Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Ruth Fry


1878 - 1962

Anna Ruth Fry was the daughter of a Quaker judge, Edward Fry, and the great-granddaughter of Luke Howard, the first secretary of the Friends War Victims Relief Committee (FWVRC). Considered by her parents to be too delicate to go to school, Fry was educated at home, in Highgate, London.

In 1904, she became the Treasurer of Boer Home Industries and Aid Society, set up by Anglican Emily Hobhouse to support women and children made destitute by the Boer War in South Africa.

In 1914, she was appointed Secretary to the newly re-established Friends War Victims Relief Committee (FWVRC), a post she held until 1923. Bernard Carter, writing in the Friend, described her as ‘a sort of generalissimo-cum-quartermaster, responsible for a vast programme of supplies, administration, personnel management, public relations, fund-raising, leadership and inspiration.’

In addition, she spoke about relief at meetings all over Britain and twice visited the USA – in 1918 and again in 1923/4, addressing nearly one hundred meetings from east to west across the country. Over her time in the FWVRC, as her obituary in The Times recorded, she “at some point visited every country to which FWVRC work extended.” 

In August 1915, visiting the refugee camps in Amersfoort in Holland with Fred Rowntree, she wrote, “One carried away the impression of people lying on shelves, as useless as bulbs in summer.”

Shortly after the armistice, in December 1918, she travelled to Belgium with Harold Ellis. There they saw a stream of returning refugees. They both felt there was scope for further help, but by then the country wished to stand on its own two feet.

In 1919, Poland was overrun with post-war refugees and was suffering from a typhus epidemic, with a total of 231,206 cases being recorded. Along with Thompson Elliot (chairman of the London Committee of the FWVRC) and the American Dr Walter Stephens, Fry made the difficult journey via Paris, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia to Warsaw.  From there, the three of them travelled to south-west Poland, at the centre of the outbreak, camping in railway trucks for some protection from infection. 

Fry described schools turned into hospitals and a desperate need for soap and clean linen to combat the lice-borne disease. Food was in desperately short supply, so that the tinned food brought by the Quakers was seen as a great luxury.

Fry returned to Britain and launched an appeal for people to carry out this ‘dangerous and disgusting’ work. By August that year, twenty-five people had responded, and a unit was organised under leadership of Dr EW Goodall.

Famine had now become a serious issue in Russia and in 1921,Fry became the first chairman of the Russian Famine Relief Fund. Between 1922 and 1925, she made three visits to Russia. During the winter of 1921/22 Fry travelled with her friend, the journalist Evelyn Sharp, to Buzuluk in Russia. Once there, Sharp described desperately overcrowded orphanages and hundreds of bodies waiting to be buried in frozen ground.

Part of Fry’s aim was to challenge the idea, widely promoted in the British media, that Russian troops from the Red Army were stealing relief supplies. As she asserted in a letter to The Times that year, in fact less than 1% of supplies sent to Russia had been lost – no greater than in any other place where relief was being sent.

Fry’s second visit to Russia took place in spring 1923. By then, famine was less of a problem but malaria had been brought back from Turkestan and more than 60% of the population of Buzuluk was suffering. The focus of Quaker work had shifted to providing clinics and bacteriology units. 

Fry’s third and final visit took place during the winter of 1924/5.

Fry’s health never fully recovered from the exertions of her wartime and post-war work.  From 1936 to 1947, she was Treasurer of War Resisters’ International (an organisation linking conscientious objectors around the world). However, after 1925, she confined herself to largely to her writing.  She was the author of several books – some about her own experiences, some about Quaker figures from the past, and some about her Quaker beliefs. 

She died in 1962.

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