History's HEROES? 1780 - 1845

Elizabeth Fry

Her world
  • The industrial revolution, war, poverty and crime

    London HousingElizabeth Fry was born during the Industrial Revolution. At this time, more and more people were moving from the countryside to find work in the towns and cities.   

    A Time of Contrasts
    The cities grew very quickly. The new factory owners and manufacturers gained great wealth (Elizabeth herself was born to a wealthy family in Norwich), but in the worst slums, the poorest people suffered awful poverty.  

    Soaring Crime Rates
    As the cities grew the crime rates also grew rapidly. In the late 1700s, the authorities tried to stop the growth of crime by making punishments more severe. Waiting in the harbour were ships that would transport prisoners to the colonies, and every week men and women were hanged (hanging was the sentence for over 200 crimes). By the 1800s, many people were becoming alarmed and angry at the number of people hanged for petty crimes, and unrest was growing. 

    London in the Early 1800s 
    By 1813, the time that Elizabeth first visited Newgate Prison, London was a mix of wealth and squalor. During the 'London Season' the rich took care of their business during the day and danced or gambled away the evenings. The poor lived in filthy, insanitary slums. The Napoleonic Wars had caused huge price rises.  Bread had never cost so much and people were actually starving to death; more people were turning to crime. There were thieves and pickpockets in the streets and forgery and murder were common crimes. Many people were in debt, and drunkenness and prostitution were rife.

    Poverty and Sickness
    For the very poor often the only refuge was the dreaded workhouse. Malnutrition and infectious diseases were common. Elizabeth had always had an interest in helping the sick and needy - from the time, as a child, when she had accompanied her mother on charitable visits. She became interested not only in helping those in prison but also in assisting the homeless, street children and those released from prison with no support. Elizabeth started a soup kitchen in a barn at Plashet, where she lived, during one cold winter. 

    She made regular visits to the poor in the areas where she lived and one very cold winter she set up a night shelter in London, which provided food and a place to sleep. She also established Visiting Societies, which saw volunteers both visiting the homes of the poor and sick, with food and other necessities, and helping the poor manage what income they had. Later, she opened a training school for nurses to provide better care for the sick. 

  • An environment in which the only crime recognised was murder

    Women at NewgateAt this time prison buildings were damp, unhealthy and insanitary. They were places for people awaiting trial, execution or transportation

    The Prison Environment
    All kinds of prisoners were held together -the insane, serious criminals, petty criminals, people awaiting trial, young girls and elderly women. Women who had children under seven years of age took them to prison with them and many babies were born there. Clothing and bedding were not supplied. Prisoners relied on relatives or friends but some had very little to wear or eat. Even those under short sentences could be in gaol a long time as they had to pay a fee to the gaoler before they could be released and many did not have the money to do this.

    A Lawless World
    All the keepers in gaol were men. The women under the care of men gaolers, were sometimes subject to abuse. There was no privacy or protection from others. Inside, the only crime that was recognised was murder. The prisoners drank, gambled, fought, stole and often mistreated each other. The squabbling and fighting was a release from the monotony of having nothing to do. Sometimes gangs were formed for self-defence or to overpower weaker inmates. No attempt was made at rehabilitation or to provide training for the women for jobs outside prison walls. It was this lawless world that Elizabeth Fry entered when she first went to speak to the woman of Newgate.

    Newgate Prison
    Newgate was the most infamous prison of the time. Once, when a Governor entered without his usual armed guard, 50 women set upon him, tearing his clothing to shreds. Outside the prison gates, public executions were held and huge crowds gathered to watch. Inside the prison, the women were held in a filthy quadrangle of adjoining rooms. In winter, new born babies could freeze to death through lack of clothes. The women slept on bare floors, often without bedding, behind a barred gate. The women would scream through the bars for money or food as people passed, each fighting for a better place near the bars. The ill lay moaning on the cold ground.  

    Working with the Prisoners 
    Elizabeth Fry's work covered many aspects of goal life. She was particularly concerned about the children imprisoned with their mothers because they had nowhere else to go. She set up a school run by an educated inmate, as well as providing clothing for them. The school proved popular and it soon became apparent that the women, too, wanted to be educated. Elizabeth encouraged the women to read:, first the Bible and then other books. She provided material for the women to make clothes and items to sell, and set out rules to which they all agreed. The prisoners would wash their hands and faces and put on aprons before they began work.

    Those Condemned to Death or Transportation 
    Elizabeth also spent a lot of time comforting and praying for those condemned to death and appealed to the Home Secretary for the lives of several women. She made important changes in the treatment of the women who were transported to the colonies. She arranged for them to be taken to the ships in closed carriages, instead of in irons on open wagons. Each prisoner was provided with a bag containing useful materials and tools and they made patchwork quilts on the voyages that could be sold on arrival. She also organised a school on the ships for the children. Around 106 convict ships came under her care over a period of 20 years.



  • A 'Daughter of the light', treating all with respect

    Quaker MeetingElizabeth Fry's family were members of the Society of Friends, informally known as the Quakers.

    The Quaker Movement 
    This began in England in the 1650s, when people were becoming more and more unhappy with the established Church.

    Quaker Beliefs 
    Another early name for the Society of Friends was the 'Children of the Light', because they believe that the inner light of Christ is in everyone. Their faith is based on silent worship and a person's own experiences of God. They believe that if you listen, God will teach and change you. Central to the Quaker faith are the ideas of  truth, unity, love of simplicity and equality. Quakers believe that all people are created equal in the eyes of God. From the early days, at Quaker meetings, both women and men were able to preach.

    Role in Society 
    Barred, in the early years, from attending university or sitting in parliament, many Quakers went into manufacturing or commerce (like Elizabeth's family).  They became known for their honesty. People trusted them to set a fair price for goods and to carry out work of quality. The Quakers would also come to play an important role in a number of reforming movements, including those to abolish slavery, promote equal rights for women, end warfare and to provide humane treatment for the mentally ill and prisoners.

    Interest in Prison Reform 
    The Quakers had always had an interest in prison reform. As the Quaker movement had grown, it had faced opposition and persecution. Early Quakers were put in prison for their beliefs and so they saw, first hand, the appalling conditions. If, as they believed, there was something of God in everyone, then prison should try to reform people and not just punish them.  

    Dress and Manners 
    Many Quakers dressed very plainly. Elizabeth was well aware of the poverty around her and, in her late teens, she gave up her elegant clothes and rich lifestyle and adopted the simple style of a plain Quaker. She began to speak like a plain Friend, using 'thee' and 'thou'. This way of talking made her think and consider before she spoke. These changes would eventually prove helpful in her prison work. Her plain clothes did not stir up the anger of the inmates. Her simple and direct speech allowed her to communicate with them. Her beliefs meant she never gave them orders but treated them as reasonable human beings, able to play a role in improving their own conditions.

    Her clothes, speech and manner clearly showed her intentions and gave her a freedom that she had never known when dressed in her rich clothes. Describing a visit to the Mansion House in the presence of the queen, she noted "Thee cannot think how strange I felt in my plain Quaker's dress, in the midst of all the smartly dressed ladies, and sitting by the countess in elegant full morning dress without a bonnet and in a friends' cap exciting the surprise and curiosity of everyone."

  • A mother who wanted to play a wider role in society

    Elizabeth FryElizabeth Fry's father, John Gurney, was a successful banker and businessman. Her mother, Catherine, was a member of the Barclay banking family.

    Family Influences
    Elizabeth was the third of 12 children. One of the biggest influences on her life was her mother. Catherine believed that girls as well as boys should be educated. She also spent much time visiting and helping the sick and the poor. Like many women of the time, Elizabeth's mother died after childbirth (shortly after giving birth to her twelfth child) when Elizabeth was just 12 years old. 

    The Gurney family were not a typical Quaker family. Unlike the 'plain Quakers' who wore very simple clothes, Elizabeth's family wore bright, fashionable clothes. It wasn't until she was in her late teens, that Elizabeth became a 'plain Quaker'.  It was difficult for Elizabeth, as her family, at first, were not very sympathetic to her views on religion.

    Marriage and Motherhood 
    Elizabeth married a plain Quaker, Joseph Fry, in 1800. The Fry family were wealthy tea, coffee and spice merchants, who later opened a bank as well. Elizabeth had, at first, refused Joseph's proposal, thinking him a little dull. In turn Joseph''s relations criticised her manner.  Eventually, however, they became close.

    Elizabeth herself became mother to a large family (11 children). For Elizabeth however, motherhood was not enough. She loved her family but she feared she might become "the careworn and oppressed mother".  Motherhood occupied most of her time and, in 1812, she wrote in her diary, "I fear that my life is slipping away to little purpose."   Elizabeth, however, was fortunate that her husband supported her work outside the family, that she had servants to help with the children, and the support of her brothers and sisters.  This allowed Elizabeth to travel and carry out her ministry and work in places such as Newgate. Like many women today, she did not always find being a working mother easy, describing all the pressures on her time, she talked of her life as like being in a whirlwind or storm.

    Problems and Challenges 
    There were also financial problems. In 1813, the Fry's bank ran into trouble during the Napoleonic War and, in 1816, a war-wrecked economy saw them almost bankrupt. Joseph and Elizabeth had to cut their expenses severely. In 1829 the bank was in trouble again.  Although not involved in her husband's business dealings, when he was declared bankrupt rumours began to circulate that donations to Elizabeth's causes 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.

    Her family were also not immune from the illnesses of the time. One of her daughters, Betsy, died aged five. Elizabeth also lived to see a son die in his 30s and several grandchildren died early. A year before her death, in a letter to the Duchess of Kent, she wrote "...I am as well as I can expect to be considering my deep afflictions during my long and severe illness, as it has pleased the Almighty to take from us within the last three months by death a dear and only sister of my husband, then a sweet grandson aged thirteen years and since then, within the last few weeks, a most valuable and tenderly beloved son in the meridian of his life and his two eldest daughters of ten & five years old, leaving his wife, near her confinement, and four other children, so that our sorrows have been very great."

  • Overcoming obstacles by showing and doing

    Elizabeth Fry at NewgateA Dangerous Notion
    Elizabeth Fry's view that "Punishment is not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the criminal," was considered by many to be a dangerous idea. They felt that to control crime you needed severe punishments.

    Although MPs were impressed with Elizabeth's work, they strongly disapproved of her view that "capital punishment" was "evil" and produced "evil results". The vast majority of MPs supported the system where over 200 offences were punishable by execution. She was unable to save many of the women, whom she pleaded for, from hanging.

    A Woman's Place 
    Elizabeth also lived at a time when women had little voice or influence over politics and law. Women were not expected to make a mark on public life.  Elizabeth's influence was extraordinary. In 1818, she was asked to give evidence to a Parliamentary Commission on London prisons, the first woman to do so. Yet she was higly criticised for her work outside her family and many of her ideas took many years to implement.

    A Way Forward
    Despite these challenges, Elizabeth saw her reforms and ideas copied across the country. Whilst some people pondered, she acted. She was a very practical person and found that the best way to achieve reform was by demonstrating the benefits. For example, in 1813, when Stephen Grellet asked for her help after visiting Newgate, she immediately sent out for warm material and gathered other women Friends to help make clothing for the infants. When she wanted to set up a school for the children of Newgate, and the Governor was at first against it, she demonstrated the future benefits by the showing the change in the women's behaviour.

    She showed the value of useful employment for the women, by providing materials and instruction in sewing, and allowing them to make things to wear and sell and to have a skill that may stop them from returning to crime. When women who were waiting for transportation rioted, she arranged for them to have closed carriages (away from the jeers) and useful employment on the ships: making things that could be sold on their arrival. When a small boy was found frozen to death near her home, she set up another Ladies' Committee to offer hot soup and a bed to homeless women and children.

    Influencing Policy
    Through her actions, Elizabeth Fry earned respect and influence, reporting to several parliamentary committees. Writing home, the American Ambassador said, "I have seen the two greatest sights in London - St. Paul's Cathedral and Elizabeth Fry reading to the prisoners in Newgate". She was further helped by her experience at Quaker Business Meetings, this gave her the confidence, when called upon, to give evidence clearly and well. A number of her reforms were put into place in prisons.

    She became less influential in the late 1820s, when other prison reformers advocated policies completely opposite to Elizabeth Fry's: they campaigned for the system first tried in the United States at Philadelphia -  a system of solitary confinement and exhausting, hard (often pointless) labour. These principles became law in the Prison Act of 1835. It was not until the end of the 19th century that Elizabeth's reforms again became popular.

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