MARTIN, SARAH (1791–1843), prison visitor, born June 1791 at Caistor, near Great Yarmouth, was daughter of a small tradesman in the village. Early deprived of both parents, the child was placed under the care of a widowed grandmother, who earned a living by glove-making. Sarah attended the village school, and from the age of twelve procured from a circulating library and read with avidity the works of the chief English writers. Between fourteen and fifteen years of age she was sent by her grandmother to learn dressmaking at the neighbouring town of Great Yarmouth, and subsequently followed that occupation for many years. A sermon heard in her nineteenth year in a Yarmouth meeting-house gave a religious turn to her literary recreations; she read many theological books, and by 1811 had committed great part of the Bible to memory. She became a Sunday-school teacher, and in 1815 began to visit Yarmouth workhouse, where no religious teaching had previously been attempted. In 1819 she obtained permission to visit a woman committed to Yarmouth Gaol (the old Tolhouse) for cruelty to her child. The condition of the place was deplorable. It was long known as the worst ventilated and most defective prison in the kingdom. Into two underground dungeons or pits, commonly termed 'The Hold,' or common prison, men and women were indiscriminately thrust. Little discipline was exerted by the authorities, and the prisoners' vicious and depraved companions were allowed free access to them. Sanitary arrangements were wholly wanting. There was no chaplain nor religious instruction, and the inmates remained unemployed (Nield, Account of Prisons, p. 808). This gaol Miss Martin undertook, in spite of the rebuffs of the authorities, to systematically visit and reform. She soon devoted one day at least in each week to scripture-reading, besides giving instruction in reading and writing, and conducting morning and afternoon service. At first she read sermons from printed books, but soon composed them herself, and often delivered them without notes. In 1831, after twelve years' labour, she was relieved of the afternoon service by one of the parochial clergy. Sympathetic friends placed funds at Miss Martin's disposal to further her work. She devoted special attention to the employment of the female prisoners in needlework, &c., and found useful work for men not sentenced to hard labour. Articles thus made were sold at their full value for the benefit of discharged prisoners, or to the poor at a reduction.
The children in the workhouse were meanwhile brought under her special care, and when in 1838 a new workhouse was erected and a schoolmaster and schoolmistress appointed to do her work there, she devoted two nights each week to a school for factory girls, held in the vestry of St. Nicholas Church. In 1826 the death of her grandmother put Miss Martin in possession of between 200l. and 300l., producing an income of 10l. or 12l. a year, but until December 1838 she still depended partly on dressmaking for her livelihood. Subsequently she devoted her whole time to philanthropic work, the prospects of which were brightened by the appointment of a new gaol governor, who inaugurated a greatly improved system of management. In 1841, at the entreaties of her friends, she accepted an offer of a yearly payment of 12l. In April 1843 her health, which had hitherto been very good, broke down, and she died 15 Oct. 1843. A simple headstone, bearing a brief inscription by herself, marks her grave at the side of her grandmother in the churchyard of Caistor. On the Sunday afternoon following her death a sermon on Job xix. 25, 26, which she had herself prepared, was read to the inmates of the gaol in accordance with her request. A stained-glass window was placed to her memory, by public subscription, in the north aisle of St. Nicholas Church, Great Yarmouth, and it is proposed also to commemorate her in the restored Tolhouse.
The inspector of prisons in his reports during the years 1835-44 bore testimony to the success of her work. Bishop Stanley, in giving his contribution to the Sarah Martin memorial window, said, 'I would canonize Sarah Martin if I could,' Although in person small and unattractive, she exerted a very potent influence over the rough, the ignorant, and the vicious. During her illness she wrote eight short lyrics, full of tender feeling, to which she gave the title 'The Sick Room,' and these, with other original poetry which she wrote earlier, were published as 'Selections from the Poetical Remains of Sarah Martin,' Yarmouth, 1845, 8vo. 'They are the poems of one whose time was devoted to the action of poetry rather than to the writing of it' (Edinb. Review). Her 'Scripture Place Book,' neatly written in a thick quarto volume, four columns on a page, remains in manuscript. In the Yarmouth Public Library are her manuscript 'Poetical Remains,' the 'Prison School Journal,' 1836, two volumes giving details of expenditure (gifts of money, clothing, &c), 1823-41, and the 'Employment for the Destitute Journal,' 1839-41. Her Bible is in the possession of Mrs. Danby-Palmer. Various manuscripts remain with the Religious Tract Society.