Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Elizabeth Fry

1780 – 1845

Elizabeth Fry (née Gurney) was the third daughter born into a well-to-do Quaker family in Norwich.  Her father John Gurney was a partner in Gurney's bank and her mother Catherine was part of the Barclay family who were also bankers.  Her mother died when she was twelve and she had to take care of the younger children. She began to take an interest in the poor, sick and prisoners after hearing the American Quaker William Savery speak. She was a “plain Friend” which meant that she dressed plainly and observed her religion strictly and did not dance or sing.  In 1800, aged 20, she married Joseph Fry, nephew of the founder of the chocolate and confectionery company known as J.S.Fry.  He was a partner in Gurney’s bank. They lived a prosperous lifestyle and Elizabeth entertained business people in style.

Quaker missionary Stephen Grellet persuaded her to visit Newgate Prison in 1813. She was horrified by the conditions that she found.  She wrote "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".  At first she concentrated on the conditions for the children but soon turned her attention to the plight of the women.  She encouraged other middle class women to visit prisons and set up classes to teach the prisoners skills.  She did not impose discipline on them but suggested rules and then asked the prisoners to vote on them.  Unlike others at that time she did not focus on their offences but on their behaviour. In 1817 she wrote "Already, from being like wild beasts, they appear harmless and kind". In 1818 she toured the prisons in England and Scotland and established other Ladies' Associations and in the same year was asked to speak to both houses of parliament about the conditions in prisons.  She used her position in society to influence their view of prisons and prisoners.  She founded The Association for the Improvement of the Females at Newgate.  The Association comprised Elizabeth, a clergyman’s wife, and eleven members of the Society of Friends. The Association provided clothing, instruction and employment for the women and introduced them to the holy scriptures.  They wished to inculcate in them "those habits of order, sobriety, and industry which may render them docile and perceptible whilst in prison, and respectable when they leave it".  Newgate was transformed by the work of the Association.

Her work attracted the attention of society as a whole, including royalty. Many criminals were transported to New South Wales without any arrangements for proper care during the journey or employment on arrival in Australia. Elizabeth Fry made great efforts to induce the government to make changes to ensure the prisoners were properly cared for during the voyage and that suitable shelter and employment were available to them on arrival.

Elizabeth Fry was not only influential in Britain.  A royal residence in Russia was converted into a palace prison and in France and Prussia her visits helped to underpin certain areas of social reform; for example, the importance of having trained nurses to attend to the sick of all social classes.

After seeing the body of a young boy who had frozen to death in the winter of 1819/20 she turned her attention to the plight of the homeless in London and was instrumental in establishing a 'night shelter'.  The scheme prospered and a committee of ladies, headed by Elizabeth Fry, lent their support by trying to find employment for those without a job. This work was extended beyond the boundaries of London to places such as Brighton.

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.  She was also influential and active in the anti-slavery movement and a strong supporter of abolition.

In 1828 Joseph Fry became bankrupt. Elizabeth was able to carry on with her work as a minister but was forced to curtail her work with those in need. She died at Ramsgate on 12 October 1845 and is buried in the Friends’ burial ground at Barking.

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