Fry, Elizabeth (1780–1845)

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Fry, Elizabeth (1780–1845)

English activist who was a practicing Quaker and early advocate of prison reform. Born Elizabeth Gurney on May 21, 1780, at Earlham Hall, near Norwich, England; died on October 12, 1845, at Ramsgate, Kent; fourth daughter of John Gurney (a wool merchant and banker) and Catherine Bell; no formal education; married Joseph Fry, in 1800; children: eleven, including Katherine Fry (b. 1801), Rachel Fry (b. 1803), John ((b. 1804), William (b. 1806), Richenda Fry (b. 1808), Joseph (b. 1809), Elizabeth Fry (b. 1811), Hannah Fry (b. 1812), Louisa Fry (b. 1814), Samuel (b. 1816), and Daniel (b. 1822).

Outbreak of the French Revolution (1789); food riots in London (1801); final defeat of Napoleon (1815); Queen Victoria crowned (1837).

Selected writings:

Observations on the Visiting, Superintending and Government of Female Prisoners (1827); Memoir of the Life of Elizabeth Fry (1847).

Born on May 21, 1780, Elizabeth Gurney (Fry) and her 11 brothers and sisters grew up on an affluent country estate, Earlham Hall, a few miles from Norwich on the east coast of England. Her father John Gurney had made his fortune in the then burgeoning wool trade. In fact, his business was so financially lucrative that he was eventually able to diversify his interests and become owner of a successful private bank in Norwich. He and his wife Catherine Bell Gurney (who died when Elizabeth was 12 years old) were Quakers, although neither appears to have taken their religious beliefs very seriously. By all accounts, both thoroughly enjoyed music and the pleasures of frequently entertaining friends and guests.

Like all her other siblings, Elizabeth received no formal education. Rather, the children obtained their schooling from private governesses and tutors. Although when she was in her late teens Elizabeth lamented her lack of a more substantial education, it is clear in retrospect that she was exposed, at an early age, to many of the most important intellectual debates of the period. Her father maintained an extensive private library where she read the works of such important social and political theorists as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, William Godwin, and the great democratic theorist, Thomas Paine. This was the age of the American and French Revolutions, and radical republican principles were regularly and keenly discussed.

As a child, Fry suffered from recurring illness. When she was 16, her poor health was aggravated following an unfortunate love affair with the son of another prominent local Quaker banker. Following the dissolution of their informal engagement, Elizabeth was deeply hurt and suffered what would probably now be identified as a nervous breakdown. It was several months before she fully recovered.

During her convalescence, she began to keep a personal journal. The early entries testify to a general feeling of regret that, in her opinion, she possessed no distinctive talents or abilities. At the same time, however, Fry began to express a growing understanding that, thanks to her fortuitous social circumstances, she was perhaps in a position to do something to help those less fortunate than herself.

Elizabeth, like the rest of her family, had never displayed any strong attachment to her religious faith. This began to change in February 1798 when she met William Savery, an American Quaker then visiting other Quakers (or "Friends") in England. Fry was entranced by Savery's "soft, pleasing manner" and how he enabled her "to feel a little religion." This initial stirring of what was soon to become a deeply held faith was perceived by her father as little more than a passing enthusiasm. Deciding that Elizabeth needed a change of scene, he packed her off to her cousin Amelia's house in Hampstead, London.

For the next few months, under the guidance of Amelia, Elizabeth participated in a wide assortment of social activities, including dancing which she particularly enjoyed. More significantly, she became aware for the first time of the extent of poverty, degradation, and misery that the lower classes then endured. Britain's war with revolutionary France was reaching its peak, causing depressed wages and high prices. When this was combined with the endemic state of illiteracy, crime, and drunkenness among the working class, the result was a city where brutality and cruelty were everyday facts of life. Fry was deeply affected by what she witnessed in London, and when she returned to Earlham Hall, she was noticeably more serious and reserved.

Deciding that her first consideration was to supplement her education, she embarked on an intensive private study of grammar and literature. Fry's principal concern, however, was not simply to improve her self. Rather, she began to look for opportunities of using her acquired skills to assist others, and this she found in the large numbers of uneducated and illiterate children that inhabited the villages around her family's home. Elizabeth, who was not yet 20, inaugurated a small school at Earlham Hall which soon was providing a rudimentary education to about 70 local children from poor and distressed families. She supplemented this endeavor by visits to the children's homes where she took further steps to alleviate the hunger and sickness she discovered.

After a great deal of self-examination, Fry decided, in 1799, to more closely embrace her religious faith. She adopted the lifestyle of, what is known as, a "Plain" Quaker which meant that she relinquished music and dancing and assumed a more simple form of dress. It was at this time also that Joseph Fry, the son of yet another prominent Quaker banking and merchant family in Norwich, asked for her hand in marriage. Though Elizabeth initially refused his offer (on the grounds that it would be incompatible with her new religious calling), she eventually agreed. Joseph had indicated that he was willing to support his prospective wife in her vocation, and so the couple were married in August 1800.

Following their marriage, they moved to a home in Mildred's Court, London. Initially, Fry was extremely homesick, and it was some time before she fully adjusted to her situation. The situation improved after the birth of Katherine (the first of her 11 children) the following year. Shortly afterwards, Fry was invited by an acquaintance to visit a new school that had recently been opened in nearby Southwark. This school had been founded by Joseph Lancaster and was the first of a series of institutions (known later as Lancastrian schools) which were to spring up all over England, in the next few decades, in order to provide educational opportunities for poor children. Lancaster divided the pupils at his schools into small groups each of which was under the charge of an older pupil or monitor. The task of the monitor was to assist the appointed teacher to instruct the younger pupils and generally help to keep order in the classroom.

During her next few years in London, Fry became increasingly aware of the plight of the poor and destitute. Due to her growing family, however, she was unable to take any practical steps towards addressing their problems. In 1809, Joseph's father died, and he inherited a country estate, Plashet House, which was situated near Epping Forest outside London. There Elizabeth had to cope with managing a large house, an attached local farm, extensive gardens as well as dealing with the problem of educating her own children. Despite these responsibilities, she also realized that rural poverty was an important and pressing issue. She began a soup kitchen to help alleviate the widespread hunger and did what she could to provide medicines for the sick. Fry also initiated a small school and hired a teacher trained in Lancastrian principles to begin educating local children.

Two years later, she moved even closer to her religious calling by becoming, what was termed, an "approved minister" of the Quaker faith. This designation did not signify any official license or credential to preach in public. Rather, it conveyed the approval and support of other Friends to her speaking at various Quaker gatherings. With her husband's encouragement, Fry then followed the path of other committed Quakers and began to travel widely throughout the country to meet and discuss matters of religious concern with other Friends. This inevitably meant that she was separated from her young family for extended periods of time. As her journal amply demonstrates, Fry lamented her absence from Joseph and the children but attempted to atone by means of long and frequent letters.

During one of her visits to London in 1813, she met Stephen Grellet, a Quaker of mixed French and American extraction. It was Grellet who first introduced her to the appalling conditions that were then to be found in Newgate, the largest and most notorious of the city's prisons. Newgate was indeed a grim place. It was literally bursting with men, women and children (both juvenile offenders and the offspring of adult prisoners) who lived in wretched windowless conditions without sanitation. Many of the inmates were awaiting transportation to serve their sentences in New South Wales, Australia, and they lived in an atmosphere of constant violence and drunkenness (the latter courtesy of the beer sold at a handsome profit by the prison staff). Shortly after her first visit to Newgate, Fry wrote that in this institution "all the courtesies of civilized society are laid aside and human nature… stalks… in naked, horrible deformity."

I know now what the mountain is I have to climb.

—Elizabeth Fry

Although Fry was made aware of the seriousness of the problems in Newgate, it would be another four years before she visited the prison again because of a number of domestic reasons. During this time, she gave birth to two more children while one of her daughters, Elizabeth, born in 1811, died. Moreover, following the victory over Napoleon I in 1815, a severe economic crisis ensued that had grave impact on the family's fortunes. Joseph's bank, which he had inherited from his father, became embroiled in serious financial difficulties. Indeed, the Frys feared for some time that they would have to give up Plashet House in order to pay their outstanding debts. In the meantime, they felt it better to send some of their older children to stay with relatives. Although the crisis eventually passed without serious consequence, the strain and worry of these events took a serious toll on Elizabeth's health.

Early in 1816, the Official Society for Reform of Prisons was founded in London with the express purpose of pressuring Parliament to conduct much-needed reforms of the country's prisons. Fry followed the formation of this society with interest but concluded that such an approach would take too long to have any practical effect. More direct measures were required. She returned to Newgate and made preparations to establish a school for the child inmates. Although

the prison authorities were initially reluctant to allow her to proceed, they soon recognized the importance of Fry's initiative and allowed her to install a young woman named Mary Connor as teacher. Approximately 30 children were enrolled in Connor's first class (most of whom were no more than seven years of age) where they were taught the basic rudiments of reading and writing.

Fry's next act was to form a support committee composed of ten close, Quaker friends which was called the Ladies' Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate (more commonly referred to as the Ladies' Newgate Committee). The purpose of this association was to help supervise and fund sewing classes for the female inmates and to arrange the sale of the work produced. In addition, they helped to offset the salary of a nurse who was permanently employed by the committee to take care of the women inmates health needs. As a condition of their participation in this program, the female prisoners had to promise to stop drinking and agree to attend a twice-daily Bible reading. This initiative was an immediate success and quickly came to the favorable attention of the Lord Mayor and town councillors of London.

In 1818, Fry furthered her work by appearing before a special committee of the House of Commons in Parliament to submit evidence on the state of the nation's prisons. She argued that the current system of mixed prisons, then under the sole supervision of male warders, should be abandoned, and that special women's prisons be built staffed by newly trained female guards. Fry also suggested that inmates should be given the possibility of partaking in some useful occupation that would increase their chances of rehabilitation and the possibilities of finding employment at the conclusion of their sentences.

In the next few years, Fry (and an increasingly larger and more vocal Ladies' Newgate Committee) supplemented their work by attempting to improve conditions on the transport ships to Australia and to alleviate conditions at the convict settlement in New South Wales. In addition, they sought a reform of the death penalty which, at that time, was regularly applied to an extremely wide range of offenses. In a short book written in 1827, Observations on the Visiting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners (a text primarily intended for women interested in prison reform), Fry put forward what was at that time the radical proposition that "punishment is not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the criminal."

Although she was not without critics among people in authority, Fry's work gained wide public approval, allowing her to extend the network of prison committees throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland. This work was interrupted, however, by another financial panic in 1825 which again seriously threatened the stability of her husband's bank. Although Joseph managed to weather that crisis in the short term, he was unable to avoid bankruptcy three years later. Fortunately, he managed to retain his other business, importing tea, but was forced to sell Plashet House in order to pay his debts. The family then acquired a more modest property in Upton Lane just outside London.

Fry's public standing had brought her to the attention of the highest circles in society. She became, what can only be described as a kind of spiritual advisor to many members of the English aristocracy, including the young Princess Victoria (who would later be crowned queen in 1837). Some years later in his memoirs, the influential and powerful Duke of Argyll would write of his own meetings with Elizabeth: "She was the only really very great human being I have ever met with whom it was impossible to be disappointed."

Despite the adulation and attention, Fry remained true to her Plain Quaker beliefs and her calling to assist those unfortunates in prison. Between 1838 and 1843, she made five extended tours of France, Germany, and Holland in order to promote the cause of prison reform. She quickly became as well known in Europe as she was in Britain and was enthusiastically welcomed wherever she went. In 1842, the king of Prussia, Frederik Wilhelm IV (then on an official visit to the United Kingdom) requested that he be allowed to accompany Elizabeth on one of her trips to Newgate. There, it is said, he was so moved by her Bible reading to the inmates that he broke down and wept.

During these years, Fry also formulated the first plans to put nursing on a professional basis. In 1840, she established a training home in London that provided up to 20 women with living quarters, a uniform, and a small salary while they received instruction at one of the city's main hospitals. Although their standard of training was rudimentary in comparison to modern-day standards, these women, who became known as the Fry Sisters, were the true pioneers of the modern nursing profession.

These numerous activities gradually began to exact a heavy toll on Fry's health. Throughout the 1840s, she was frequently ill, suffering from respiratory problems and a heart ailment. Despite her condition, she insisted, in June 1845, on attending a meeting of the Ladies' support committee where she advocated the establishment of a new home for the rehabilitation of former prostitutes. This home, known as the Elizabeth Fry Refuge, came into being shortly afterwards and continued for many years to offer support and counselling to these women.

Elizabeth Fry, however, did not live to see the realization of her last project. Shortly after the June meeting, she was advised in the interest of her health to leave London and spend some time taking the sea air at Ramsgate in Kent. There her health rapidly deteriorated. On October 12, 1845, she died peacefully in her sleep.


Fry, Elizabeth. Memoir of the Life of Elizabeth Fry. Edited by Katherine and Richenda Fry. London: Charles Gilpin, 1847.

——. Observations on the Visiting, Superintending and Government of Female Prisoners. London: 1827.

Lewis, Georgina King. Elizabeth Fry. London: Hendley Bros., 1910.

Whitney, Janet. Elizabeth Fry. London: George G. Harrap, 1937.

suggested reading:

Quinlan, Maurice. Victorian Prelude. London: Frank Cass, 1965.

Swayne, Kingdon. Stewardship of Wealth. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications, 1985.

Dave Baxter , freelance writer, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada