Street Corner Society

Skip to site-wide links.

Children's Story Garden  >  Our Word is Our Keeper

Girl standing in wild undergrowth, casting milkwood seeds to the breeze.

The Children's Story Garden

Our Word is Our Keeper


THOMAS ELLWOOD was sitting in the growing darkness of Newgate Prison, wondering whether the daylight was really gone and if it was time for him to get out the hammock in which he slept and prepare for bed.

"It is hard to know," he said to the man nearest to him, "whether it is more uncomfortable at night or in the daytime."

It was no wonder that he spoke so, for an English prison in 1662 was a very dreadful place. The floors were damp and dirty, even at noontime the room was a gloomy twilight, and today it was so crowded that the prisoners could scarcely move about. They were all Quakers, sent to Newgate for refusing to take an oath. "The law requires you to swear that your statements are true!" had thundered the officers of the court. "Nay," the Quakers had replied, "a man's word, truthfully given, is as binding as any oath can be, and it is wrong to swear." So they had all been herded into Newgate to spend months of imprisonment for this offence.

"Thomas, thou art taller than I. Canst thou reach the hook yonder to fasten my hammock?" called out an older man.

"Yes, indeed," answered Thomas, "but why not hang it to the post in the middle of the room to-night, in the place where poor James has been. That will be in the middle row, and the air may be better."

"James was a delicate man," replied the other as he acted on Thomas' advice; "it is not surprising that he died in this vile atmosphere, even though we gave him the best place that we could."

Everyone felt very much depressed by the death of this prisoner, and as they began to put up their hammocks, which had to be hung in all directions across the room, and one above the other until they were three rows high, the Friends still talked of him.

Suddenly there was a great noise of voices and tramping of feet outside. A key grated in the lock, and a torch threw a blinding light into the room as the turnkey opened the door and shouted, "Hold, hold! here is the coroner's inquest come to see you!"

A jury had come to inquire the reason for the death of the man. There was scarcely room for them to come in, so they crowded at the door. At last the foreman exclaimed, "What a sight is here! We need not now question how this man came by his death: we may rather wonder that they all are not dead, for this place is enough to breed an infection among them!"

The jury withdrew, and the Quakers thought no more of the affair until the next day. Then a sheriff came and explained that he wished that he could set them all free; but as that was not in his power, he would send a number of them to the old Bridewell Prison, which was less crowded. "This," he said, "will be more comfortable for you, and your removal will give more room to those left behind."

And now a very strange thing happened. The porter, who should have escorted them from one prison to the other, told them that as they knew the way to Bridewell, and as he could trust them, they might as well go there alone, provided they were in before bedtime! So Thomas Ellwood and some thirty more of the Friends made up their packs of clothing, and taking their bundles on their shoulders, walked two and two abreast from Newgate to old Bridewell. Some staggered slightly as from weakness, others stepped firmly as though their feet welcomed the good earth once more. The faces of all were pale from the confinement of the prison. They looked about them calmly, and often smiled to see the blue sky and smell the fresh air. It was the middle of the afternoon and the street was full of people. Shop-keepers stared from their doors and passers-by stopped the little procession to ask who they were and where they were going. They said that they were prisoners, going from one prison to another.

"What!" exclaimed the townsmen. "Without a keeper? Why don't you go home? This is your opportunity!"

"No," Thomas Ellwood answered proudly, "for our word, which we have given, is our keeper."

Next story ...>

In The Children's Story Garden. Stories collected by a committee of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting — Anna Pettit Broomell, Emily Cooper Johnson, Elizabeth W. Collins, Alice Hall Paxson, Annie Hillborn, and Anna D. White. Illustrated by Katharine Richardson Wireman and Eugénie M. Wireman. Published in 1920 by J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia.

Notes and links

Our Word is Our Keeper

Retold from Thomas Ellwood's Journal. (Historical Notes.)

Thomas Ellwood
The History of Thomas Ellwood Written by Himself is on the web, a Project Gutenberg EBook. For Ellwood's version of the above story, search the text for "William Turner" and the story follows.
Shortly before his imprisonment, Ellwood had become literary secretary to poet John Milton. His Quaker testimonies are said to have influenced Milton. For one treatment of the topic, see The Prophet Disarmed: Milton and the Quakers, by Steven Marx (Studies in English Literature 1500-1800, Winter 1992).