"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." (Elizabeth in a letter to her children, 13th February 1813)
Elizabeth Fry appears on the new British five pound note – a place that was previously taken by George Stephenson. She was a Quaker prison reformer whose fight for human rights changed the lives of thousands of prisoners during her day, and whose influence is still keenly felt with the criminal justice laws of today.
Elizabeth Gurney was born into a wealthy family in Norfolk, 21st May 1780. Her father was a successful banker and a prominent member of the Society of Friends. Her mother, who was a member of the Barclay banking family was also a devout Quaker and spent much of her time helping the poor in the district where they lived. She became ill after the birth of her twelfth child and died soon afterwards when Elizabeth was 12. This traumatised the young girl very much and as the eldest child, she was required to help in the upbringing of her brothers and sisters.
During her childhood she became friends with Amelia Alderson whose father was a member of the Corresponding society – a group that advocated universal suffrage and annual parliaments. It was here that she became aware of the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft, Tom Paine and William Godwin.
She had started her teenage years with a sceptical attitude towards religion but after hearing a sermon delivered by the American Quaker William Savery, her outlook soon changed. She asked her father to invite him for dinner at their home and after this meeting Elizabeth determined to spend her life helping people in need. Her faith would also become a guiding influence on her life.
Over the years that followed, she collected clothes for the poor, visited the sick and also set up a Sunday school in her own home where she taught children to read. She was soon appointed to the committee responsible for running the Society of Friends at Ackworth.
In August 1800, when she was 18, she married the banker Joseph Fry who was also a Quaker. The couple moved to her husband's family home in London and between 1800 and 1812, Elizabeth gave birth to 8 children. In 1811, she became a preacher for the Society of Friends.
In 1813, a friend of the family Stephen Grellet visited Newgate prison and was profoundly shocked by what he saw. He had only been shown the male quarters, and was informed that the women’s prison was even worse. He was advised against visiting this section because the women were supposedly very unruly and likely to cause physical harm to visitors. Grellet did visit the women’s prison however and was disturbed by the appalling conditions the women had to endure. Grellet related his visit to Elizabeth and she was determined to go and see the prison for herself.
On her visit, she saw around 300 women and children enclosed in two cells. Some of the women here had been tried and found guilty, but many were still awaiting their trial. They slept on the floor without any bedding. They had to cook, wash and sleep in the same area. She soon started to visit the prison regularly, supplying the women with clothes and also establishing a school and a chapel within the prison itself. She introduced a supervisory system that gave the women compulsory sewing or Bible reading duties.
"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." (Fry, in her journal 24th February 1817)
During these years, Elizabeth gave birth to three more children. She combined the role of mother and wife with the other serious obligations she had given herself. In 1817, she formed the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners of Newgate with eleven other Quakers. The Association as well as organising a prison school and appointing a matron to supervise the prisoners, also provided materials to enable the prisoners to sew, knit and make other goods for sale – the money they made could be used to buy food, clothing and fresh bedding. By empowering the women in this way, it allowed them to maintain a sense of pride.
One of the members of the association, Fry’s brother-in-law Thomas Fowell Buxton published a book "An Inquiry into Prison Discipline" based on what they had encountered at Newgate. He was elected MP for Weymouth in 1818 and was in an ideal position to promote Fry’s work at the highest level. One astounding figure that he brought to the attention of the House of Commons was that there were around 107,000 people imprisoned in Britain at that time, which was "a number greater than that of all the other kingdoms of Europe put together." (Fowell Buxton)
Fry was soon asked to give evidence herself at the House of Commons after a commission on London prisons had been set up. She described the conditions she had witnessed herself – the lack of private space, the lack of segregation between those guilty and those who were still presumed innocent. She also professed that she considered capital punishment to be wholly wrong and something which didn't work. This was shocking to the members of the House of Commons who still fully supported execution for relatively minor crimes – for example, 200 cases of theft could result in the death penalty.
"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." (Fry’s evidence to the House of Commons, 22nd May 1835)
In February 1817, two women were sentenced to death for forgery – Fry campaigned hard to get a reprieve on such harsh punishment but was ultimately unable to save them. That same year, she was again pleading for the life of another inmate accused of forgery; along with her brother Joseph, she visited Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary to put forward her case. Again, the execution went ahead and Sidmouth subsequently warned other members of parliament against the reforms that Fry was endorsing, implying that they lessened the serious nature of the crimes in question.
Sir Robert Peel, who succeeded Sidmouth as Home Secretary was much more sympathetic to Fry’s ideas and he did introduce a series of reforms including the 1823 Gaols Act. Some of the benefits of this legislation included visits from a prison chaplain, payment for gaolers (who had previously been paid by the prisoners themselves) and the appointment of women warders for the female sections of prisons. These legislations however, only went so far as they did not apply to debtors’ prisons or local town gaols.
As a result of this, Elizabeth and her brother began a tour of British prisons, gaining evidence to present to Peel to urge more legislation to take place. In Aberdeen, Newcastle, Glasgow, Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds, York and Liverpool they found conditions that matched or sometimes went beyond the horrors they had witnessed at Newgate. The result of the tour was the publication of a report "Prisons on Scotland and the North of England".
By the 1820s, Fry had become something of a celebrity in Britain, which was unusual in itself, but all the more so because she was a woman – a woman whom high powered men consulted because of her unique knowledge of penal reform. Despite her obvious committment to her family and her children, she was criticised for neglecting them in favour of what many considered to be a man's role.
In 1824, on a holiday to Brighton, she was shocked by the number of beggars on the streets. After further investigation, she discovered that the town was suffering great poverty and as consequence decided to form the "Brighton District Visiting Society". The concept was to set up a team of volunteers who would visit the homes of the poor to provide help. This pilot project proved to be very successful and there were soon a number of similar societies set up in other towns throughout the country.
The Fry family suffered a set-back in 1828, when her husband Joseph was declared bankrupt. This affected Elizabeth’s reputation somewhat. Donations to the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners of Newgate had initially been directed to Fry’s Bank and rumours started to circulate that Joseph had used some of the proceeds to help his financial difficulties. The stories were unfounded but they nevertheless damaged the reputations of the family and the charities that Elizabeth had set up. Her brother eventually took over Joseph Fry’s affairs and arranged for debts to be paid off. He also arranged for Elizabeth to receive a yearly income which helped her to continue her charity work. She continued to campaign for prison reform, but also took up many other causes, including concerns for the homeless of London, improvements for patients in mental asylums and reforms of workhouses and hospitals.
In 1840, in an effort to improve nursing standards, she started a training school in Guy’s Hospital. The nurses that attended this school were expected to attend to both the physical and spiritual needs of their patients. Someone influenced by this pioneering method was Florence Nightingale – during the Crimean War, a number of "Fry nurses" worked with Nightingale caring for sick and wounded soldiers.
Fry became ill in 1845 and eventually died on 12th October that same year. Quakers do not hold funeral services, nevertheless around 1000 people maintained a respectful silence as she was buried in the Society of Friends graveyard at Barking.
"Through her personal courage and involvement, Elizabeth Fry alerted the nations of Europe to the cruelty and filth in the prisons and revealed the individual human faces behind the prison bars. Her own passionate desire to lead a useful life disturbed the placid, vapid existence of women in Victorian England and changed forever the confines of respectable femininity.... Over two hundred years after her birth, she seems a brave and modern woman, battling with the injustices of her time." (June Rose in Prison pioneer)