Elizabeth Fry was a preacher and reformer. She was born in Norwich in 1780 to the Gurneys, a wealthy Quaker family. Elizabeth Gurney became a member of Plain Friends, a strict religious group who dressed modestly and refrained from singing and dancing. She was inspired by the preaching of William Savery to devote her life to helping the needy. She visited the sick, collected clothes for the poor and ran Sunday schools to teach reading.
In 1799 Gurney met Joseph Fry. They married in 1800 and she moved to his family home in Plashed, now East Ham.
When Fry visited Newgate prison she found women and children crammed thirty to a cell, sleeping on the floor in rows without nightclothes or bedding. They cooked and washed in the same hellish space. Some women were still waiting to be tried. Fry felt she had to do something. She supplied clothing, established a prison school, chapel and matrons to supervise.
In 1817, Fry and eleven other Quakers established the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. Her brother-in-law, Thomas Fowell-Buxton was an MP and raised the issue in the House of Commons. Fry was invited to give evidence to a Commons Committee on prisons.
Fry advocated treating prisoners like human beings. She suggested prison rules were voted on by prisoners and opposed capital punishment. In the early 19th century people could be executed for hundreds of minor offences. Fry fought to save women from execution. Harriet Skelton was sentenced to death after her husband pressured her to pass on forged banknotes. Elizabeth and her brother, Joseph Gurney, begged Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth to repeal the verdict. He refused.
Some MPs saw Fry as a dangerous radical. However, the new Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel was supportive. The 1823 Gaols Act introduced chaplain visits, female warders for women’s prisons and paid gaolers. Previously, prisoners had to pay for guards themselves.
By the 1820s Fry was a well-known, respected figure, consulted by important men for her professional opinion. This was very unusual for women, but she couldn’t escape rigid gender expectations. The press attacked her, claiming she was neglecting her family duties.
In 1824 Fry was shocked by Brighton’s widespread poverty. She founded the Brighton District Visiting Society, a volunteer team providing help for the poor. District Visiting Societies were then set up across Britain. In 1840 Fry created a nursing school at Guy’s Hospital. Her nurses wore matching uniforms and tended to patients’ spiritual and physical needs.
Elizabeth Fry created lasting improvements for Britain and changed the status of women in society. Florence Nightingale was inspired by her medical work and took a group of Fry nurses to the Crimean War. Queen Victoria was a great admirer and helped fund her charitable work. Like Fry, Victoria successfully balanced her duties as a mother and public figure.
Elizabeth Fry died on 12th October 1945. While Quakers do not hold funeral services, over a thousand people attended her burial in Barking.