The old tollhouse in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, was for many years the town gaol. During the 1790s, prison inspector John Howard condemned it as the most defective in the entire country. But it was to be radically and single-handedly transformed by a poor dressmaker named Sarah Martin. Her story is one of compassion, courage and Christian conviction.
Sarah was born to a tradesman and his wife in nearby Caister-on-Sea in June 1791. Orphaned at an early age, she was raised at Seagull Cottage, on Beach Road, by a godly grandmother, who taught her to sew and, in particular, make gloves. Sarah attended the village school and enjoyed reading a wide range of literature, but she showed little interest in the Bible, in spite of her grandmother’s prayers and example. Aged 14, Sarah was sent to work as a dressmaker in Yarmouth and, for many years, walked the three miles there and back each day.
Sometimes she walked the same route on Sundays for afternoons of leisure and it was on one such occasion, when she was 19, that curiosity drew her into a Christian meeting. There she heard a message preached from 2 Corinthians 5:11: ‘Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord we persuade men’, that is to say, ‘We persuade them about the truth of the gospel’.
She was immediately convicted of sin and could not rest until, after some months, she repented before God, trusted Christ’s work on her behalf and was assured of salvation.
She wrote: ‘I saw myself condemned … and yet such was the pity of my God and such his tenderness to me … he showed to me, as in the same glance, the mediator Jesus Christ, my Saviour, and forgiveness through him’.
Now she turned her attention to reading sermons and theology and, by 1811, had memorised much of God’s Word. Sarah’s life was changed completely and this was seen in her immediate determination to serve others in obedience to her Lord’s command, and no longer live solely for herself. She quickly became a Sunday school teacher and, from 1815, began visiting the local workhouse, where there had been no education of a spiritual nature before. It was inevitable, having walked past it many times, that she would also set her sights on Yarmouth’s prison.
At that time, the prison was poorly ventilated and filthy, comprising an underground dungeon with no toilets, and being full of rats and lice. Its sorry inmates were thrown together, regardless of age and gender and whether their crimes had been serious or petty. No proper attempts were made to educate or reform them. They were given nothing to do and there was no chaplaincy of any kind. Instead, unhelpful contacts were still allowed access to the prison.
Sarah began, in 1819, by asking permission to visit a woman who had been cruel to her child, but she was refused entry. She persisted until the warden gave in and, on hearing the Scriptures read, the female prisoner broke down at the thought that someone cared.
In the years that followed, Sarah devoted herself to the inmates. She would spend at least one day each week reading the Scriptures with them, as well as conducting two Sunday services, at which she read printed sermons. Eventually, she wrote out her own sermons, though often delivering them without notes, and, as prisoners were converted, they too would read them out. It was twelve years before a local clergyman took over just one of the weekly services.
Sarah also taught the prisoners valuable skills, including reading and writing. The women were taught to sew and the men to make books, hats and spoons. These items would be sold to raise funds, to help them when they were released. Sarah carefully followed the progress of each one after they had left the prison. She kept detailed journals, recording her dealings with them all and accounting for moneys that began to be donated to their cause.
At the same time, she continued teaching workhouse children, until a new workhouse was opened in 1838 and two teachers appointed, at which point she transferred two nights a week to a school for factory girls, which met in the vestry of Yarmouth’s St Nicholas Church.
While all this went on, she herself was dependent on her continuing employment as a dressmaker. To be nearer that work, as well as those she helped, she had by now moved into Row 57, later to be called Sarah Martin Row.
When a new governor was appointed at the prison, he worked alongside Sarah to improve conditions even more. So she then dedicated nearly her whole time to visiting the inmates.
Recognising all that she had achieved, with re-offending rates in decline and inmate behaviour so much better, the town authorities offered to pay Sarah for her efforts. She had always refused it, until 1841, when she accepted a small annual wage. Just two years later her health began to decline. In her final months, she wrote a brief account of her life and some poetry which would later be published by the Religious Tract Society. One verse included the words, ‘I seem to lie so near the heavenly portals bright, I catch the streaming rays that fly from eternity’s own light’.
She died in October 1843 and was buried in the graveyard of Holy Trinity Church, Caister. Her tombstone bears the words of 1 Corinthians 15:20: ‘Now is Christ risen from the dead and become the first fruits of them that slept’. On the Sunday following her funeral, a sermon that she had written for the occasion was read out to inmates at the prison. It was based on Job 19:25-26: ‘For I know that my Redeemer lives and he shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God’.
Sarah Martin never married and, in her 52 years, she had never once set foot outside Caister and Great Yarmouth. But, following her conversion to Christ, she worked selflessly for the benefit of others, though materially poor herself. Apparently small in stature and plain in looks, she had exerted an unusual influence over some of the roughest and most desperate men, women and children imaginable. Reports of inspections at the prison between 1835 and 1844 confirm the success of her labours there. Today, the building houses the Tollhouse Museum, with one room dedicated to her memory, in which her diaries are among the artefacts on display.
Sarah Martin knew, as the Bible teaches, that salvation — forgiveness of sin, friendship with God and a future, safe for ever in heaven — is not something that we can earn by our good works or religious practices.
Rather, it is by grace (God’s unconditional love) and through faith, which in itself God must first give to us. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, ‘By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast’. But we must not forget the following words, in Ephesians 2:10: ‘For we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them’.
Good works are the very reason that God made us and planned our redemption through Jesus Christ. We are not saved by good works, but for them. We are saved, not to sit back and relax, but to serve the Lord and give glory to him in so doing. Sarah Martin knew that, and, with the Lord’s help, so may we.