Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Gurney was born in Norwich on 21st May, 1780. Elizabeth was the daughter of John Gurney, a successful businessman and a prominent member of the Society of Friends. He was a partner in the famous Gurney Bank and an owner of a woolstapling and spinning factory. Elizabeth's mother, Catherine Gurney, was a member of the Barclay banking family and was also a devout Quaker. She was very involved in charity work and spent part of each day helping the poor of the district. Catherine also insisted that her children spent two hours a day in silent worship.

Soon after having her twelfth child, Catherine Gurney became very ill. When Mrs. Gurney died, Elizabeth was only twelve years old but as one of the eldest girls, was expected to help bring up her younger brothers and sisters. This included Joseph Gurney and Hannah Gurney, the future wife of the anti-slavery campaigner, Thomas Fowell Buxton.

As a young woman Elizabeth was friendly with Amelia Alderson. Amelia's father was a member of the Corresponding Society group that advocated universal suffrage and annual parliaments. At the Alderson home Elizabeth was introduced to the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft, Tom Paine and William Godwin. For a while she became a republican and rode through Norwich with a tricolor in her hat.

When Elizabeth was eighteen she heard the American Quaker, William Savery, preach in Norwich. Elizabeth begged her father to invite Savery to dinner. Afterwards she wrote: "Today I felt there is a God. I loved the man as if he was almost sent from heaven - we had much serious talk and what he said to me was like a refreshing shower on parched up earth."

After meeting William Savery, Elizabeth decided to devote her energies to helping those in need. Over the next few years she collected old clothes for the poor, visited the sick and and set up a Sunday School in her house where she taught local children to read. Elizabeth Fry was also appointed the committee responsible for running the Society of Friends school at Ackworth. She also visited Joseph Lancaster, a Quaker who ran a school for poor children in London.

In July 1799, Elizabeth was introduced to Joseph Fry, the son of a successful merchant from Essex. Fry was also a Quaker and the two married on 19th August 1800. Elizabeth now had to leave Norwich and went to live in Joseph Fry's family home in Plashet (now East Ham in London). Between 1800 and 1812 Elizabeth gave birth to eight children. Elizabeth remained committed to her religious beliefs and in March, 1811 became a preacher for the Society of Friends. Later that year, Elizabeth attended the inaugural meeting of the British & Foreign Bible Society.

In 1813 a friend of the Fry family, Stephen Grellet, visited Newgate Prison. Grellet was deeply shocked by what he saw but was informed that the conditions in the women's section was even worse. When Grellet asked to see this part of the prison, he was advised against entering the women's yard as they were so unruly they would probably do him some physical harm. Grellet insisted and was appalled by the suffering that he saw.

When Grellet told Elizabeth Fry about the way women were treated in Newgate, she decided that she must visit the prison. Fry discovered 300 women and their children, huddled together in two wards and two cells. Although some of the women had been found guilty of crimes, others will still waiting to be tried. The female prisoners slept on the floor without nightclothes or bedding. The women had to cook, wash and sleep in the same cell. Afterwards she wrote that the "swearing, gaming, fighting, singing and dancing were too bad to be described".

Elizabeth Fry began to visit the women of Newgate Prison on a regular basis. She supplied them with clothes and established a school and a chapel in the prison. Later she introduced a system of supervision that was administered by matrons and monitors. The women now had compulsory sewing duties and Bible reading.

Elizabeth combined prison visiting with her role as wife and mother. Three more children were born over the next few years and she also had to endure the pain of the death of her five year old daughter, Betsy. In 1817 Elizabeth Fry and eleven other Quakers, formed the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. Her brother-in-law, Thomas Fowell Buxton was a member and the following year he published An Inquiry into Prison Discipline, a book based on his investigations of Newgate Prison.

In 1818 Thomas Fowell Buxton was elected as MP for Weymouth and was now in a position to promote Fry's work in the House of Commons. In one speech Buxton pointed out that there were 107,000 people in British prisons, a "a number greater than that of all the other kingdoms of Europe put together."

Elizabeth Fry was invited to give evidence to a House of Commons Committee on London Prisons. She told them how women slept thirty to a room in Newgate Prison, "each with a space of about six feet by two to herself". As she pointed out: "old and young, hardened offenders with those who had committed only a minor offence or their first crime; the lowest of women with respectable married women and maid-servants".

Although the MPs were impressed with Fry's work, they strongly disapproved of some of her comments such as her view that "capital punishment was evil and produced evil results". The vast majority of the members of the House of Commons fully supported the system where criminals could be executed for over 200 offences, such as stealing clothes or passing a forged banknote.

In February 1817 Charlotte Newman and Mary Ann James were sentenced to death for forgery. Fry campaigned to have women prisoners reprived but she was unable to save them from the gallows. The following month she took up the case of Harriet Skelton, one of her favourite prisoners. Skelton, a maidservant to a solicitor, had passed forged banknotes under pressure from her husband. Fry and her brother, Joseph Gurney, visited Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, and pleaded for her life. Sidmouth rejected their arguments and insisted the execution went ahead. In the House of Commons Sidmouth warned that Fry and other reformers were dangerous people as they trying to "remove the dread of punishment in the criminal classes."

Lord Sidmouth rejected Fry's criticism of the British prison system. However, his successor as Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, was much more sympathetic, and introduced a series of reforms including the 1823 Gaols Act. As a result of the legislation introduced by Peel, there were regular visits from prison chaplains, gaolers were paid (before they were dependent on fees from the prisoners) and women warders were put in charge of women prisoners.

The problem with Peel's reforms is that they did not apply to debtors' prisons or local town gaols. Fry and Joseph Gurney now went on a tour of British prisons in order to obtain the evidence needed to persuade the government to introduce further legislation. At Aberdeen, the county gaol was housed in an ancient, square tower. In the woman's room, which measured fifteen feet by eight, they found five women and a sick child. At Newcastle-upon-Tyne, prisoners had no space to exercise. In Glasgow, Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds, York and Liverpool, Fry found conditions as bad, if not worse, than Newgate. After their tour, Fry and Gurney, published a report of what they found in their book, Prisons in Scotland and the North of England.

By the 1820s Elizabeth Fry had become a well-known personality in Britain. It was extremely unusual for a woman to be consulted by men for her professional knowledge. Fry was strongly criticised for playing this role and she was attacked in the press for neglecting her home and family.

In 1824 Fry took a holiday in Brighton where she was shocked by the large number of beggars in the street. She investigated the situation and discovered considerable poverty in the town. Fry decided to form the Brighton District Visiting Society. The plan was to establish a team of voluntary visitors who would go into the homes of the poor where they would provide help and comfort. The scheme was a great success and soon there were District Visiting Societies in towns all over Britain.

In November, 1828, Joseph Fry was declared bankrupt. Although not involved in her husband's business dealings, the bankrupcy affected her good name. In the past subscriptions to the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate had been sent to Fry's Bank. Rumours began to circulate that some of this money had been used by Joseph Fry to help solve his financial problems. Although totally untrue, for a time these stories damaged the reputation of both Elizabeth Fry and the charities she was involved in. Elizabeth's brother, Joseph Gurney, took over Fry's business interests and made arrangements for all debtors to be paid.

Elizabeth Fry by Charles Robert Leslie (c. 1830)
Elizabeth Fry by Charles Robert Leslie (c. 1830)

Joseph Gurney also arranged for Elizabeth to receive £1600 a year and this enabled her to continue her charity work. Although prison reform was her main concern she also campaigned for the homeless in London and improvements in the way patients were treated in mental asylums. Fry also promoted the reform of workhouses and hospitals.

Fry also became concerned about the quality of nursing staff. In 1840 she started a training school for nurses in Guy's Hospital. Fry nurses wore their own uniform and were expected to tend to their patients spiritual, as well as their physical needs. Florence Nightingale wrote to Fry to explain how she had been influenced by her views on the training of nurses. Later, when Nightingale went to the Crimean War, she took a group of Fry nurses with her to look after the sick and wounded soldiers.

Queen Victoria took a close interest in her work and the two women met several times. Victoria gave her money to help with her charitable work. In her journal, Victoria wrote that she considered Fry a "very superior person". It is claimed that Victoria, who was forty years younger than Elizabeth Fry, might have modelled herself on this woman who successfully combined the roles of mother and public figure.

After a short illness, Elizabeth Fry died on 12th October, 1845. Although Quakers do not have a funeral service, over a thousand people stood in silence as she was buried at the Society of Friend's graveyard at Barking.

Primary Sources

(1) Elizabeth Fry, letter to three of her children, John (9), William (7) and her daughter Richenda (5), written on 13th February, 1813.

I have lately been twice to Newgate to see after the poor prisoners who had poor little infants without clothing, or with very little and I think if you saw how small a piece of bread they are each allowed a day you would be very sorry.

I could not help thinking, when there, what sorrow and trouble those who do wrong, and they have not the satisfaction and comfort of feeling among all their trials, that they have endeavoured to do their duty.

I hope, if you should live to grow up, you will endeavour to be very useful and not spend all your time in pleasing yourself.

(2) Elizabeth Fry, journal entry (24th February, 1817)

I have lately been occupied in forming a school in Newgate for the children of the poor prisoners as well as the young criminals, which has brought much peace and satisfaction with it; but my mind has also been deeply affected in attending a poor woman who was executed this morning. I visited her twice; this event has brought me into much feeling by some distressingly nervous sensations in the night, so that this has been a time of deep humiliation to me, this witnessing the effect of the consequences of sin. The poor creature murdered her baby; and how inexpressibly awful now to have her life taken away.

(3) In her journal, Elizabeth Fry described a visit the Quaker school at Ackworth.

Ackworth: 1st, August, 1799: We dined with a very large party in the boy's dining-room at the school. We examined the bedrooms, which I thought in good order, and talked a little to Hannah Barnard. The writing, ciphering, working, mending, spinning, knitting and sewing, all which I liked much, and thought upon the whole they did very well indeed. I went to hear the girls spell, which I was pleased with, but should have liked to have questioned them more myself.

(4) In 1821 the daughter of Elizabeth Fry wrote about the speech in the House of Commons on capital punishment given by her brother-in-law, Thomas Fowell Buxton.

On 23rd May, Sir James Mackintosh brought forward his motion, "for mitigating the severity of punishment in certain cases of forgery". It was on this occasion that Mr. Buxton delivered his admirable speech upon capital punishment. Many were convinced by his arguments; based as they were upon incontrovertible facts, varied calculations, and unquestionable evidence. some had taken their seats, indifferent as to the question at issue, his warm appeal to their humanity, and the responsibility of legislating for the lives of thousands, without having weighed the merits of the case, or considered the practical effects of punishment, aroused them from their apathy; others from a dread of change, and a certain sort of adherence to the opinions of a party, unconnected with the merits or demerits of the opinions themselves, were startled by the delicate irony, with which he showed the impracticability of the laws.

(5) The Gentleman's Magazine (20th August, 1820)

The numerous family and large domestic establishment of Mrs Fry are properly conducted with the utmost propriety. Nor does her zeal in the holy cause of humanity ever lead her to infringe on those domestic duties which every female is called upon conscientiously to fulfil.

(6) Elizabeth Fry, journal entry (24th February, 1817)

Newgate Prison and myself are becoming quite a show, which is a very serious thing. I believe that it certainly does much good to the cause in spreading amongst all ranks of society a considerable interest in the subject, also a knowledge of the Society of Friends and of their principles.

(7) John Randolph, American Envoy to England (February, 1819)

I have seen Elizabeth Fry in Newgate and I have witnessed there miraculous effects of true Christianity upon the most depraved of human beings.

(8) Elizabeth Fry, Observations on the Visiting, Superintendance and Government of Female Prisoners (1827)

No person will deny the importance attached to the character and conduct of a woman in all her domestic and social relations, when she is filling the station of a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother or a mistress of a family. But it is dangerous error to suppose that the duties of females end here. During the last ten years much attention has been successfully bestowed by women on the female inmates of our prisons. But a similar care is evidently needed for our hospitals, our lunatic asylums and our workhouses. Were ladies to make a practice of regularly visiting them, a most important check would be obtained on a variety of abuses, which are far too apt to creep into the management of these establishments.

(9) Elizabeth Fry, evidence to the House of Lords (22nd May, 1835)

I feel it to be the bounden duty of the Government and the country that those truths (in the Bible) should be administered in the manner most likely to conduce to the real reformation of the prisoners for though severe punishment may, in a measure, deter them and others from crime, it does not amend and change the heart.

(10) In 1848 two of Elizabeth Fry's daughters collected together her papers and published them as The Memoir of the Life of Elizabeth Fry. The book included an account of a visit to Brighton in 1824.

During her stay at Brighton, Mrs. Fry was often distressed by the multitude of applicants for relief. This was not confined to beggars by profession, who infested the streets, following carriages and foot passengers with clamorous importunity, but extended to the resident poor, many of whom had obtained the habit of asking assistance to the houses, not only of the inhabitants, but the visitors to the place. It was difficult for the former, but almost impossible for the latter, to discover the true state of the case, whether their poverty was real or assumed. Mrs. Fry established the Brighton District Society. The object of the Society were stated to be, "The encouragement of industry and frugality among the poor, by visits at their own inhabitations; the relief of real distress, whether arising from sickness or other causes; and the prevention.