Elizabeth Fry grew up in a wealthy family, the daughter of a wealthy banker, Mr. Gurney. She enjoyed a very comfortable life at Earlham Hall, England. However, at the age of 17 she decided to become an out and out Quaker. She adopted a plain style of dress, gave up music, dancing, and ornaments, and looked about for charitable work. She started a school for village children, instructing 70 urchins twice a week and holding a service for them on Sundays. Even at this young age, Elizabeth showed the firmness of character for which she became celebrated.
Elizabeth’s father, although a devout member of a Quaker family, highly disapproved of her rigid code of life, he felt that an attractive young girl like herself ought not waste her youth in this manner. So he welcomed Joseph Fry, who had fallen in love with Elizabeth’s flaxen haired, unassuming beauty and devout nature, and invited him to Earlham to encourage their match. After much persuasion and Joseph’s promise never to hinder her in her charity work, she accepted him.
In 1800,when Elizabeth was just 20, they married, and went to live in St. Mildred’s Court London. Joseph was wealthy, but Elizabeth would have no useless ornaments about her, but they kept an open house in the manner of Quakers, and entertaining the advent of children in rapid succession kept her very busy. Soon she began to visit the London poor and she was appointed the visitor of the Islington workhouse. She was still unsatisfied.
In 1811 she was recorded a minister in the custom of Friends, an honour which she greatly appreciated. She arranged schools for the poor, depots for the distribution of garments, medicines, and food, and learnt how to vaccinate, believing strongly in the efficacy of the operation. She began to address meetings, and through the power of her voice she was to achieve one of the greatest reforms of the time.
Still unsatisfied, Elizabeth Fry became interested in prison life; prisoners in those days were subject to appalling conditions and treatment, even for the most minor of crimes. Hundreds died of starvation and of filthy diseases caused by foul air and herding together. Men and women, murderers, lunatics, debtors, pickpockets and children were all thrown together in stinking underground cellars without light or bedding. Drink was sold to anyone who could pay, and no limit was set to the amount consumed. “At every session, criminals in scores were sentenced to death. Even as late as 1833. Sentence of death was passed on a child of nine who poked a stick through a pane of glass and stole tubes of paint worth two pence.”
Elizabeth Fry first visited the infamous Newgate prison in 1813. She found 300 women with their numerous progeny lying about on the floor in a state of incredible filth, unclassified, unemployed, and abandoning themselves entirely to bad language, fighting, and lawlessness. Those with money bribed the jailers for drink.
The Women were so depraved that even the governor of the prison only entered cells reluctantly. Elizabeth, however, had her own ideas as to the cause of their depravity, and was not deterred. Her heart was especially filled with pity for the children she saw there, what chance would they have in life after being subjected to such experiences?
When she first entered the cells, faced with a crowd of infuriated women, she had to quickly win their trust. She spotted two women stripping a dead child for rags to put on a boy, four or five years old, who was playing by their side. She quickly strode towards them and picked up the grimly little toddler, then she held up her hand imploringly “Friends”, she said, “many of you are mothers, I, too, am a mother. I am distressed for your children. Is there not something we can do for these innocent ones? Do you want them to grown up to become real prisoners themselves? Are they to learn to be thieves, and worse?”
She had struck the only chord in their hearts that still rang true. Their hard, fierce hatred fell from them as at the touch of a magician. Here was someone who might save their children. After winning the women’s attention and trust, she appealed to them to cooperate with her in some scheme for educating the children. Elizabeth Fry saw her new friends as women who could be made respectful and useful.
Though the response from the women was great and touching, Elizabeth was unable to return to the prison for some time due to her own family matters. She gave birth to another child, and two people in her family died, one of her other children, and her brother. With illness, trouble and a family that numbered nice to care for, she had to leave the prisoners alone for sometime.
When Elizabeth’s sister, Rachel, took four of her girls to the country and her boys were placed in school, she was able to return to the prison where se started a school for the children under a governess chosen among the prisoners.
With a committee of 12 women she devoted herself entirely to the reformation of the women prisoners, and separated the children from their contaminating presence. The city sheriffs had said “ it was vain hope that such turbulent spirits would submit to the regulations of a woman, armed with no legal authority, and unable to inflict any punishment!”
But Elizabeth persevered with the women and “they saw no more shameless creatures, half naked and half drunk. The prison no longer resounded with obscenity and licentious songs, but it exhibited the appearance of an industrious factory of well regulated family.”
In 1817 Elizabeth Fry found the association for the improvement of Female Prisoners in Newgate, with the object of establishing separation of the sexes, classification of criminals, female supervision for women, religious and secular instruction, and useful employment. The improvements that resulted soon became obvious, and other institutions became interested and desirous of adopting similar methods. But it is certain that the first great step, the winning of the sympathies of the most desperate set of women in London, was necessary before authority could be won over, and only such a woman as Elizabeth Fry could have done this. She seems to have had some special magnetism in her; one woman, sentenced to death, was so desperate that she could not be managed, but when Elizabeth entered she became perfectly docile. Hangings were frequent in those days – The Old Bailey alone put to death about a hundred victims a year.
Elizabeth strove to procure the release of a young girl, sentenced to death for circulating forged notes under the influence of the man she loved. This brought her into conflict with Lord Sidmouth, who believed firmly in killing off even mild criminals, and she did not succeed in obtaining reprieve of the girl, who was hanged.
Though she failed to mitigate the severity of sentences, her work in connection with prison conditions was eminently successful. In 1818 she visited the Scottish prisons with her brother, Joseph John Gurney, where she found the usual horrible conditions prevailing. One man had been fastened for several days to an iron bar with his legs passed through rings some feet apart. He was unable to rest or undress, and the position amounted to slow torture. Elizabeth’s pleadings for the alleviation of his distress were unavailing. She also saw five men confined day and night in a closet nine feet square, and never let out for any purpose; they were debtors. There were no lunatic asylums, and the insane were thrown into prisons along with criminals. Elizabeth and her brother, affected by the fearful cruelty, published a book on the subject after their tour. The publicity given, together with the recognition of Elizabeth’s reforms by the House of Commons, led, gradually to the improvement of prison life all through, Scotland, Ireland, and the English provinces.
Meanwhile, the terrible conditions of the convicts transported to Australia had attracted her attention. She induced the government to make proper regulations for the voyages of the convict ships and to arrange that the arrivals in Australia should be provided with homes and employment.
In 1819-20, the severe winter drew her attention to the pitiable condition of the homeless. She opened a shelter in London, and provided a soup kitchen, and later started a similar scheme in Brighton. Then, finding that the men of the preventive service (customs department, concerned with the prevention of smuggling) were prone to idleness and boredom, she arranged to supply them with books, and she started a library service to supply coast guard stations.
Her reforms attracted the attention of not only England, but the whole of Europe. In 1820, Elizabeth became a correspondent of the Dowanger Empress of Russia, who instituted reforms based on Elizabeth’s teaching. From other countries too came letters seeking the advice and aid of the ‘ Genius of Mercy’ as she had become known.
Still, Elizabeth did not feel her work had gone far enough. In 1838 she began visiting France, Switzerland, Prussia, Holland and Belgium. She obtained permission to view all prisons and was received with courtesy. She inspected prisons, schools and asylums, expressing her views everywhere and giving advice for reformation. In her later years Elizabeth Fry received many letters from abroad, saying that the reports of her investigations were leading authorities to put her suggestions in practice. But her physical strength, worn by a life of unceasing labour, was waning and she developed a lingering illness. As series of deaths among her numerous children and grandchildren afflicted her sorely and she never recovered, she died October 12 1845, tended by her daughters.
Elizabeth Fry certainly changed the prison system dramatically, she protested against solitary confinement, the silent system, and the darkness of cells. Solitary confinement, she said, was sufficient to unhinge the mind.
Dark cells and dark windows were condemned, because the prisoner should at least be able to see the sky. “I am certain that separate confinement produces an unhealthy state of mind and body, and that therefore everything should be done to counteract this influence which is baneful in its moral tendency. I am satisfied that a sinful course of life increases the tendency to mental derangement as well as bodily disease, and that an unhealthy state of mind and body has a demoralizing influence; and I consider light, air and the power of seeing something beyond the mere monotonous walls of a cell, highly important “
Statements such as these certainly would have created a sensation at the time this quiet Quakeress first spoke them. But Elizabeth Fry, the docile wife and mother and religious devotee, did not fear to stand against public opinion and fight to the death for her convictions. We can take much strength and courage from her deeds, both in her tireless work and her devotion to her family. To the day of her death she remained a faithful and bold worker in the cause she believed in!
Women of the Southern Legion