Captured Voices

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Helen Rogers, a Faculty Member of the English and Cultural History Department at Liverpool John Moores University. Here Helen continues our current focus on how to put the fragments of ‘voices’ we can find in the archive into context to recover a fuller picture of the ordinary individuals behind such voices – drawing on her work on nineteenth century prison inmates, Helen advocates a combination of biographical reconstruction and prosopography that she terms ‘intimate reading’. 

Helen Rogers

History from below, writes Tim Hitchcock in this series, ‘is in essence, a politics of empathy and voice explored through a conversation with the dead.’ His proposition that we must read historical documents ‘against the grain’ if we are to recover experiences and voices from below from the records made by the powerful is one of the best descriptions of our practice. We need to listen out for the voices of the dead if we are to have a two-way conversation and allow them to challenge us about how we view the present and ourselves as well as our forebears and the past. But what if the dead ‘don’t want us to listen’, asks Julia Laite, and instead hoped to keep their secrets hidden? And what if it was not ‘voices’ they wanted, adds Will Pooley, but ‘bread, security, or just to be left alone.’

These questions resonate with me for I spend my days communing with the dead as I investigate how prisoners responded to punishment, Christian instruction and philanthropic intervention in the 1830s and 40s and whether these influenced desistance from crime or continued offending. When they left gaol, we can reasonably assume many strove to keep a low profile and some, though not all, will have remained indifferent to the moral education they had received inside. Since they left little or no first-person testimony I encounter their voices – and bodies – in the penal records that measured and described them, occasionally noting their words or abbreviations of them. Reduced to ‘offenders’ in the penal archive, I seek to recover their agency and humanity by examining their crimes and misdemeanours in the context of their ‘whole lives’ or what I can reconstruct of these from myriad sources. But can we derive historical meaning out of a single life plotted through the ten-yearly tabulations of the census returns or records of births, marriages and deaths? What interpretative weight can we place on incidental anecdotes and fragments of ‘voices’?

Great Yarmouth, Tolhouse (Gaol, House of Correction and Magistrate Court), photographed by Thomas Ayres, late 1800s, c. Norfolk County Council

Great Yarmouth, Tolhouse (Gaol, House of Correction and Magistrate Court), photographed by Thomas Ayres, late 1800s, c. Norfolk County Council

The strategy I have developed is to weave biographical reconstruction with prosopography, or group biography. By viewing individual lives in the context of their social networks and the circumstances and characteristics they shared with others, we can speculate not only on the possible causes and outcomes of their actions, but also what was plausible and probable. I call this approach ‘intimate reading’: getting up close and personal with our subjects through immersive reading and extensive contextualisation.[1] Record linkage lets us explore the relationships binding individuals and groups, and their interactions – no matter how unequal – with officialdom. Intimate reading is smaller in scope than the ‘distant reading’ methods practiced in the digital humanities, and is concerned with excavating ‘deep’ data on specific individuals rather than ‘big’ data on large amorphous groups. But while the voices of the convicted were only rarely recorded, intimate reading may reveal how they made their mark in other ways, as we can see by following one boy in and out of the penal system.[2]

William Jenkins, aged about 15, first appeared at Great Yarmouth Gaol and House of Correction in 1842, charged with his elder brother and five other boys with breaking into an empty house and stealing money and tills. Three years later he was one of three lads transported for seven years for a similar offence. Comparing the life histories of 26 lads, imprisoned at Yarmouth and eventually exiled to Van Diemen’s Land between 1836-46, enables me to track the shared characteristics of male juveniles. Their mean age when first imprisoned was fifteen-and-a-half. On average, they had served 5.5 imprisonments prior to transportation, mostly before they were 21, and two thirds of which were for petty theft.[3]

At Yarmouth Gaol the lads were taught by Sarah Martin, a working woman, who instigated a remarkable Christian programme of instruction and rehabilitation from 1818 until her death in 1843. Her daily record of prison classes and ‘brief observations’ of inmates’ characters before and after departure, provide illuminating glimpses of their reactions to incarceration and Christian intervention, refracted through the pious teacher’s gaze. William Jenkins, she believed, possessed neither religion nor education. ‘Remarkably quick in natural ability and clever but refractory, fearless and illdisposed [sic]’, she noted; ‘His bad behaviour in prison exposed him to frequent punishments.’[4]

Sarah Martin’s notes in Prisoner Register on Abraham and William, 2nd and 3rd entries. The Prison Visitor’s journals are on display at the Tolhouse prison museum, Great Yarmouth

Sarah Martin’s notes in Prisoner Register on Abraham and William, 2nd and 3rd entries. The Prison Visitor’s journals are on display at the Tolhouse prison museum, Great Yarmouth

This was not the first time the teacher had met William. In 1839 his elder brother Abraham was imprisoned for stealing rope with Joshua Artis, later transported with William. In three months Abraham learned to read and write. Following their discharge, he and Joshua were among the ‘reclaimed’ offenders Sarah Martin monitored in her ‘Liberated Prisoners Book’.[5] She supported those who seemed to be going straight, inviting them to visit or write to her. She gave Robert Harrod, also transported with William, a basket of herrings to hawk and a jacket when he found work on a ship, and was pleased when his mother said ‘was going on rightly’.[6] Some former inmates and their relatives reacted positively to charitable assistance that tied them over till they found regular work. The responses of the Jenkins family hint at more instrumental approaches to Christian guidance and the limits of philanthropy in preventing destitution.

Sarah Martin’s notes on Abraham Jenkins, following his first imprisonment, from the Fifth Report of the Prison Inspectors (1840), p. 129.

Sarah Martin’s notes on Abraham Jenkins, following his first imprisonment, from the Fifth Report of the Prison Inspectors (1840), p. 129.

After release Abraham called on Sarah Martin three times and found work in a fish-office while hoping ‘to go to sea’. She feared ‘his parents will not exercise a good influence over him’ but revised her opinion after visiting the family. Mr Jenkins, a tinker, was ill ‘with a wife and large family in the deepest poverty’. The visitor was at his side when he died, apparently following religious conversion, for she composed a poem, ‘The Believer’s Death’, purportedly preserving the ‘parting words’ of this ‘holy and good man’.[7] Perhaps his deathbed conversion was the tinker’s insurance policy for those he left behind but if Sarah Martin continued assisting his family it was not enough to keep them from the workhouse.[8]

‘The Believer’s Death’, Selections from the Poetical Remains of the Late Miss Sarah Martin of Great Yarmouth (Yarmouth: James M. Denew, n.d. [1845]), pp. 60-1.

‘The Believer’s Death’, Selections from the Poetical Remains of the Late Miss Sarah Martin of Great Yarmouth (Yarmouth: James M. Denew, n.d. [1845]), pp. 60-1.

On meeting Sarah Martin, William ‘spontaneously’ regaled the escapade that had landed him in gaol. He was the only boy to be convicted of housebreaking and sentenced to three months. Examining the offending histories, conduct and family circumstances of those arrested with him highlights the challenges faced by poor boys as they negotiated the transition from childhood to manhood. None were in school. The two youngest had been imprisoned before and would re-offend. Only Richard Reynolds, released after a few days, and William Creak, acquitted at trial would not be recommitted, though the latter’s brother became a repeat offender. The Gaoler listed these boys as labourers, like William, who eked their way by irregular and low-paid work. Thomas Farrell was an errand boy, probably for his parents listed as dealers in the 1841 Census.[9] Like most male juveniles, Thomas hoped to go to sea. His subsequent offences occurred between fishing voyages when lads like Abraham, who described himself as a fisherman recently returned from sea, had time on their hands and little money in their pockets. Similarly, none of the 26 lads transported to Van Diemen’s Land were in school when they began offending and most had yet to enter regular employment.

William & his mates: 7 January 1842, arrested for breaking into unoccupied house & stealing brass bells, door plates & tills

William & his mates: 7 January 1842, arrested for breaking into unoccupied house & stealing brass bells, door plates & tills

When we try to locate William’s mates in the 1841 Census, we find only one at home with his parents and perhaps as many as three had lost one or both parents. Two-thirds of the convict lads had lost at least one parent and nearly a third had been convicted as rogues and vagabonds, while some had been homeless or in the workhouse. When William was released from gaol he was handed over to the parish relieving officer.[10] With their family support networks acutely compromised, friendships were integral to the survival strategies of these boys. Work, play and offending merged together as they strove to gain a footing in the adult world of male employment and recreation. In Van Diemen’s Land, William attributed his nine-month prison sentence not to stealing rope (for which he was convicted) but to ‘setting boats adrift’.[11] Some juveniles knew each other through work but many met or firmed up acquaintances in prison where we can gauge their alliances and rivalries from their disciplinary offences.

Lacking control in the outside world, William Jenkins asserted himself in prison, notching up eighteen punishments, far more than most prisoners accumulated. His refractions were associated with boisterous spirits and staking his place in the inmate pecking order; fourteen punishments were for larking about, being noisy or jostling with other boys. The teacher gave the boys patchwork to keep them quiet and rewarded good conduct with religious storybooks and pens and paper.[12] To many these were items of currency for trading and subversive use. William purloined a bag of patchwork and needles and tried to burn his loot when the turnkey and teacher came searching his cell for evidence. Insolent to Miss Martin, the boy was locked up for two days on bread and water.[13] Towards the end of his last sentence at Yarmouth, William confronted the Gaoler when inmates were reproved for the ‘dirty state’ of the ward. Here, finally, we can hear his voice in the defiant threat that struck the Gaoler. Instructed to take his ‘night utensil’ to his cell, he sized up to the Governor: ‘“you may take the tub yourself and be b—–d for I will not take it” and ‘put his face in mine and in a rough tone of voice mocked me’.[14]

William Jenkins, disciplinary record, first imprisonment 7 January -14 April 1842

William Jenkins, disciplinary record, first imprisonment 7 January -14 April 1842

Acting up, throwing their weight around, filling the prison wards and Yarmouth’s streets with their voices enabled boys like William to exercise control over their environment while demonstrating the toughness expected of men in the heavy and dangerous occupations of the sea-faring port. Unruly behaviour, however, like unleashing boats from their moorings, could antagonise family and community members as well as land them in trouble with the authorities. By 1844 William and his mates may have burned too many bridges. They were picked up near Norwich, where they had begun offending, and were sentenced to transportation for stealing £4 6s from a public house.[15]

Conduct record William Jenkins, 1845, Tasmania State Archives, CON33/1/67

Conduct record William Jenkins, 1845, Tasmania State Archives, CON33/1/67

When he arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1845, William had not learned to read or write, unlike his brother Abraham and many prisoners who seized the opportunity to learn in brief periods of captivity. But, like his brother and the man in a boat depicted in his tattoos, he described his occupation as ‘seaman’. Despite his turbulent history at Yarmouth Gaol, William’s disciplinary record is surprisingly light. Towards the end of 15 months probation in a work gang, he was noted for ‘disobedience’ and had a month added to his probation for being ‘absent without leave’, then was sent to solitary for ‘making threatening language to a fellow prisoner and ill-treating him.’ After he was assigned to a sheep-farmer at Hamilton in the High Plains, William was reprimanded just once for ‘being in the township without a pass’. He received his ticket-of-leave in 1849 and was free to find his own employment before exiting the penal system with his Certificate of Freedom in 1852.[16]

Family and household reconstruction is painstaking work that yields slow returns in the current research context of ‘publish or perish’, but its rewards can be remarkable. The Jenkins family seems to have dispersed in the early 1840s for despite numerous searches I have not located them in the census. I hunted in vain for Abraham following his discharge in 1842 and could not positively identify William in the Tasmanian records of ship departures and births, marriages, and deaths. And then, in a last ditch effort, I found him by looking up every newspaper reference to a ‘William Jenkins’ because, like me, he searched for his family. Over a week in 1874 he placed advertisements in Van Diemen’s Land’s leading newspaper:

Information wanted as to the whereabouts of the above named parties, last heard of (being shipwrecked, but saved) at New Zealand, about thirty years ago.
Address, WILLIAM JENKINS, River Dee, 3736[17]

William Jenkins’s advert in the Mercury (Hobart), week beginning 16 May 1874, p. 1

William Jenkins’s advert in the Mercury (Hobart), week beginning 16 May 1874, p. 1

Finally I could place William Jenkins in Hamilton where he had been assigned. In 1863 he was registered as ‘an eating house keeper’, an occupation that suggests conviviality, when he married seventeen-year-old Mary, the daughter of convicts. They would have nine children, some bearing names from William’s family, their first baby born two years before they married. William may have been a good catch; in 1860 he had purchased 838½ acres overlooking the River Dee and acquired another 241 acres in 1871.[18] Among a community of former convicts he appears to have thrived by recreating the networks of friendship and solidarity that supported him at Yarmouth. He may also have continued ducking and diving for, though never prosecuted after winning his freedom, he was named during his brother-in-law’s trial for cattle rustling from one of the large landowners to whom William had been assigned.[19] When he died in 1883 at the house of his former convict father-in-law, the local correspondent recalled a man well known, liked and respected:
Another old resident of the district, Mr. William Jenkins, who for many years resided at the Dee, New Country, has passed away amongst us. A large number of people yesterday followed his remains to their last resting place at the Ouse, where his body was interred in the Church of England Cemetery.[20]

John Glover, ‘Natives on the River Ouse, Van Diemen’s Land’, 1838 (near Hamilton), Copyright Art Gallery New South Wales

John Glover, ‘Natives on the River Ouse, Van Diemen’s Land’, 1838 (near Hamilton), Copyright Art Gallery New South Wales

Reconstructing the outline of a life from scraps of evidence from different times and places can yield more than isolated anecdotes and disembodied voices. Tracking individuals and their networks over time reveals patterns in their behaviour that allow us to speculate on the gaps in the records that sketch out a life, while tantalising traces of individual voices and actions can be used to speak for other hidden lives. Sometimes, one fragment can provide the missing link in a chain of disparate sources. In this instance it is an advertisement, placed in a newspaper, which connects the middle-aged farmer back to the rowdy, gregarious boy who first entered prison with his brother over three decades earlier. We cannot know if William Jenkins made contact with his brothers and can only speculate how he had heard of their shipwreck: Had they planned to join William when he was sentenced to exile? What made William search in 1874? Had he maintained correspondence with his family, despite his inability to write? The man’s experience as a convict servant, eating-house keeper, and farmer in the High Plains of Van Dieman’s Land was far removed from the sea-faring life he had imagined, off the flat Yarmouth coastline. But a connection had remained, if only in memory, with the family and place from which he had been forcibly removed. In its formal wording, the advertisement does not quite give us the old convict’s ‘voice’ but, in its hopefulness, it conveys the strength of those attachments and his feelings.

JWM Turner, Yarmouth, from near the Harbour's Mouth, c. 1840. Copyright Tate

JWM Turner, Yarmouth, from near the Harbour’s Mouth, c. 1840. Copyright Tate


[1] For more on ‘intimate reading’, see Helen Rogers, ‘“A Very Fair Statement of His Past Life”: Transported Convicts, Former Lives and Previous Offences’, Open Library of Humanities, 2015, forthcoming.

[2] A longer version of this discussion will appear as ‘Making their Mark: Young Offenders’ Life Histories and Convict Tattoos’, True Crime: Micro-Studies in Law, Crime and Deviance since 1700, ed. by Anne-Marie Kilday and David Nash (Continuum, 2015 forthcoming).

[3] Based on analysis of admissions to Great Yarmouth Borough Gaol, 1839-41 and on Gaol Register 1836-46 in passim. All records for the gaol are held at the Norfolk Record Office. Most of the Van Diemen’s Land records are searchable at the Archives of Tasmania, Hobart. Digital images and partial transcriptions of the major convict records are searchable at Founders and Survivors: Australian Life Courses in Historical Context, 1803-1920.

[4] Sarah Martin, prison register (‘Successive Names’) 1842, no. 120, in her Everyday Book. Martin’s prison journals are held at the Tolhouse Museum, formerly the gaol, Great Yarmouth.

[5] ‘A.J.’ in Sarah Martin’s table, ‘A Glance at Some Persons who seemed after their Imprisonment to have been Reclaimed or Improved’, 1840 [258] Inspectors of Prisons of Great Britain II, Northern and Eastern District, Fifth Report, House of Commons Parliamentary Papers Online (2005), 128-29.

[6] 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. [1847]), pp. 128-9. See also Helen Rogers, ‘Kindness and Reciprocity: Liberated Prisoners and Christian Charity in Early Nineteenth-Century England’, Journal of Social History 47.3 (Spring 2014): 721-45.

[7] ‘A.J.’ op cit; [Sarah Martin], ‘The Believer’s Death’, Selections from the Poetical Remains of the Late Miss Sarah Martin of Great Yarmouth (Yarmouth: James M. Denew, n.d. [1845]), pp. 60-1.

[8] Elizabeth Jenkins and her children were removed to Aylesburton, parish of Lydney Gloucester, 14 April 1840: Index of Examined Paupers, 1756-1844, Norfolk Record Office, Y/L16/8, mf/RO 597/6.

[9] Gaol Register, 7 January 1842, (Y/L2 9); 1841 Census, accessed via Ancestry.

[10] Gaol Keeper’s Journal, January 1841-December 1845 (Y/L2 48), 14 April 1842.

[11] Gaol Register, 27 August 1843; William Jenkins, 15933, Conduct Record, CON33/1/67.

[12] Sarah Martin, pp. 106-8.

[13] Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 28 March 1842.

[14] Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 11 June 1844.

[15] Joshua Artis, 15826, Robert Harrod, 15914, William Jenkins, 15933, per Theresa, 1845, Conduct Records CON33/1/67, Convict Indents CON14/1/29.

[16] William Jenkins, 15933, CON33/1/67.

[17] Mercury (Hobart), 16-20 May 1874, p. 1, accessed via Trove, Australia’s Historical Newspapers,

[18] Hobart Town Daily Mercury, 7 March 1860, p. 4; Mercury (Hobart), 2 June 1871, p. 1.

[19] Mercury (Hobart), 17 July 1874, p. 3.

[20] Mercury (Hobart), 1 March 1883, p. 3.

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