1780 – 1845
by Tony Wells
Elizabeth Fry was a deeply religious woman with great compassion for those in need. Horrified by conditions in her country’s prisons, she worked tirelessly to improve the lives of the female prisoners and by her example encouraged other women to broaden their horizons to lead lives outside of the home.
Born in Norwich, England on May 21, 1780 to wealthy Quaker parents, Elizabeth Gurney was the fourth of twelve children. As a child she was painfully shy and withdrawn often suffering ill health. As she grew up she looked for meaning to her life and became drawn to a deeper involvement in her religion.
In 1800 she married fellow Quaker Joseph Fry and the first of her eleven children was born the following year. But Elizabeth soon found that domesticity did not fulfill her and felt frustrated in her religious ambition and need to help others. Despite her many family commitments she became increasing involved with the Society of Friends (Quakers) and in 1811 was formally acknowledged by them as a minister.It was in 1813 that she first became involved with the cause to which she was to devote her life.
Alerted to conditions inside London’s notorious Newgate prison by visiting Quaker Stephen Grellet, Elizabeth was determined to see for herself. What she saw there appalled her. Three hundred women shared two rooms, sleeping on straw or hammocks. Unwashed and poorly clothed despite the freezing conditions, condemned women were living alongside young girls awaiting trial. Newborn babies lay abandoned and crying. Horrified by the sight of two women stripping a dead baby to clothe another, Elizabeth resolved to help, and aided by some Quaker friends arranged to clothe the babies. But with the demands of her growing family, it was to be a further four years before her prison work could begin in earnest.
On her next visit to Newgate in 1816, Elizabeth spoke personally with the prisoners. She was an incongruous figure amid the squalor of the prison but she was a charismatic speaker winning the trust of the women as she explained that she would need their co operation if she were to be able to help them.
In February 1817 she persuaded the skeptical authorities to allow her to set up a school in the prison for the children. It was a great success and following on from this she now planned to introduce a works program to provide useful work, skills and money for the female prisoners. Receiving little encouragement from the authorities she turned to members of her own sex for help. “The Association for the improvement of female prisoners in Newgate was constituted entirely of women and they set about raising funds for the works program. The women provided materials for the prisoners to make clothing and arranged for the sale of the finished items. The transformation this brought about in the demeanor and discipline of the prisoners so impressed the authorities that in 1818 Elizabeth was invited to give a report to the British Parliament, the first woman ever to do so. Here she took the opportunity to recommend that the women prisoners should have female only attendants.
Now a respected public figure, Elizabeth toured Britain, inspecting prisons, making recommendations for improvements and organizing local women’s visiting committees to oversee them. Related to her work with prisoners, Elizabeth also campaigned against the death penalty for less serious offenses and won important concessions for females sentenced to transportation to the penal colonies of Australia.
In 1828 the Fry’s banking business collapsed and Joseph Fry was made bankrupt. For a time Elizabeth’s popularity waned; at least in her own country. In fact she had become sidelined by her success, as the Prison Act of 1835, which she had done so much to bring about, had provided for Government inspectors of prisons, making it difficult for her to gain admission even to Newgate. But by now, news of her work had spread overseas.
In 1838 she embarked on the first of a series of exhausting tours of Europe, traveling throughout France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark, expanding her work on Prisons and campaigning alongside her husband and brother Joseph for the abolition of slavery, and appealing for religious tolerance. While in Germany she visited Pastor Fliedner’s school of nursing at Kaiserswerth, a working example of her dream that women could and should be leading “useful lives outside of the home.” On her return to England in 1840 and fired with a new enthusiasm to improve conditions in the hospitals, Elizabeth drew up plans for a nurses’ training school in London. A few of these “Fry nurses” would later work alongside Florence Nightingale, nursing wounded troops in the Crimean War.
Returning to France in 1843 Elizabeth had the satisfaction of seeing her reforms in place and her ladies’ committees all over the country visiting women in prison. It was the same story in Germany and Denmark. But by now Elizabeth’s health was failing and she was forced to cut back on her punishing commitments. Even now she continued to provide help where it was needed. While convalescing by the coast she noticed that the local fishermen were unemployed during the summer months. She held a service for them and organized a library and reading room where they could enjoy refreshments.
Despite her poor health she continued to travel to attend meetings and preach but now less and less frequently. She died on October 13, 1845 after a stroke.
Tony Wells has contributed fillers, letters and photographs to a variety of publications in his native England, but this is his first published full-length article. He was inspired to write about Elizabeth Fry as she was born just a stone’s throw from the office where he toils at his day job as a planning engineer for a telecommunications company