This article interrogates historiographical debates over discipline and charity in the penal reform era. We cannot evaluate philanthropy solely in terms of class discipline or normalization, it argues, if we wish to understand the often intimate relationships binding agents and recipients of charity, even in the prison. While deconstructing the language of sympathy employed by penal reformers, historians have been sceptical of purportedly grateful prisoner testimony. This article proposes we re-consider such evidence to ask how “kindness” was understood and felt by benefactors and recipients. Drawing on new scholarship, it explores the active role of prisoners and their families in negotiating the philanthropic exchange.
The article investigates a pioneering rehabilitation programme run by Sarah Martin, prison visitor at Great Yarmouth Borough Gaol, 1818–1843. Scrutinizing her accounts of working with offenders, it analyzes immediate and longer-term reactions by prisoners and their families to Christian instruction and welfare. Reconstructing the post-discharge experiences of forty-three “liberated prisoners,” it assesses the role played by Christian reclamation in desistance from crime, alongside employment and family ties. Testimony from former offenders and their relatives suggests many did not see Christian ideals of duty and fellowship as alien to their values; rather, these corresponded with a laboring-class ethics of kinship and neighborliness. If we want to appreciate the agency of the poor in the wider charity economy, we must examine how recipients acted in accordance with their own social and moral codes.