Elizabeth Fry was one of Britain's most influential 19th century social reformers and is best known for her work on improving the conditions of Britain's gaols. Because of her work, first on the treatment of female prisoners at Newgate Prison and then more generally on the conditions in British and European gaols, she has often been referred to as the "angel of prisons".
Elizabeth was born on May 21st 1780 in Gurney Court, off Magdalen Street, Norwich, Norfolk, England into a prominent Quaker family, the Gurneys. Her father, John Gurney (1749–1809), was a partner in Gurney's Bank. Her mother, Catherine, was a member of the Barclay family who were among the founders of Barclays Bank. Her mother died when Elizabeth was twelve years old so as one of the oldest girls in the family, she was partly responsible for the care and education of the younger children.
She married Joseph Fry, who was also a Quaker, in August 1800 at the Norwich Goat Lane Friends Meeting House and moved to St Mildred's Court in the City of London. In 1811 she was recorded as a minister of the Religious Society of Friends.
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. The prisoners did their own cooking and washing in the small cells in which they slept on straw.
She returned the following day with food and clothes for some prisoners. She was unable to personally 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 fund a prison school for the children who were imprisoned with their mothers. Rather than attempt to impose discipline on the women, she suggested rules and then asked the prisoners to vote on them. In 1817 she helped found the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. This association provided materials for women so that they could learn to sew patchwork which was calming and also allowed skills to develop, such as needlework and knitting which could offer employment when they were out of prison and then could earn money for themselves. This approach was copied elsewhere and led to the eventual creation of the British Ladies' Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners in 1821. She also promoted the idea of rehabilitation instead of harsh punishment which was taken on by the city authorities in London as well as many other authorities and prisons.
Elizabeth Fry also campaigned for the rights and welfare of prisoners who were being transported. The women of Newgate Prison were taken through the streets of London in open carts, often in chains, huddled together with their few possessions. They were pelted with rotten food and filth by the people of the city. The fear was often enough to make women condemned to transportation riot on the evening before. Fry's first action was to persuade the Governor of Newgate prison to send the women in closed carriages and spare them this last indignity before transportation. She visited prison ships and persuaded captains to implement systems to ensure each woman and child would at least get a share of food and water on the long journey. Later she arranged each woman to be given scraps of material and sewing tools so that they could use the long journey to make quilts and have something to sell as well as useful skills when they reached their destination. She also included a bible and useful items such as string and knives and forks in this vital care package. Elizabeth Fry visited 106 transport ships and saw 12,000 convicts. Her work helped to start a movement for the abolition of transportation. Transportation was officially abolished in 1837, however Elizabeth Fry was still visiting transportation ships until 1843.
Fry wrote in her book Prisons in Scotland and the North of England that she stayed the night 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. 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.
Her humanitarian work didn’t stop at prisons. For example, she helped the homeless, establishing a "nightly shelter" in London after seeing the body of a young boy in the winter of 1819/1820. She also campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade and 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.
Her work gained her admiration from people in high places. One such was Queen Victoria, who granted her an audience a few times before she was Queen and contributed money to her cause after she ascended to the throne. Another admirer was Robert Peel who passed several acts to further her cause including the Gaols Act 1823. The act was however largely ineffective, because there were no inspectors to make sure that it was being followed.
Fry died from a stroke in Ramsgate, England, on October 12th 1845. From 2001–2016, Fry was depicted on the reverse of £5 notes issued by the Bank of England.
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