the inmates until her death in 1843.

Dr Rogers said: "Martin's fierce devotion alerts us to the fact that ideas about good order, respectability, godliness, sobriety and duty were not simply imposed on people from above, but were alive as well as contested in labouring and poor communities."

Martin balanced her sermons with practical advice, teaching the prisoners to read and write, and encouraging them to work and to be productive with their time, making items like books, hats and spoons. She would then sell their goods, using the money to buy clothes for the prisoners and aid their release.

Dr Rogers continued: "While many scholars seem to have seized a rare opportunity to learn, some objected vehemently to the religious content of her teaching. However, prisoners were reluctant to lose their chance to learn and few maintained their opposition for long."

The research analyses the subject of Christian charity among the poor, an aspect of 19th Century social history, and an area largely neglected according to Dr Rogers: "Sarah Martin has received little scholarly attention, partly because her intensely moralistic perspective does not fit easily with the accounts of class and gender emancipation that have dominated recent social and feminist history."

By 1818 the administrators of Yarmouth Gaol in Norfolk had made little effort to meet the required 'standards', and when a government inspector visited the prison in 1835, he cited Martin as being wholly responsible for all the improvements in living conditions.

Sarah Martin proved that individual action can make a difference, as the people of Yarmouth Gaol testified. By her active involvement in the wellbeing of these forgotten, disenfranchised members of the public, Martin had a tangible, long-lasting effect on the living conditions for those inside the Tolhouse.

Dr Rogers said: "Though Elizabeth Fry had already made prison visiting seem an acceptable activity for respectable, well-to-do women, Martin came from a very different class background to most penal reformers, she was a single working woman who supported herself as a dressmaker. She was well aware of the chronic material pressures facing the poor."

The research highlights how Martin was a pioneer in penal reform; she understood that rehabilitation needed to continue after prisoners were released from gaol, and strove to provide assistance to former prisoners, finding them somewhere to stay and even employment.

Dr Rogers intends to publish her research, combining Martin's meticulously kept journals with her own analysis of prison records, which document inmate's reactions to her schooling. She explained: "I am interested in exploring how these scraps of conversation might be seen as fragmentary evidence of dialogues and debates among the poor about the meanings of discipline, order and reform." 

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