Elizabeth Gurney was born in Norwich, England in 1780 to an influential and extremely wealthy Quaker family. Her father, John Gurney, was a partner in Gurney’s Bank, and her mother Catherine was from the Barclay family, founders of Barclays Bank.
In 1798, when only 18, Elizabeth heard the preaching of American Quaker William Savery, who spoke on the importance of solving poverty and injustice. Almost immediately she began what was to become her life’s work with visiting the sick in her local community, collecting for the poor, and teaching children how to read.
Her marriage in 1800 to fellow Quaker Joseph Fry (a tea dealer in London who eventually became a partner in Gurney’s Bank) and eventual birth of eleven children does not appear to have slowed her down. By 1811 she was recorded as a Quaker minister, traveling and preaching while raising her children and tirelessly aiding several charitable causes.
Yet it was her first visit to Newgate Prison in 1813 that cemented her future passion. She observed the terrible conditions of some 300 women prisoners and their children in horror, returning literally the following day with food and clothing.
“All I tell thee is a faint picture of reality; the filth, the closeness of the rooms, the furious manner and expressions of the women towards each other, and the abandoned wickedness, which everything bespoke are really indescribable.” ~Elizabeth Fry
Initially, using her position in Society to great influence, Elizabeth appealed to people in her middle-class community to donate goods, visit Newgate themselves to offer comfort and help with tasks such as sewing, and to teach basic skills and the Bible. By 1817, Elizabeth’s dedication to the cause coalesced into the creation of the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners, which was the first nationwide women’s organization in Britain. Along with a group of twelve other women, they lobbied authorities for serious prison reform.
The reforms advocated by Elizabeth Fry had three core ingredients:
- Male and female prisoners had to be accommodated separately and guards had to be of the same gender as the prisoners.
- Arrangements for regular visits to female prisoners must be established and, in addition, the volunteers had to take care of education, paid work and support after their clients left prison.
- Prisoners were to have opportunities for education and paid work.
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.” ~Elizabeth Fry, journal entry February 24, 1817
On the 27th of February in 1818, Elizabeth Fry became the first woman to testify before a Parliamentary Commission. However, as noteworthy as her appearance is to history, the opinions from the House of Commons members were mixed. Universally they were impressed with her testimony and charitable work, but not in complete agreement with her social views, particularly her disapproval of capital punishment. Nevertheless, it was a momentous first step in what was to come. Newspapers began covering and hailing her advocacy, so much so that Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, met with Elizabeth in April 1818. This, not surprisingly, led to massive news coverage and subsequent assistance with her work.
Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary successor to the unsympathetic Lord Sidmouth, did agree with Fry’s stance and he introduced a series of prison reforms. The 1823 Gaols Act introduced by Peel dealt with most of the key reforms advocated by Fry and the Association, but as with most such legislation, there were faults. For instance, the reforms did not apply to debtors’ prisons or local town gaols.
“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.” ~Elizabeth Fry, evidence to the House of Lords May 22, 1835
Elizabeth Fry would spend the rest of her life, until her death from a stroke in 1845 at the age of 65, working for the reform of prisons throughout England. In fact, her efforts to aid females and children suffering from every sort of difficulty reached beyond prison walls, and even beyond the British shores.
- In 1820 she established a night shelter in London for homeless women and children.
- She formed societies to minister to vagrant families.
- She was involved in investigating and proposing reforms in mental asylums.
- For 25 years she visited every convict ship leaving for Australia, promoting the reform of the convict ship system.
- She worked to improve nursing standards and in 1840 established a nursing school which influenced her distant relative, Florence Nightingale.
- She worked to establish schools to educate working women.
- Several soup kitchens were established by her and the Association.
- The Brighton District Visiting Society she established in 1824 to arrange volunteers to assist the poor was so popular it was copied throughout England.
- In 1825 she published a short but influential book, Observations of the Siting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners. It gave concrete, explicit detail for operating penal regimes.
Queen Victoria took a close interest in her work and the two women met several times. The Queen gave money to help with Fry’s charitable work, and in her journal, Queen Victoria wrote that she considered Fry a “very superior person.”
Although Quakers do not hold a funeral service, over a thousand people stood in silence as Elizabeth Fry was buried at the Society of Friend’s graveyard at Barking. After Elizabeth’s death in 1845, the Lord Mayor of London convened a meeting at which it was decided to found an institute for ex-prisoners in her memory. It was named The Elizabeth Fry Refuge. In 1925 it was reconstituted as a charitable organization and became a hostel for women on probation, which in 1949 was officially approved by the Home Office. It moved to Reading in 1962 where the work continues in her memory.