“Oh! no, no, (exclaimed Sophia) I cannot go to Newgate; I shall not be able to support the sight of my Augustus in so cruel a confinement — my feelings are sufficiently shocked by the recital of his Distress, but to behold it will overpower my Sensibility.”
Jane Austen, Love and Freindship
Elizabeth (Betsy) Fry (21 May 1780 – 12 October 1845), née Gurney, was an English prison reformer, social reformer and, as a Quaker, a Christian philanthropist. She has sometimes been referred to as the “angel of prisons”.
Fry was a major driving force behind new legislation to make the treatment of prisoners more humane, and she was supported in her efforts by the reigning monarch. Since 2001, she has been depicted on the Bank of England £5 note.
Elizabeth (Betsy) Gurney was born in Gurney Court, off Magdalen Street, Norwich, Norfolk, England to a Quaker family. Her family home as a child was Earlham Hall, which is now part of the University of East Anglia.Her father, John Gurney, was a partner in Gurney’s bank. Her mother, Catherine, was a part of the Barclay family, who were among the founders of Barclays Bank. Her mother died when Elizabeth was only twelve years old. As one of the oldest girls in the family, Elizabeth was partly responsible for the care and training of the younger children, including her brother Joseph John Gurney, a philanthropist. One of her sisters was Louisa Gurney Hoare (1784–1836), a writer on education.
At the age of 18, young Elizabeth was deeply moved by the preaching of William Savery, an American Quaker. Motivated by his words, she took an interest in the poor, the sick, and the prisoners. She collected old clothes for the poor, visited those who were sick in her neighbourhood, and started a Sunday school in the summer house to teach children to read.
She met Joseph Fry (1777–1861), a banker and also a Quaker, when she was twenty years old. They married on 19 August 1800 at the Norwich Goat Lane Friends Meeting House and moved to St Mildred’s Court in the City of London. Elizabeth Fry was recorded as a Minister of the Religious Society of Friends in 1811.
Joseph and Elizabeth Fry lived in Plashet House in East Ham between 1809 and 1829, then moved to Upton Lane in Forest Gate. They had eleven children, five sons and six daughters.
Prompted by a family friend, Stephen Grellet, Fry visited Newgate prison in 1813. The conditions she saw there horrified her. The women’s section was overcrowded with women and children, some of whom had not even received a trial. They did their own cooking and washing in the small cells in which they slept on straw. Elizabeth Fry wrote in the book Prisons in Scotland and the North of England that she actually stayed the nights in some of the prisons and invited nobility to come and stay and see for themselves the conditions prisoners lived in. Her kindness helped her gain the friendship of the prisoners and they began to try to improve their conditions for themselves.
She returned the following day with food and clothes for some of the prisoners. She was unable to further her work for nearly four years because of difficulties within the Fry family, including financial difficulties in the Fry bank. Fry returned in 1816 and was eventually able to found a prison school for the children who were imprisoned with their parents. She began a system of supervision and required the women to sew and to read the Bible. In 1817 she helped found the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. This led to the eventual creation of the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners, widely described by biographers and historians as constituting the first “nationwide” women’s organization in Britain.
Thomas Fowell Buxton, Fry’s brother-in-law, was elected to Parliament for Weymouth and began to promote her work among his fellow MPs. In 1818 Fry gave evidence to a House of Commons committee on the conditions prevalent in British prisons, becoming the first woman to present evidence in Parliament.
Elizabeth Fry also helped the homeless, establishing a “nightly shelter” in London after seeing the body of a young boy in the winter of 1819/1820. In 1824, during a visit to Brighton, she instituted the Brighton District Visiting Society. The society arranged for volunteers to visit the homes of the poor and provide help and comfort to them. The plan was successful and was duplicated in other districts and towns across Britain.
After her husband went bankrupt in 1828, Fry’s brother became her business manager and benefactor. Thanks to him her work went on and expanded.
In 1840 Fry opened a training school for nurses. Her programme inspired Florence Nightingale, who took a team of Fry’s nurses to assist wounded soldiers in the Crimean War.
Fry became well known in society. Some people criticized her for having such an influential role as a woman. Others alleged that she was neglecting her duties as a wife and mother in order to conduct her humanitarian work. One admirer was Queen Victoria, who granted her an audience a few times and contributed money to her cause. Another admirer was Robert Peel who passed several acts to further her cause including the Gaols Act 1823 (unfortunately this act did not have much enforcement as most laws of this kind were at the time)
Following her death in 1845, a meeting chaired by the Lord Mayor of London, resolved that it would be fitting “to found an asylum to perpetuate the memory of Mrs Fry and further the benevolent objects to which her life had been devoted.” A fine 18th century town house was purchased at 195 Mare Street, in the London Borough of Hackney and the first Elizabeth Fry refuge opened its doors in 1849. Funding came via subscriptions from various city companies and private individuals, supplemented by income from the inmates’ laundry and needlework. Such training was an important part of the refuge’s work. In 1924, the refuge merged with the Manor House Refuge for the Destitute, in Dalston in Hackney, becoming a hostel for girls on probation for minor offences. The hostel soon moved to larger premises in Highbury, Islington and then, in 1958, to Reading, where it remains today.
Elizabeth Fry died from a stroke in Ramsgate, England, on 12 October 1845. Her remains were buried in the Friends’ burial ground at Barking. On this occasion, the Seamen of the Ramsgate Coast Guard flew their flag at half mast in respect of Mrs Fry; a practice reserved officially for the death of a ruling monarch.More than a thousand people stood in silence during the burial.