(1780 - 1845)
Elizabeth Fry was a Quaker who became famous for her work to reform the prison system in Britain in the early nineteenth century. By her example she inspired other women to play a fuller role in society: it was unusual for women to have a voice outside the home. It was also unusual for a Quaker to be so prominent, because at that time the Quaker movement was going through a 'quietist' phase, and was very inward looking.
It was not unusual, however, for a Quaker to be concerned about the welfare of prisoners, because prison reform has always been important to Quakers. The early Quakers were put in prison for their beliefs and so they saw for themselves the dreadful conditions inside the prisons. They feel that there is something of God in everyone, even in people who have committed crimes, so the aim of putting people in prison should be to try to reform them, and not just to punish them. A century before Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker John Bellers (1654 - 1725) was one of the first publicly to call for the abolition of the death penalty.
Elizabeth Fry was born on 21 May 1780, the third child of Joseph Gurney, a wealthy Quaker manufacturer, and his wife Catherine. Among the 'plain Quakers' of Goat Lane Meeting in Norwich, the Gurney family stood out because of their bright clothes and fashionable manners. At that time most Quakers were 'plain Quakers' who wore simple clothes without trimmings, and still used 'thee' and 'thou' when they spoke to people, because they believed that everyone was equal before God. (In early English 'thee' was used when talking to one person, 'you' for more than one person; gradually 'thee' became used when talking to children, servants, and social inferiors, and 'you' to parents, employers, and people of higher rank.) Elizabeth (Betsy) and her sisters often shocked the other Quakers because they did not attend meeting for worship as they should, and wore bright colours and silk gowns. One day Betsy and her sisters stopped the mail coach by holding hands across the road - definitely not the kind of behaviour that Quakers expected!
Throughout her life, Betsy kept a diary. We know that she thought her mother was the most important influence on her life. Catherine Gurney believed that girls should be educated as well as boys, so Betsy learnt history, geography, French and Latin, unlike most girls of her time. Catherine also told her children Bible stories and read to them from the Psalms. When Catherine visited and helped the sick and poor in the district, Betsy loved to go with her mother. She was devastated when her mother died, when she was twelve.
Her diary recorded going to meeting for worship on 4 February, 1798, (wearing purple boots with scarlet laces!). She heard William Savery, an American Quaker, speak in meeting for worship. Later that day she went to dine at her uncle 's house, and was deeply impressed by William Savery, 'a truly good man' she wrote. 'I have felt there is a GOD', and she began to understand true worship.
But she also felt very confused, as she did not want to become a plain Quaker. During the next year she visited London where she had the chance to meet William Savery again. While she was in London she also visited the theatre and went to operas. She found herself wondering whether it was right to enjoy them, 'I think them so artificial'. She felt much more comfortable in the company of her cousin Priscilla Hannah Gurney, a plain Friend, whom she visited in Coalbrookdale. There she also visited the famous iron foundry owned by the Darby family, and met Deborah Darby, another plain Friend who was well known for her preaching. Betsy was very moved - and rather alarmed - in a meeting for worship when Deborah Darby spoke about what she would become in future, 'a light to the blind, speech to the dumb and feet to the lame'.
Betsy now knew that it was right for her to become a plain Friend, but it was not easy for her, because her family were not very sympathetic. They did not want to hear her views on religion. Gradually, Betsy began to speak like a plain Friend, using 'thee' and 'thou'. She found this helpful because it made her think before she spoke and stopped her from being too trivial in her conversation. It also began to set her apart from her family. When it was time for her to have new clothes made, she had them made in the simple style of a plain Quaker. Wearing plain dress made it easier for her, because it clearly signalled to other people the decision she had made. She did not have to choose whether it was right or wrong to attend social events, because people stopped inviting her. They realised that other things were now more important to her.
Throughout her life, she struggled with her faith. She was not a great mystic, though prayer was a source of strength, but found it easier to be very practical. This led her to make great efforts to help other people. She started by running a Sunday school, in the laundry at the family home in Earlham. The children - many already working in Norwich factories - to whom she told Bible stories, and taught to read and write, were called 'Betsy's imps' by her sisters.
In the summer of 1799, Joseph Fry visited the family. He admired Betsy and asked her to marry him but at first she refused him. Joseph was a plain Friend, shy, and seemed very dull to her. However, she came to love him, and on 18 August 1800 they were married. Joseph Fry may have been dull, but she was fortunate to find a husband in those days who was willing for his wife to take up work outside the home and who supported her in the things she did.
The Fry family were wealthy tea, coffee and spice merchants, who later opened a bank as well. Betsy and Joseph spent the earliest days of their marriage surrounded by relations - first staying with his parents and then living in London in the building which also housed the warehouse. Betsy did not find it easy to get on with her new relations as they criticised her manner and, perhaps, felt that she wasn't 'plain' enough. Joseph once told her that he thought her manners 'had too much the courtier about them'. However, by the time her father-in-law died, she had become close to him.
The first child, Katherine, was born in August 1801. Over the next twenty years Betsy gave birth to another eleven children. Constant child bearing and the demands of a large family ruined the health of many women in those days, so Betsy was fortunate to have the help of many servants and also of her sisters. Like many women, at times Betsy felt her life was being taken over by motherhood. She loved her children and missed them when away, but wrote in her diary that she feared she might become 'the careworn and oppressed mother'. So she began to visit the Islington Workhouse (providing shelter and work for the destitute) to teach the children, and became more active in the business of the Society of Friends. She became respected for her spoken ministry and began to travel long distances to Meetings for Worship.
In 1812 she wrote in her diary 'I fear that my life is slipping away to little purpose'. Not long afterwards, Stephen Grellet came to see her to ask for help. He was a French aristocrat who had gone into exile because of the French Revolution. In America he had become a Quaker. While visiting Britain he had been given permission to visit some prisons, and had been horrified by the conditions he had seen in the women's prison in Newgate. He found prisoners lying on the bare stone floors, and some newborn babies without clothing. He went to Elizabeth Fry, who immediately sent out for warm material and asked other women Friends to help her make clothes for the babies.
The next day she went with her sister-in-law to Newgate prison. At first the turnkeys did not want to let her in as the women prisoners were wild and savage, but physical danger did not frighten her, in the way that public speaking and audiences did. Elizabeth and her sister-in-law did go in, and were very shocked at the conditions they found there - particularly when they saw two women stripping the clothes off a dead baby to give them to another child. They gave out the warm clothes for the babies and comforted the ill prisoners. Next day they returned with more warm clothes and with clean straw for the sick to lie on. On a third visit she prayed for the prisoners, who were moved by her sincere words of love for them.
Although she could not forget what she had seen in Newgate, she was unable to visit it for another four years for family reasons, including the financial difficulties of the Fry bank, the birth of two more children and the death of their daughter Betsy, aged four. Eventually she returned before Christmas in 1816. When she went in some of the women were fighting, and the turnkeys thought she would be in real danger. She went in calmly and, picking up a child, asked the mothers 'Is there not something we can do for these innocent little children?' She spoke to them as a mother herself, without fear. The women prisoners recognised her concern for them and began to listen. She suggested they might start a school for the children to give them a better chance in life. The prisoners suggested one of themselves to be the teacher and went on discussing the plan after she had gone. When she returned the next day she found a waiting crowd who had tried to tidy and clean the prison and themselves.
Elizabeth tried to get backing for her prison school, but her wealthy brothers-in-law who she turned to at first did not think it could work. Then she turned to women and set up a committee of twelve women - eleven Quakers and the wife of a clergyman. With her husband's help she invited the prison governor and other officials to discuss her plan. At first the governor did not think her plan could work, but then he attended a Meeting at the prison and was so impressed with the behaviour of the women prisoners that he agreed to the school.
The Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate not only organised a school for the children, they arranged for a woman to be appointed as matron to supervise the prisoners, and promised to pay her wages. They also provided materials so that the prisoners could sew, knit and make goods for sale, in order to buy food, clothing and fresh straw for bedding. They took it in turns to visit the prison each day and to read from the Bible, believing that hearing the Bible had the power to reform people. When they applied to the Corporation of London for funding for the school, the Lord Mayor of London came to hear Elizabeth reading the Bible to the prisoners, and he agreed to pay part of the matron's wages.
This was the start of a period of Elizabeth Fry's life when she had extraordinary influence for a woman of her day. In 1818 she was asked to give evidence to a Committee of the House of Common on London prisons, the first woman to do so. Her experience of Quaker Business Meetings meant she was able to give her evidence clearly and well. She described in detail the lives of the prisoners, and recommended that women, not men, should look after women prisoners, and stressed her belief in the importance of useful employment.
One area where she made important changes was in the treatment of prisoners sentenced to transportation to the colonies. One day in 1818 when she visited the prison she found some of the prisoners were about to riot because the next day they would be taken in 'irons' (hand- and ankle-cuffs and chains), on open wagons, to the ships that would carry them to Australia. Elizabeth Fry arranged for them to be taken in closed carriages to protect them from the stones and jeers of the crowds, and promised to go with them to the docks. In the five weeks before the ships actually sailed, the ladies of the Association visited daily, and provided each prisoner with a 'useful bag' of things the prisoners would need. They made patchwork quilts on the voyage, which were sold on arrival to provide some income. During the next twenty years she regularly visited the convict ships: in all 106 came under her care.
As well as her work with prisoners, Elizabeth Fry set up District Visiting Societies to work with the poor, libraries for coastguards and a training school for nurses. When a small boy was found frozen to death near her home, she set up another Ladies Committee to offer hot soup and a bed to homeless women and children.
Her work became very well known. After a trip to Scotland with her brother Joseph John Gurney, he published Notes on a visit to some of the prisons in Scotland and the north of England with Elizabeth Fry. In 1827 she herself published a book called Observations, on the visiting, superintendence and government of female prisoners which included a call from her for more opportunities for women. She ended the book by strongly condemning the death penalty.
News of what she had achieved at Newgate led to the setting up of Ladies Committees in other towns in Britain and in Europe. Some ladies at the Russian court set up a committee to visit prisoners. She also attracted the interest of Queen Victoria who made a donation of £50 and later gave Elizabeth Fry a royal 'audience' (interview). Towards the end of her life she travelled in Europe and visited some of the royal families, talking with them about her work. The King of Prussia even visited her at home and dined with her.
At various times she faced criticism. Sometimes the prisoners complained because they had lost their entertainment - they could no longer drink, gamble or read novels. The local authorities grumbled becaused the new Prison Act of 1823 (which contained several ideas of Elizabeth's) meant that they had to spend more money on prisons. Some authorities refused to allow ladies to visit their prisons because they did not want them meddling. She was especially sensitive to the criticism from Friends who thought that she valued public esteem too much, and that she was neglecting her family. Some of her children married non-Quakers, in fact only one of her children remained a Quaker. In 1828 Fry's Bank crashed, which led to her husband being 'disowned' (excluded from membership) by the Society of Friends beause he had put other people's money at risk. Elizabeth was accused by some of the public of using money from her husband's bank for her charitable work. She felt the disapproval of Friends and others very much. The mood of the country was changing, too, and when she gave evidence in 1832 to another House of Commons Committee they chose to ignore what she had to say about the damaging effects of solitary confinement.
Like all human beings, Elizabeth Fry had her faults but, nonetheless, she achieved a great deal. In Prison pioneer June Rose says:
'Through her personal courage and involvement, Elizabeth Fry alerted the nations of Europe to the cruelty and filth in the prisons and revealed the individual human faces behind the prison bars. Her own passionate desire to lead a useful life disturbed the placid, vapid existence of women in Victorian England and changed forever the confines of respectable femininity. The name of Elizabeth Fry broadened the appeal of the Quaker faith . . . Over two hundred years after her birth, she seems a brave and modern woman, battling with the injustices of her time.'
Elizabeth Fry, June Rose, QHS (1994) (paper back, 218 pages)
This is the standard, modern biography of Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer. In a vivid account of her activities and character, it gives a full and rounded picture of her life including her shortcomings. Based on Elizabeth Fry's diaries and other original material.
Prison pioneer The story of Elizabeth Fry, June Rose, Quaker Tapestry Booklets (1994), (32 pages)
A lively account by the author of the standard biography.
Friend of prisoners The story of Elizabeth Fry, Geoffrey Hanks, RMEP (1981), (30 pages)
One of the Faith in action series of biographies, for secondary students.
Elizabeth Fry, Angela Bull, Hamish Hamilton (1987), (61 pages)
one of the Profiles biographies, for older primary pupils.
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