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Elizabeth Fry - English prison reformer and Philanthropist:1780 – 1845

Elizabeth Fry (née Gurney), born into a Quaker family, was an English prison reformer, social reformer and a Christian philanthropist.

Her mother believed that girls should be educated as well as boys, so Elizabeth learnt history, geography, French and Latin, unlike most girls of her time. At the age of 18, young Elizabeth was deeply moved by the preaching of William Savery, an American Quaker. Motivated by his words, she took an interest in the poor, the sick, and the prisoners. She collected old clothes for the poor, visited those who were sick in her neighbourhood, and started a Sunday school to teach children to read. She married in 1800.

Prompted by a family friend Elizabeth visited Newgate prison. The conditions she saw there horrified her. The women's section was overcrowded with women and children, some of whom had not even received a trial. They did their own cooking and washing in the small cells in which they slept. Elizabeth returned in 1816 and was eventually able to found a prison school for the children who were imprisoned with their parents. She began a system of supervision and required the women to sew and to read the Bible. In 1817 she helped found the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. News of what she had achieved at Newgate led to the setting up of Ladies Committees in other towns in Britain and in Europe. Queen Victoria made a donation of £50 and later gave Elizabeth Fry a royal audience.

Thomas Fowell Buxton, Elizabeth's brother-in-law, was elected to Parliament for Weymouth and began to promote her work among his fellow MPs. In 1818 she gave evidence to a House of Commons committee on the conditions prevalent in British prisons, becoming the first woman to present evidence in Parliament. Her experience of Quaker Business Meetings meant she was able to give her evidence clearly and well. She described in detail the lives of the prisoners, and recommended that women, not men, should look after women prisoners, and stressed her belief in the importance of useful employment.

Elizabeth and her brother, Joseph John Gurney, took up the cause of abolishing capital punishment. At that time, people in England could be executed for over 200 crimes. Early appeals to the Home Secretary were all rejected, until Sir Robert Peel became the Home Secretary, when they finally got a receptive audience. They persuaded Peel to introduce a series of prison reforms that included the Gaols Act 1823. She and Gurney went on a tour of the prisons in Great Britain. They published their findings of inhumane conditions in a book entitled Prisons in Scotland and the North of England. News of what she had achieved at Newgate led to the setting up of Ladies Committees in other towns in Britain and in Europe.

Elizabeth Fry also helped the homeless, establishing a "nightly shelter" in London after seeing the body of a young boy in the winter of 1819/1820. In 1824, during a visit to Brighton, she instituted the Brighton District Visiting Society. The society arranged for volunteers to visit the homes of the poor and provide help and comfort to them. The plan was successful and was duplicated in other districts and towns across Britain.

Life was not always easy for Elizabeth, in 1828 her husband went bankrupt and particularly in later life she had to battle against criticism.

In 1840 she opened a training school for nurses. Her programme inspired Florence Nightingale, who took a team of Fry's nurses to assist wounded soldiers in the Crimean War.

Following her death in 1845, a meeting chaired by the Lord Mayor of London, resolved that it would be fitting "to found an asylum to perpetuate the memory of Mrs Fry and further the benevolent objects to which her life had been devoted." The first Elizabeth Fry refuge opened its doors in 1849. Since 2002 Elizabeth Fry has been depicted on the reverse of £5 notes issued by the Bank of England.



Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

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