Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was a pioneering campaigner for better conditions in prisons during the Victorian Period. She was a middle-class Quaker who sought to highlight the squalid and unsanitary conditions in British prisons and provide practical solutions to help improve conditions and reform prisoners. Gaining the support of prominence members of society, such as Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale, she played an important role in later legislation which improved conditions in prisons.
Short Bio Elizabeth Fry
Elizabeth Gurney was born, 21 May 1780, in Norwich, Norfolk to a prominent Quaker family. Her father was a partner in Gurney bank, and her mother was a relative of the Barclays, who founded Barclays Bank. After her mother died when she was 12, she took an active role in bringing up her other siblings. She also became friendly with Amelia Alderson, whose family were active in the movement for universal suffrage. Thus, as a young adult, Fry became acquainted with liberal and reform ideas, such as the works of Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft as well as her own Quaker religion.
When Elizabeth was 18, she was influenced by the humanitarian message of William Savery, an American Quaker who spoke of the importance of tackling poverty and injustice. She became inspired to be involved in helping local charities and at a local Sunday School, which taught children to read. When she was 20, she married Joseph Fry, who was also a banker and Quaker. They moved to London and lived in the City of London and later (from 1809 – 1829) in East Ham. They had eleven children, five sons and six daughters.
Elizabeth was a strict Quaker; she was a Quaker Minister and didn’t engage in any activities like dancing and singing. However, she was well connected in London society and often met influential members of the upper-middle classes of London.
The infamous Newgate prison before demolition
Around 1812, she made her first visit to Newgate prison, which housed both men and women prisoners, some of who were awaiting trial. Fry was shocked at the squalid and unsanitary conditions she found the prisoners in. The prisons were overcrowded and dirty, and Fry felt this fermented both bad health and fighting amongst the prisoners. Writing in 1813, 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.”
She even spent the night in prison to get a better idea of what conditions were like. She sought to improve conditions by bringing in clean clothes and food. She also encouraged prisoners to look after themselves better; for example, she would suggest rules that they would vote for themselves. She felt her mission was:
” … to form in them, as much as possible, those habits of sobriety, order, and industry, which may render them docile and peaceable while in prison, and respectable when they leave it.”
She would put a better-educated prisoner in charge and encourage them to cooperate in keeping their cells cleaner and more hygienic. Fry felt one of the most important things was to give prisoners a sense of self-respect which would help them to reform, rather than fall into bad habits and become re-offenders.
She wrote a book Prisons in Scotland and the North of England (1819) and encouraged her fellow society friends to go and visit the prison to see conditions for themselves.
“It must indeed be acknowledged, that many of our own penal provisions, as they produce no other effect, appear to have no other end, than the punishment of the guilty.
Extract from Prisons in Scotland and England
She wrote in 1817 that even small efforts helped to change the atmosphere in prisons.
“Already, from being like wild beasts, they appear harmless and kind.”
In 1817, she founded the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate; this later became the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners. It was one of the first nationwide women’s organisations in Britain. The aims of the organisation were:
“to provide for the clothing, the instruction, and the employment of these females, to introduce them to knowledge of the holy scriptures, and to form in them as much as lies in our power, those habits of order, sobriety, and industry which may render them docile and perceptible whilst in prison, and respectable when they leave it.”
In 1818, Fry became the first women to give evidence at a House of Commons committee, during an inquiry into British prisons. In 1825, she published an influential book. “Observations of the Siting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners.” – which gave detail for improving penal reforms. Fry’s unique contribution was the willingness to raise an unpopular topic, others would rather leave untouched; she also sought to take practical steps to improve conditions in prisons.
As well as campaigning for better prisons, Fry also established a night shelter for the homeless, giving the homeless a place to stay. This was motivated by seeing a young boy dead on the street. In 1824, she instituted the Brighton District Visiting Society, which arranged for volunteers to visit the homes of the poor to offer education and material aid.
She was supported in her work by her husband, but after he had gone bankrupt in 1828, her brother, also a banker stepped in to provide funds and support.
Fry became well known in society; she was granted a few audiences with Queen Victoria who was a strong supporter of her work. Another royal admirer was Frederick William IV of Prussia; in an unusual move for a visiting monarch, he went to see Fry in Newgate prison and was deeply impressed by her work. The Home Office Minister Robert Peel was also an admirer. In 1823, he passed the Gaol Act which sought to legislate for minimum standards in prisons. This went some way to improve conditions in prison in London but was not enforced in debtors prisons or local gaols around the country.
At the time, it was unusual for a woman to have an active public profile and move out of the confines of the home. Particularly in the early years, Fry was criticised for neglecting her role as mother and housewife. Lord Sidmouth, the home secretary preceding Peel, rejected her criticisms of the prisons. In this regard, she can be seen as an important figure in giving women a higher profile in public affairs. She could be seen as an early feminist and fore-runner of the later suffragists, who campaigned for women to be given the vote.
She also established a nursing school, which later inspired Florence Nightingale to take a team of nurses, trained by Fry’s school, to the Crimea.
She suffered a stroke and died in Ramsgate, England on 12 October 1845.
After her death, the Lord Mayor of London helped to establish an asylum for the destitute. It opened in 1849, in the London Borough of Hackney.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Elizabeth Fry”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net. 16th December 2012. Last updated 4 February 2018.
Books on Elizabeth Fry
Famous English people – Famous English men and women. From Anne Boleyn and Queen Elizabeth I to Henry VIII and Winston Churchill. Includes the great poets – William Shakespeare, William Blake and William Wordsworth.
Famous Humanitarians – Famous people who have offered charitable service to others, including Mother Teresa, Florence Nightingale and Princess Diana.
Famous Quakers – A list of famous Quakers including – the founder George Fox, William Penn, Elizabeth Fry, John Cadbury, Joan Baez, Judy Dench and James Dean.