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Saturday, 14 March 2015

Elizabeth Fry


Elizabeth “Betsy” Fry (1780-1845) was born on May 21, 1780 in the family's town house at Gurney Court, off Magdalen Street in Norwich, Norfolk. Her family also owned a country house, Earlham Hall outside Norwich..

Her Quaker father, John Gurney was a partner in the famous Gurney Bank and an owner of a woolstapling and spinning factory.

Betsy's mother, Catherine Bell, was the most important influence on her life. A devout Quaker, she was very involved in charity work and spent part of each day helping the poor of the district.

Her mother told her children Bible stories and read to them from the Psalms. When Catherine visited and helped the sick and poor in the district, Betsy loved to go with her mother.

Her mother believed that girls should be educated as well as boys, so Betsy learnt history, geography, French and Latin, unlike most girls of her time.

Betsy was devastated when at the age of 12, her mother died, shortly after giving birth to her twelfth child.. As one of the eldest girls, she was expected to help bring up her younger brothers and sisters.


In 1813 Fry visited Newgate Prison in London to see what she could do for its female convicts. The sight of the women herded together in filthy conditions, with their children clinging to their mothers and watching as they hang from the gallows stunned her.

It was not until Christmas 1816, however, before Fry had the time and energy to devote herself to the welfare of the female prisoners,  From then on she made it her life's work to improve the conditions in prisons in England.

Fry spent long hours inside Newgate prison never fearing for her safety. The essence of her religiously inspired thinking about prisoners (male and female) was that they were fellow-human beings.

By Jerry Barrett, 1824-1906 -

In 1817 Fry founded an association to help the female prisoners which aimed to provide education and prison instruction, classify the criminals and separate the sexes.

During her prison visits, Fry carried with her a vinaigrette bottle to ward off disease and smells.

Elizabeth Fry also campaigned for  women convicts exported to Australia. Often upon their arrival, the women, lacking a trade to generate income, would resort to prostitution. For 20 years Fry and her associates gave every female convict destined for the colonies cloth and thread, so they could produce articles on their voyage in preparation to sell upon their arrival.

By the 1820s Elizabeth Fry had become a well-known personality in Britain. It was extremely unusual at the time for a woman to be consulted by men for her professional knowledge.

Fry was strongly criticized for her prominent role and she was attacked in the press for neglecting her home and family.

In 1838 Fry was invited by the French King Louis Phillipe to reform his country's prisons. Over the next four years she made five journeys visiting all the prisons in France, reporting to the Interior Minister, and traveling through Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, and Denmark on similar missions..

Queen Victoria took a close interest in Fry's work and the two women met several times. The queen gave her money to help with her charitable causes. In her journal, Victoria wrote that she considered Fry a "very superior person.".

For 20 years  Elizabeth Fry checked every female convict ship before it sailed.

Elizabeth Fry founded the Institute of Nursing in London, the first training school for nurses in the UK in 1840 after visiting the Deaconess Institute at Kaiserswerth., Germany.

Fry's Christian faith was central to her campaigning and she was also well known to her contemporaries as an evangelist and preacher. She preached and spoke in public about the transforming message of the Cross to thousands of men and women in an age when women rarely took part in public life.

Fry's achievements in transforming the then perception of offenders and her campaigns against capital punishment, transportation and slavery made her the most famous English female of her day.


As a child, Betsy attended the Quaker Meeting House in Upper Goat Lane, Norwich with her family.
Betsy's mother insisted that her children spent two hours a day in silent worship.

The 18-year-old Elizabeth Fry rededicated her life to Jesus Christ on February 4, 1798 after hearing a sermon by the American Quaker, William Savery. She went on to become a minister of the Society of 1811.

As a young woman Elizabeth Fry was friendly with an Amelia Alderson. Amelia's father was a member of the Corresponding Society group that advocated universal suffrage and annual parliaments. At the Alderson home Elizabeth was introduced to the radical ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft, Tom Paine and William Godwin. For a while she became a republican and rode through Norwich with a tricolor in her hat.


Elizabeth Fry made a trip to London when she was 19, during which she visited the theatre and went to operas. She found herself wondering whether it was right to enjoy them, thinking them "so artificial".

Among the 'plain Quakers' of Goat Lane Meeting in Norwich, the Gurney family stood out because of their bright clothes and fashionable manners. Elizabeth and her sisters often shocked the other Quakers because they attended the meetings wearing bright colours and silk gowns.

When Elizabeth heard William Savery speak at a Quaker meeting on February 4, 1798, she wore purple boots with scarlet laces.

By the 1810s the former colorful dresser was dressing in a simple fashion.  When it was time for Fry to have new clothes made, she had them done in the simple style of a plain Quaker.

Elizabeth Fry, by Charles Robert Leslie (died 1859).

In the summer of 1799, Joseph Fry, a Quaker banker, visited the Gurney family. He admired Betsy and asked her to marry him, but at first she refused, as Joseph seemed very dull to her. However, she came to love Joseph, and they married on August 19, 1800 at the Norwich Goat Lane Friends Meeting House.

Their first child, Katherine, was born in August 1801. Over the next twenty years Elizabeth gave birth to another ten children.

Elizabeth and Joseph's first home was at St Mildred's Court in the City of London. For 20 years from 1809 they lived in Plashet House in East Ham before moving to Upton Lane in Forest Gate.

In 1828 Fry's bank crashed. His bankruptcy for a time limited her scope.. Elizabeth's brother, Joseph Gurney, took over her husband's business interests and made arrangements for all debtors to be paid. Joseph Gurney also arranged for Elizabeth to receive £1600 a year and this enabled her to continue her charity work.

Joseph Fry's bankruptcy led to him being 'excluded from membership by the Society of Friends because he had put other people's money at risk. Elizabeth was accused by some of the public of using money from her husband's bank for her charitable work.


By 1843, because of failing health, Elizabeth Fry was no longer able to travel but she still kept in contact with prison officials to monitor improvements.

After several years of declining health, Elizabeth Fry died after a stroke in Ramsgate, Kent on October 12, 1845. Over a thousand people stood in silence as she was buried at the Society of Friend's graveyard at Barking.

Elizabeth Fry is one of five women who have appeared on British banknotes: Queen Elizabeth II, Florence Nightingale and the symbol of the country's national identity, Britannia are the other three.

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