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Reformist & Prison Angel: Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry by History's Heroes

Elizabeth Fry

For it was on the 21st May 1780, Elizabeth Fry was born to John and Caroline Gurney, a prominent Quaker banking family in Norwich.  Little did they know as they held their child for the first time, she would grow up and lead a movement into penal reforms of the prison system.

In 1798, after hearing the American Quaker, William Savery preach, Elizabeth started concentrating her energies on those in need.  Over the next few years, collected old clothes for the poor, visited the sick, and taught local children to read in her home.

On the 19th August 1800, Elizabeth married Joseph Fry, a partner in Gurney’s Bank.  For it wasn’t until 1813, when Elizabeth visited Newgate Prison at the suggestion of Stephen Grellet, that her life was to take a new direction.

Upon a visit to the prison, she was horrified by the site; upwards of 300 women and children, housed together in cramped conditions.  They slept on the floor, in the clothes they stood up in, no bedding or night-clothes supplied.

From that day forth she became a regular visitor to Newgate Prison, supplying the inmates with clothes.  In the early day’s a school and chapel was established, and later compulsory sewing duties, as administered and supervised by Matrons.

In 1817, Elizabeth Fry and Thomas Buxton formed the association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate.

The following year Thomas Buxton, was elected an MP, and promoted Fry’s work in the House of Commons, and she in turn was invited to give evidence at a Committee on London Prisons.  She expressed her concerns about the cramped conditions she had personally witnessed.  Where young, old, hardened criminals and first time offenders had to share the same cells or dormitories together.  Although the committee accepted her views, they strongly disapproved of some of her comments, including her views on capital punishment. One part of the law, allowed prisoners convicted of 200 minor offences, could be executed, which brought her into direct conflict with the ruling body.

Lord Sidmouth, campaigned against Fry’s comments, that they could harm the existing prison system, and her suggestions that women prisoners should not be executed, took away the fear of punishment, for the hardened criminal element.  Sir Robert Peel, replaced Lord Sidmouth as the new Home Secretary in 1822, and with a more sympathetic ear introduced reforms, including the 1823 Gaols Act, and regular visits by a Prison Chaplain.

By this time the exploits of Elizabeth Fry, had made her a household name up and down the country.

In 1824, whilst on holiday in Brighton, she was alarmed by the large number of beggars on the streets, and discovered poverty was ripe in the town.  Being well known for her reform of prisons, she started the Brighton District Visiting Society, attracting many volunteers from all walks of life.  Very soon more of these societies, were springing up in towns the length and breadth of the country, offering help and assistance to the poor.  Fry campaigned for the homeless in London, promoted the reform of workhouses and hospitals.

In 1840, she started a training school for nurses at Guy’s Hospital, where they tended to their patients spiritual and physical needs.  A group of her nurses went with Florence Nightingale, when she attended to the wounded during the Crimean War.

On the 12th October 1845, she died, having become a symbol of compassion and justice, following a few years of declining health, and was buried at the Society of Friends graveyard at Barking.

Her achievements will be further recognised, when her portrait appears on a new series of £5.00 notes, due to be issued during the spring-summer of 2002.

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