Elizabeth Fry was a passionate campaigner for prison reform and social change in 18th and 19th century Britain. She was from a Christian family who followed the Quaker tradition, believing that all people are equal in God’s eyes and worthy of equal treatment. She was the driving force behind legislation to improve conditions for prisoners and provide support for inmates after release. It earned her the nickname ‘the angel of the prisons’. She also worked to improve conditions on prisoner transport ships, played a role in the movement to abolish slavery and worked to support coastguards and shepherds. Her activism marked her out as a pioneering feminist.
Born Elizabeth Gurney in Norwich in 1780, her parents were from distinguished families involved in banking and manufacturing. Their faith was central to their lives. Her mother read her Bible passages every day and the family went to weekly services at the Quaker church, the Friends Meeting House. The family were philanthropic and generous: they gave to charity and invested ethically. They moved to a large mansion with enough room for the family and space for Quaker friends who came to stay.
The turning point for Elizabeth Fry came at 18 when the American preacher and slavery abolitionist, William Savery, spoke at her Meeting House. It cemented her Christian faith and commitment to Quakerism. After hearing Savery again in London, she wrote her ‘mission statement’ vowing not to waste time, nor speak badly of people, tell lies, or indulge in luxuries.
She was the driving force behind legislation to improve conditions for prisoners and provide support for inmates after release. It earned her the nickname ‘the angel of the prisons’.
Elizabeth Fry began her tireless work to improve the lives of others by helping poor local children, providing clothes, food and some education. Some of the youngsters - ‘Betsy’s Imps’ – came to live at her family’s home. At 20 she married Joseph Fry, a wealthy Quaker businessman and moved to London.
The slums of 18th century England were dangerous places. Poverty, crime and disease were commonplace and infant mortality was high. But Fry went into London’s slums, helping where she could and finding medical help for the sick. She persuaded an elderly couple to let her use part of their mansion as a school. At the time few children had an education. Child labour was common and youth crime was prevalent. Punishments were harsh: offenders could receive a death sentence for stealing even small amounts of money.
Prison reform work begins
Elizabeth Fry first visited the notorious Newgate prison in London in 1813, although the governor had tried to dissuade her. She described it as ‘hell above ground’. The wealthy elite were frightened of criminals and unsure how to deal with the rising prison population. Jails were privately owned and run, there were no universal standards. The jail, near the Old Bailey, dated from the 12th century. It was dark, smelly, noisy and frightening. Men and women were mixed together. There were children too, some of whom had been born there. The only bedding was a little straw. There was minimal food and no clean water. Many inmates were naked or in rags because of a tax on clothes. Dangerous hardened criminals mixed with those awaiting trial or jailed for minor offences. Half the inmates were debtors. Fry was horrified. She distributed clothes, ordered more straw for bedding and organised help for women and children inmates. And she resolved to return.
Newgate work expands
In 1817 Fry stepped up her work to change Newgate. She founded the ‘Society For The Improvement of Prison Discipline’ which gave her access to influential people. Inside the jail, she set up a school for 25 children. Fry also opposed the death penalty. She met prisoners facing execution and tried to get their sentence commuted, sometimes successfully. She worked to give women inmates dignity and self-respect, encouraging them to sew and knit. The quilts they produced were sold. Inmates were permitted to spend their income on tea and sugar. The atmosphere began to change. Thefts were reduced. Order was more easily maintained.
The message spreads
Elizabeth Fry’s conviction that kindness to prisoners was more effective than punishment captured wider attention. Quakers were an influential part of the ruling classes in 19th century England. Fry had many supporters, often women spurred into action by the mood of reforming politics and evangelical Christianity in Methodism and the Anglican church.
Elizabeth Fry’s conviction that kindness to prisoners was more effective than punishment captured wider attention.
Elizabeth Fry was a pioneer among the rising feminist movement and wanted to galvanise others. For her, it was a ‘dangerous error’ to assume that the duties of women ended at domesticity. ‘Their gentleness, their natural sympathy for the afflicted…evidently qualify them for a more extensive field of usefulness,’ she said. She was summoned to present her case to MPs. Her advice included providing religious education; the separation of hardened criminals from others and employment for women inmates. She also called for the separation of men and women prisoners; schooling for children and post-prison refuges to cut down reoffending.
Transportation – a new campaign
Britain had been transporting criminals to Australia since 1787. Fry campaigned for their rights and welfare. She instigated an end to prisoners being taken in open carriages to transport ships, which had exposed them to public ridicule. She ensured they were kept in small groups on the ships, rather than massed together and that they were allowed on deck. The prisoners were given some personal possessions including a Bible and better clothes. The women were allowed to sew. A school mistress taught children to read. Fry also arranged accommodation for women on arrival in Australia to stop them falling into destitution and slavery. Hundreds of women wrote to thank her. She was also prominent in the campaign to abolish transport ships.
Fry’s influence spreads
Elizabeth Fry toured Britain and Ireland spreading the ideas she had begun in Newgate. Others took up her work. As a result, Birmingham jail saw rates of reconviction fall. Fry also travelled widely across Europe.
She tackled other causes too. She was involved in the campaign to abolish slavery; she helped the homeless, establishing a shelter in London and she set up a nurses’ training school. She always took Bibles and biblical pamphlets on her visits to give out. She was frugal, industrious and shunned the limelight. But she had many admirers including Queen Victoria who granted her several audiences. In 1833 Elizabeth Fry noted in a diary the social changes she had helped to bring about: ‘…suppression of slavery; diminution of capital punishment; improvement of prisons; spread of gospel; increase in education…’ She died in 1845.