Elizabeth Fry is probably the best known woman Quaker, famous for her efforts to reform the British prison system during the early nineteenth century. By her example she has inspired other women to play a fuller role in society.
During the seventeenth century Quakers were imprisoned for their beliefs and recorded for themselves the dreadful conditions in the prisons. Many later Quakers have continued this concern for the welfare of prisoners.
Elizabeth Fry was born on 21 May 1780, the third child of Joseph Gurney, a wealthy Quaker cloth manufacturer, and his wife Catherine, in Gurney Court Magdalen Street; Norwich. Amongst the 'plain Quakers' at the Goat Lane Meeting House, the Gurneys stood out because of their bright clothes and fashionable manners. At that time most Quakers wore simple clothes without trimmings, and still used 'thee' and 'thou' in conversation believing everyone was equal before God.
Convinced that girls should be educated as well as boys, the family were taught history, geography, French and Latin. Catherine also told her girls Bible stories and read to them from the psalms. She visited and helped the sick and poor in the district taking her daughters with her. Catherine died when Elizabeth was only twelve leaving her deeply upset.
At the age of eighteen, Elizabeth recorded in her diary going to Goat Lane (wearing purple boots with scarlet laces) and hearing William Savery, from America, speak in First Day (Sunday) Meeting for Worship. Dining later at her uncle's house, she became very impressed by Savery ' 'a truly good man;...I have felt there is a GOD..'. began to understand true worship, but remained reluctant to become a 'plain Quaker'.
In 1799 Elizabeth, when visiting London, again had the chance to meet Savery. She also visited the theatre and operas, but found herself wondering whether it was right to enjoy them. 'I think them all so artificial...'. She felt much more comfortable in the company of her cousin Priscilla Hannah Gurney, a 'plain' Friend whom she visited in Coalbrookdale. In a Meeting for Worship there Deborah Darby spoke about Elizabeth becoming 'a light to the blind, speech to the dumb and feet to the lame'.
Elizabeth's changing views began to set her apart from her family, but her plain dress clearly signalled the decision she had made. People stopped inviting her to social events realising that other things were more important to her now. Her faith and prayer being a great source of strength, she found it easier to be practical and to make great efforts to help others. She ran a Sunday School in the laundry at the family home at Earlham. The children - many already working in Norwich factories - to whom she told Bible stories, and taught to read and write, were called "Betsy's Imps" by her sisters.
In the summer of 1799 another Quaker, Joseph Fry - a wealthy tea, coffee and spice merchant who later became a banker - visited the Gurneys. A plain Friend, shy and seemingly very dull, he admired Elizabeth but at first she refused his proposal of marriage. However, she came to love him and on 18th
August 1800 they were married. They lived at first with his parents in the London building which also housed their warehouse.
Their first child Katherine was born in August 1801 and over the next twenty years Elizabeth gave birth to eleven more children. Constant child bearing and the demands of a large family ruined the health of numerous contemporary women and like many others at times she felt her life was being taken over by motherhood. She loved her children and missed them while away, but recorded that she feared she might become 'the careworn and oppressed mother...'.
Progressively more active in the work of the Society of Friends, respect for Elizabeth's spoken ministry grew especially when she began to travel to other Friends' Meetings. Nevertheless her diary for 1812 records that she felt her 'life [was] slipping away to little purpose... '
Stephen Grellett was a French aristocrat who had gone into exile in America where he became a Quaker. Given permission to visit to visit some British prisons he was horrified by the conditions at Newgate. He found women prisoners lying on the bare stone floors, and newborn babies without clothing. He went to Elizabeth and the reform of prison conditions became the impetus for Elizabeth's new life. She immediately sent out for warm material and asked other women Friends to help her make clothes for the babies.The following day Elizabeth and her sister in law went to the prison to see for themselves. The turnkeys (warders) were reluctant to admit them believing the women prisoners wild and savage.
The sisters were shocked at the conditions they found - particularly when they saw two prisoners stripping the clothes off a dead baby to give them to another child. Warm clothes were left for the babies, ill prisoners were comforted and clean straw laid for the sick to lie on. On a third visit Elizabeth prayed for the prisoners who in turn were moved by her sincere words of love for them. Her visits continued and just before Christmas 1816, she went in calmly and picking up a child asked the mothers, 'Is there not something we can do for these innocent little children?' The women prisoners recognised her concern for them and began to listen. She suggested they might start a school for the children to give them a better chance in life. When she returned the following day she found a waiting crowd who had tried to tidy themselves and their surroundings.
Elizabeth set up a committee of twelve women - eleven Quakers and the wife of a clergyman - with the intention of establishing a school for the children of prisoners. With her husband's help she invited the authorities to discuss her plans and after much debate the school was allowed. The Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate organised this school for the children, appointed a female matron to supervise the prisoners and paid her wages. Materials were provided for the prisoners to sew, knit and make goods for sale; the proceeds would buy food, clothing and fresh straw for bedding. The committee members made daily visits to Newgate giving readings from the bible to demonstrate their belief in its redeeming powers.
In 1818 Elizabeth gave evidence to a committee of the House of Commons on London prisons, the first woman to do so. She described in detail the lives of the prisoners and recommended that women, not men, should look after women prisoners, stressing her belief in the importance of useful employment.
She proposed important changes in the treatment of prisoners sentenced to transportation to the colonies. Some women were on the point of rioting, about to be taken in irons on open wagons to the waiting ships. Fry arranged for them to be taken in closed carriages to protect them from the stones and jeers of the crowds and promised to go with them to the docks. In the five weeks before the ships actually sailed the ladies of her Committee visited them daily and provided each prisoner with a 'useful bag' of things they would need. Patchwork quilts were made on the voyage which could be sold on arrival to provide some income. During the next twenty years there was regular care for all the convict ships.
Elizabeth later set up District Visiting Societies to work with the poor, provide libraries for coastguards and a training school for nurses. When a small boy was found frozen to death near her home, another Committee was established to offer hot soup and a bed to homeless women and children. Her work became very well known and lead to the setting up of Ladies' Committees in other towns in Britain and Europe, also attracting royal patronage.
At various times her work attracted criticism; prisoners complaining that they had lost their entertainment being no longer being able to gamble or read novels as Eljzabeth's workers encouraged them to "higher things". The new Prison Act of 1823 cost the local authorities more money and ladies visiting prisons were still made unwelcome.
Elizabeth was especially sensitive to the criticism from Friends who thought that she valued public esteem too much, and that she was neglecting her family. Some of her children married non Quakers; in fact only one of her children remained in the Society of Friends.
In 1828 Joseph Fry's Bank failed precipitating her husband's disownment by the Society on the presumption that he had put other people's money at risk. Elizabeth herself was wrongfully accused of using the bank's funds for her charitable work. Fry's debts were underwritten by the Gurney's Bank thus Joseph's financial integrity (and also his membership of the Society of Friends). Elizabeth continued to work in prisons and lobby Parliament, recounting her observations of the penal system. Her travels 'in the Ministry' took her further and further afield including on several occasions the Goat Lane Meeting House in Norwich where she is minuted for her stirring vocal ministry.
On October 13 1845 Elizabeth died following a stroke which had rendered her unconscious. Almost before she was buried she had become a legend of piety and philanthropy: Nevertheless, in her seminal biography based on Fry's own diaries, June Rose sums up the outstanding achievements of the woman whose face now appears on the reverse aide of the British five pound note:
'Through her personal courage and involvement, Elizabeth Fry alerted the nations of Europe to the cruelty and filth in the prisons and revealed the individual human faces behind the prison bars. Her own passionate desire to lead a useful life disturbed the placid, vapid existence a women in Victorian England and changed forever the confines of respectable femininity... The name of Elizabeth Fry broadened the appeal of the Quaker faith ... Over two hundred years after her birth, she seems a brave and modern woman battling with the injustices of her time... '