Elizabeth Fry: the great reformer

With Elizabeth Fry about to be removed from the £5 note, there's never been a better time, argues Rosalind Crone, to champion a woman who dedicated her life to fighting the corner of the most vulnerable Britons...

Elizabeth Fry visiting Newgate Prison, 1926. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

In May 2017 the ‘Fry fiver’ will be officially withdrawn from circulation, replaced by the new polymer note featuring the wartime leader Winston Churchill. Incidentally, Fry’s retirement coincides with the 200th anniversary of her most famous philanthropic project, reform of the female side of Newgate Gaol, the act chosen for commemoration on our national currency.

This article was first published in the May 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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In May 2017 the ‘Fry fiver’ will be officially withdrawn from circulation, replaced by the new polymer note featuring the wartime leader Winston Churchill. Incidentally, Fry’s retirement coincides with the 200th anniversary of her most famous philanthropic project, reform of the female side of Newgate Gaol, the act chosen for commemoration on our national currency.

A fitting moment, then, to revisit Fry’s life and consider her legacy. If the passage of time has increased her obscurity, she has not become irrelevant. Although best remembered for her work among female prisoners, Fry’s activism and influence extended to other important areas of social policy and social relations, and not only in Britain, but also across Europe and America.

Elizabeth Fry was born on 21 May 1780 in Norwich, the fourth of 12 children of the merchant and banker John Gurney and his wife, Catherine Bell. The Gurneys were Quakers in name only, indulging in ‘worldly’ pleasures, such as music and dancing, but at age 17 Elizabeth decided to embrace the faith: “To-day,” she wrote in her journal on 4 February 1798, “I have felt that there is a God.” Quakerism gave Elizabeth a new purpose in life. She turned her attention to the plight of the local poor, distributing aid and establishing a successful Sunday school for their children.

Thrown to the pigs

Elizabeth’s philanthropic work expanded after her marriage to tea merchant Joseph Fry in 1800, in spite of constant childbearing (the couple had 11 children) and her uneasiness about its effect on the family. At the family’s first home in St Mildred’s Court, Elizabeth’s reputation meant that, almost daily, poor women came to the door seeking assistance, and by 1806, Elizabeth had been appointed visitor at the workhouse in Islington.

When the family moved to East Ham in 1809, Elizabeth co-founded a school for poor girls, organised a smallpox vaccination programme for the children in the surrounding villages (even performing the procedure herself), and dispensed food, clothing and medicine to the local Gypsy and Irish communities. Her charity was not always well received. In February 1814, gallons of broth and dumplings, made to the Fry family recipe, were handed out to the local poor, but, as Elizabeth wrote: “Great fault [was] found with them and one woman was seen to throw them to the pigs.”

In 1811, Elizabeth became a Quaker minister. This, together with her expanding familial connections, put her in contact with the prominent social reformers of the age, including William Wilberforce and Thomas Fowell Buxton. Elizabeth was now uniquely placed to campaign for the reform of Britain’s anachronistic and often inhuman public institutions.

She first visited Newgate Gaol in 1813 to distribute clothing to the female prisoners, after her friend, Quaker missionary Stephen Grellet, had alerted her to their plight. She was appalled at the conditions, and most affected by the sight of two women taking the clothes from a dead baby to dress a living one.

When Elizabeth returned, in 1816, little had changed. The women, she wrote, were “wild beasts”, often drunk, disorderly and even violent. Overcome with sympathy for them, Elizabeth pulled out her Bible and read aloud some passages, which captured their attention. Many of the women asked who Christ was.

Elizabeth now launched into action. She organised a school for the children and appointed a matron to watch over the prisoners. She also found useful work – sewing and knitting – for the women, and formed the Ladies’ Newgate Association, the members of which would visit the prison daily to superintend the matron, give religious instruction and mentor the prisoners. New rules were laid down, forbidding “begging, swearing, gaming, card-playing, quarrelling, immoral conversation [and] improper books”. The prisoners voluntarily submitted, and Elizabeth won the support of the gaol and city authorities.

Smuggled in alcohol

Over the next few years, Fry and the ladies encountered hiccups and obstacles. Rules were broken, as some prisoners continued to play cards and others smuggled in alcohol. On one occasion, Elizabeth expressed shock at the “ingratitude amongst the prisoners such as I never remember before”.

Yet overall, the project was hugely successful. Elizabeth was acknowledged as an expert on penal reform. Her Friday Bible readings to the prisoners became so popular that a ticketing system was introduced. In April 1818, Elizabeth met with Queen Charlotte (wife of King George III) at Mansion House. “I think that no one received the same attention,” Fry wrote. “There was quite a buzz when I went into the [room].”

The appalling conditions at Newgate were not unique. To promote reform in all UK prisons, in the summer of 1818 Elizabeth embarked on her first of numerous British tours. After encouraging the establishment of many local prison visiting associations, in 1821 she formed the British Ladies Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners to unite and co-ordinate their activities. It quickly gained an international reputation.

Nor did Elizabeth confine her prison work to gaols. Under the auspices of the British Society, in 1822 she helped found a small home in Westminster for rehabilitating former Newgate prisoners, followed by a reformatory in Chelsea for “naughty little girls” in 1824, both of which were replicated in towns across Britain and Europe. From 1818 onwards, Elizabeth and other members of the British Society visited female convict ships preparing to sail to the Australian penal colonies, providing useful work and religious instruction. Some convicts showed their appreciation through letters or commemorative acts (such as the famous Rajah Quilt, which they stitched while being transported from Woolwich to Tasmania). But there were others who openly wished that Elizabeth “might fall overboard and be drowned”.

Help for the homeless

Even while consumed with penal reform, Elizabeth took an interest in other causes. In 1819, after seeing the body of a boy who had perished on the London streets, she organised homeless shelters. To improve the perennial problem of relations between servants and mistresses, she founded a ‘Servants’ Society’ in 1825. While on holiday in Brighton in 1824 she formed the first District Society for managing local charitable poor relief and became concerned about the isolated lives of the coastguard, distributing reading matter to the local stations. Ten years later, Elizabeth established a national system of libraries for the men and their families. Within two years, 52,000 books were delivered to nearly 500 coastguard stations and 48 ships.

For all this, we have to balance Fry’s significant achievements, especially in penal reform, against disappointing failures. Local prison visiting associations encountered considerable opposition. Elizabeth’s campaigns against the death penalty and the use of separate confinement fell on deaf ears. And her husband’s bankruptcy in 1828 was not only a personal blow, but also damaged her public reputation. Yet she recovered, and even expanded her philanthropic work during the last 15 years or so of her life.

Between 1838 and 1843 Elizabeth made five trips to the continent to visit prisons, reformatories, workhouses and hospitals. She dispensed advice to local officials, and her experiences prompted new initiatives at home. Impressed by the nurse training school at Kaiserswerth, Germany in 1840, she established the Institution of Nursing Sisters, the first professional organisation for nursing in Britain. The institution provided inspiration for the young Florence Nightingale.

Continental tours also forged new relationships between Fry and aristocratic families across Europe, as kings and queens, dukes and duchesses, found Elizabeth and her work captivating. At the same time, she continued to rub shoulders with British aristocracy, including the new queen, Victoria. In early 1840, Victoria had donated £50 to Elizabeth’s Westminster refuge, and Elizabeth was invited to meet the queen. The interview was “short”. They briefly discussed Elizabeth’s continental travels, and Elizabeth delivered a simple sermon: “I ventured to express my satisfaction, that she encouraged works of charity; and I said, it reminded me of the words of scripture – ‘With the merciful thou wilt shew thyself merciful’.”

Not long after this meeting, Elizabeth’s health went into decline. On 13 October 1845 she suffered a stroke and died at Ramsgate. She was laid to rest at the Quaker burial-ground in Barking with more than a thousand mourners in silent attendance.

Over the past 160 years, Elizabeth’s prison work has won public recognition, through the foundation of the Elizabeth Fry Refuge for released female prisoners in 1849, the installation of her marble statue in the Old Bailey after its rebuilding in 1907, and in her selection for the £5 note in 2002. Penal reform was at the centre of Fry’s work, but she was also a social activist, Quaker minister, author and mother. Her legacy was multifaceted, and its reverberations can still be felt today.

Rosalind Crone is a senior lecturer in history at the Open University, specialising in the society and culture of 19th-century Britain. She is currently writing a book, Educating Criminals in 19th-Century England.

How Elizabeth Fry stood up for the downtrodden

Penal reform 

She pioneered prison rehabilitation programmes

Elizabeth Fry was one of a number of individuals campaigning for penal reform in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But only she founded a specific organisation that sent its members into prisons to change both the institution and the individuals within it: the British Ladies Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners.

The society was replicated in countries across the western world. And the presence of ‘visitors’ continues in British prisons today, in the form of charities delivering rehabilitation programmes. Fry’s influence did not stop at prisons.

In 1827, she declared that “a similar care is evidently required for our hospitals, our lunatic asylums, and our workhouses”. Women and men across the west were inspired to campaign for and directly shape the reform of their nations’ public institutions.

Prison schools 

She championed education for inmates

Before entering Newgate Gaol, Fry was interested in the provision of education for the poor. Yet Newgate opened up new possibilities. The school that she established for the children of the female prisoners was soon expanded to include illiterate adults, as the convicts explained to Fry “that they should be very glad to be admitted into our school; and if they could be reformed also, what comfort it would give them”.

The initiative was a great success. As the only known example of organised prison education for women, Fry’s school directly influenced the gender and age-blind ethos underpinning the British government’s first attempt to legislate for the provision of prison education in 1823.

Although debate has raged since on how to educate prisoners, the basic principle that men and women in need of it should receive a minimum standard of education in prison has continued unmolested.

Chaperones 

She combatted the exploitation of vulnerable women

While Fry contributed to the successful campaign to separate male and female prisoners in British prisons, she also recognised that, just as important, was the curtailment of male officers’ unrestricted access to female prisoners. In Britain, Fry had “frequently observed one or two unfortunate young women… placed under the sole care of a man, whose key will at any time unlock their door”. When visiting the central prison in the French city of Montpellier, Fry found female prisoners pregnant by their male guards.

Fry’s work not only ensured that female officers were appointed to watch over female prisoners, but in many public institutions in Britain at least, no male authority figure could have access to poor and vulnerable women without the presence of a female chaperone. It is a principle that has gradually trickled into other areas of public life, and one that we now often take for granted.

Empowering women 

She gave women a voice in public life

It may seem a stretch to describe Fry as a feminist; she certainly would have rejected that label. “Far be it from me,” she wrote, “to attempt to persuade women to forsake their right province. My only desire is that they should fill that province well.”

Yet Fry believed that particular feminine qualities, “their gentleness, their natural sympathy with the afflicted, their quickness of discernment, their openness to religious impressions”, could be used to good effect within the public sphere. By directly encouraging women, through philanthropic work, to challenge the organisation of public institutions, Fry carved out a new public role for them. And Fry herself proved that women could become experts – even in, what was then, the male-dominated domain of criminal justice.

In 1818, Fry was the first woman ever to be called to give evidence to a parliamentary Select Committee. Two hundred years on, and Britain has its first female secretary of state for justice.

Compassion 

She made a virtue of kindness

In describing the great change that had occurred on the female side of Newgate Gaol, penal reformer Thomas Fowell Buxton wrote that those who “had steeled their minds against the terrors of punishment… were melted at the warming voice of [Fry] who felt for their sorrows”.

Although the principle of ‘sympathy’ infused the writings of prominent men eager to change the early 19th-century criminal justice system, Fry’s work at Newgate – not to mention her endeavours at other public institutions across Europe – provided a practical and powerful example. Those who witnessed her readings to, and encounters with, the downtrodden were overwhelmed by her display of kindness.

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Although the humanitarian principle was somewhat marginalised in later penal reform agendas, the memory of Fry’s work has meant that sympathy and kindness have continued to be regarded as important social goals, and offer a framework for social relations in modern Britain.