Elizabeth Fry

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Elizabeth Fry
Elizabeth Fry - Project Gutenberg etext 13103.jpg
Elizabeth Gurney

(1780-05-21)21 May 1780
Norwich, England
Died12 October 1845(1845-10-12) (aged 65)
Ramsgate, England
(m. 1800)

Elizabeth Fry (née Gurney; 21 May 1780 – 12 October 1845), sometimes referred to as Betsy Fry, was an English prison reformer, social reformer, philanthropist and Quaker. Fry was a major driving force behind new legislation to improve the treatment of prisoners, especially female inmates, and as such has been called the 'Angel of Prisons'. She was instrumental in the 1823 Gaols Act which mandated sex-segregation of prisons and female warders for female inmates to protect them from sexual exploitation.[1][circular reference] Fry kept extensive diaries in which the need to protect female prisoners from rape and sexual exploitation is explicit.[2]

She was supported in her efforts by Queen Victoria and by both Emperor Alexander I and Emperor Nicholas I of Russia and was in correspondence with both, their wives and the Empress Mother.[3][4] In commemoration of her achievements she was depicted on the Bank of England £5 note, in circulation between 2002 and 2016.

Birth and family background[edit]

Elizabeth Fry was born in Gurney Court, off Magdalen Street, Norwich, into a prominent Quaker family, the Gurneys. Her childhood family home was Earlham Hall, which is now part of the University of East Anglia.[5] Her father, John Gurney, was a partner in Gurney's Bank. Her mother, Catherine, was a member of the Barclay family who were among the founders of Barclays Bank. Her mother died when Elizabeth was twelve years old. As one of the oldest girls in the family, Elizabeth was partly responsible for the care and education of the younger children, including her brother Joseph John Gurney, a philanthropist. One of her sisters was Louisa Gurney Hoare, a writer on education.

Awakening of social concern[edit]

According to her diary, Elizabeth was moved by the preaching of Priscilla Hannah Gurney, Deborah Darby, and William Savery. She had more religious feelings than her immediate family.[6]

Family life[edit]

She met Joseph Fry, a banker and a cousin of the Bristol Fry family, who was also a Quaker, when she was 20 years old. They married on 19 August 1800 at the Norwich Goat Lane Friends Meeting House and moved to St Mildred's Court in the City of London. Elizabeth Fry was recorded as a minister of the Religious Society of Friends in 1811.

Joseph and Elizabeth Fry lived in Plashet House in East Ham between 1809 and 1829, then moved to The Cedars on Portway in West Ham, where they lived until 1844.[7][8] They had eleven children, five sons and six daughters:

  1. Katharine (Kitty) Fry born 22 August 1801 and died (unmarried) on 9 May 1886.[9] She wrote A History of the Parishes of East and West Ham (published posthumously, 1888).
  2. Rachel Elizabeth Fry born 25 March 1803 and died 4 Dec 1888 married to Francis Cresswell.
  3. John Gurney Fry of Warley Lodge, born 1804 and died 1872 married to Rachel Reynolds, whose mother was a Barclay.
  4. William Storrs Fry born 1 June 1806 and died 1844 married Juliana Pelly.
  5. Richenda Fry born 18 February 1808 and died 1884 married Foster Reynolds.
  6. Joseph Fry born 20 September 1809 and died 1896 married Alice Partridge
  7. Elizabeth (Betsy) Fry born February 1811 and died 1816 at 5 years old.
  8. Hannah Fry born on 12 September 1812 and died on 10 March 1895 married to William Champion Streatfeild.
  9. Louisa Fry born 1814 and died 1896 married to Raymond Pelly (brother of Juliana, William's wife).
  10. Samuel Fry (known as "Gurney") born 1816 and died 1902 married to Sophia Pinkerton who was an aunt to poet and translator Percy Edward Pinkerton.
  11. Daniel Fry, known as "Henry" or "Harry", born October 1822 and died 1892 married to Lucy Sheppard.

Humanitarian work[edit]

Prompted by a family friend, Stephen Grellet, Fry visited Newgate Prison in 1813. The conditions she saw there horrified her.[10] Newgate prison was overcrowded with women and children, some of whom had not even received a trial. The prisoners did their own cooking and washing in the small cells in which they slept on straw. Newgate was also the last stop for many before being deported to Australia in ships Fry described as little better than slave ships (1814 ie 20 years before the abolition of slavery in 1833).

She returned the following day with food and clothes for some prisoners. She was unable to personally further her work for nearly four years because of difficulties within the Fry family, including financial difficulties in the Fry bank. During the 1812 financial panic in the City of London, William Fry had lent a large amount of the bank's money to his wife's family, undermining its solvency. Fry's brother John Gurney, brother-in-law Samuel Hoare III and cousin Hudson Gurney made a large investment in the W.S. Fry & Sons bank to stabilize things.[11]

Fry returned in 1816 and was eventually able to fund a prison school for the children who were imprisoned with their mothers. Rather than attempt to impose discipline on the women, she suggested rules and then asked the prisoners to vote on them. In 1817, she helped found the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. This association provided materials for women so that they could learn to sew patchwork, which was calming and also allowed skills to develop, such as needlework[12] and knitting which could offer employment when they were out of prison and then could earn money for themselves.[13] This approach was copied elsewhere and led to the eventual creation of the British Ladies' Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners in 1821.[14] Hannah Bevan, Elizabeth Pryor, Elizabeth Hanbury, and Katherine Fry were visiting convict ships the following year. (Elizabeth Pryor was in time disowned after she asked the prison authorities for remuneration for her work.[15])

She also promoted the idea of rehabilitation instead of harsh punishment which was taken on by the city authorities in London as well as many other authorities and prisons.

Fry also campaigned for the rights and welfare of prisoners who were being transported. The women of Newgate Prison were taken through the streets of London in open carts, often in chains, huddled together with their few possessions. They were pelted with rotten food and filth by the people of the city. The fear was often enough to make women condemned to transportation riot on the evening before. Fry's first action was to persuade the Governor of Newgate prison to send the women in closed carriages and spare them this last indignity before transportation. She visited prison ships and persuaded captains to implement systems to ensure each woman and child would at least get a share of food and water on the long journey. Later she arranged each woman to be given scraps of material and sewing tools so that they could use the long journey to make quilts and have something to sell as well as useful skills when they reached their destination. She also included a bible and useful items such as string and knives and forks in this vital care package.

Fry visited 106 transport ships and saw 12,000 convicts. Her work helped to start a movement for the abolition of transportation. Transportation was officially abolished in 1837, however Elizabeth Fry was still visiting transportation ships until 1843.[16]

Fry wrote in her book Prisons in Scotland and the North of England that she stayed the night in some of the prisons and invited nobility to come and stay and see for themselves the conditions prisoners lived in. Her kindness helped her gain the friendship of the prisoners and they began to try to improve their conditions for themselves. Thomas Fowell Buxton, Fry's brother-in-law, was elected to Parliament for Weymouth and began to promote her work among his fellow MPs. In 1818 Fry gave evidence to a House of Commons committee on the conditions prevalent in British prisons, becoming the first woman to present evidence in Parliament.

The death penalty was common for even minor offences, initially giving what comfort she could to those facing death, Fry worked to get death sentences commuted to deportation to Australia. When she discovered female deportees were transported to the docks in open carts, she lobbied the authorities for closed dignified transport and accompanied those transports to the docks to ensure these prisoners (women and girls) felt supported. When a clergyman wrote to her from New South Wales telling her female deportees were delivered to Botany Bay and left to fend for themselves, she took this up with the authorities and ensured that not only were female barracks built in Parramatta but also that appropriate transportation by boat for the 16 miles from Botany Bay to Parramatta was in place.

Her friend Stephen Grellet and William Allen, another Quaker met the Emperor Alexander I in London in 1814 and travelled to the Russian Empire in 1818, a journey that involved much visiting of prisons and prevailing upon the prison governors for ameliorations, backed by a letter from Emperor Alexander I commanding his subjects to take very seriously what these English Quakers requested of them. In at least one location this involved the sex segregation of a prison in which rape and all other sexual exploitation of both women and girls was rife in the communal prison cells of this time. This is amply documented in the journals of both Stephen Grellet and William Allen, as is their work with Fry, who even saw them off at the docks on their journey through the Russian Empire from autumn of 1818, where they remained until March 1819 in St Petersburg, leaving for Moscow and travelling through the empire until they departed from Odessa in July 1819. [Journals of Daniel Wheeler, Stephen Grellet & William Allen. A contemporary of these Quaker penal reformers was John Howard for whom the Howard League for Penal Reform is named. Not a Quaker, he also travelled to the Russian Empire where he died in Kherson, near the Crimea in what is now Ukraine.

Fry reading to inmates in Newgate prison

In 1827, Fry visited women prisoners in Ireland (see Memoirs of Mrs. Elizabeth Fry, Thomas Timpson, NY: Stanford & Swords, 1847, pp. 82–99).

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.[10] 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.

Fry used her influential network and worked with other prominent Quakers to campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. After her husband went bankrupt in 1828, Fry's brother became her business manager and benefactor. Thanks to him, her work went on and expanded. Later, in 1838, the Friends sent a party to France. Fry and her husband, as well as Lydia Irving, and abolitionists Josiah Forster and William Allen were among the people sent. They were there on other business but despite the language barrier, Fry and Lydia Irving visited French prisons.[14] In 1840 Fry 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. In 1842, Frederick William IV of Prussia went to see Fry in Newgate Prison during an official visit to Great Britain. The King of Prussia, who had met the social reformer during her previous tours of the continent promoting welfare change and humanitarianism, was so impressed by her work that he told his reluctant courtiers that he would personally visit the gaol when he was in London.[17]


One admirer was Queen Victoria, who granted her an audience a few times before she was Queen and contributed money to her cause after she ascended to the throne.[16] Another admirer was Robert Peel who passed several acts to further her cause including the Gaols Act 1823. The act was largely ineffective, because there were no inspectors to make sure that it was being followed.

Following her death in 1845, a meeting chaired by the Lord Mayor of London, resolved[18] 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."[This quote needs a citation] A fine 18th-century town house was purchased at 195 Mare Street, in the London Borough of Hackney and the first Elizabeth Fry refuge opened its doors in 1849. It was intended to provide temporary shelter for young women discharged from metropolitan gaols or police offices.[19] Funding came via subscriptions from various city companies and private individuals, supplemented by income from the inmates' laundry and needlework. Such training was an important part of the refuge's work. In 1924, the refuge merged with the Manor House Refuge for the Destitute, in Dalston in Hackney. The hostel soon moved to larger premises in Highbury, Islington and then, in 1958, to Reading, where it remains today.[18][20][21] The original building in Hackney became the CIU New Lansdowne Club but became vacant in 2000 and has fallen into disrepair. Hackney Council, in 2009, was leading efforts to restore the building and bring it back into use. The building did undergo substantial refurbishment work in 2012 but as of July 2013, the entire building is for sale.[needs update] The building and Elizabeth Fry are commemorated by a plaque at the entrance gateway.[citation needed]


Fry died from a stroke in Ramsgate, England, on 12 October 1845. Her remains were buried in the Friends' burial ground at Barking.[10] Seamen of the Ramsgate Coast Guard flew their flag at half mast in respect of Mrs Fry; a practice that until this occasion had been officially reserved for the death of a ruling monarch.[22] More than a thousand people stood in silence during the burial at the Ramsgate memorial.


Elizabeth Fry's name on the Reformers Monument, Kensal Green Cemetery
Fry's statue in the Old Bailey

There are a number of memorials which commemorate places where Fry lived. There are plaques located at her birthplace of Gurney Court in Norwich; her childhood home of Earlham Hall; St. Mildred's Court, City of London, where she lived when she was first married; and Arklow House, her final home and place of death in Ramsgate. Her name heads the list on the southern face of the Reformers Monument in Kensal Green Cemetery, London. She is depicted in stained glass at All Saints Church, Cambridge alongside Edith Cavell and Josephine Butler.

Due to her work as a prison reformer, there are several memorials to Elizabeth Fry. One of the buildings which make up the Home Office headquarters, 2 Marsham St, is named after her. She is also commemorated in prisons and courthouses, including a terracotta bust in the gatehouse of HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs and a stone statue in the Old Bailey. The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies honours her memory by advocating for women who are in the criminal justice system. They also celebrate and promote a National Elizabeth Fry Week in Canada each May.

Elizabeth Fry is also commemorated in a number of educational and care-based settings. The University of East Anglia's School of Social Work and Psychology is housed in a building named after her. There is an Elizabeth Fry Ward at Scarborough General Hospital in North Yorkshire, United Kingdom. A road is named for Fry at Guilford College, a school in Greensboro, North Carolina, which was founded by Quakers. There is a bust of Elizabeth Fry located in East Ham Library, in the London Borough of Newham.

Quakers also acknowledge Elizabeth Fry as a prominent member. Her grave at the former Society of Friends Burial Ground, located off Whiting Avenue in Barking, Essex, was restored and received a new commemorative marble plinth in October 2003. In February 2007, a plaque was erected in her honour at the Friends Meeting House in Upper Goat Lane, Norwich. Fry is also depicted in the Quaker Tapestry, on panels E5 and E6. She is also honoured by other Christian denominations. In the Lady Chapel of Manchester's Anglican Cathedral, one of the portrait windows of Noble Women on the west wall of the Chapel features Elizabeth Fry. Elizabeth Fry is remembered in the Church of England with a commemoration on 12 October.[23]

From 2001 to 2016, Fry was depicted on the reverse of £5 notes issued by the Bank of England. She was shown reading to prisoners at Newgate Prison. The design also incorporated a key, representing the key to the prison which was awarded to Fry in recognition of her work.[24] However, as of 2016, Fry's image on these notes was replaced by that of Winston Churchill.[25] She was one of the social reformers honoured on an issue of UK commemorative stamps in 1976.

There is a road in Johannesburg, South Africa named after Fry.[26]

Fry's extensive diaries have been transcribed and studied.[27]

Selected works[edit]

  • (1827) Observations on the visiting, superintendence and government, of female prisoners Y E S
  • (1831) Texts for every day in the year, principally practical & devotional
  • (1841) An address of Christian counsel and caution to emigrants to newly-settled colonies

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Gaols Act 1823".
  2. ^ "Life of Elizabeth Fry : Compiled from her journal, as edited by her daughters, and from various other sources". 1853.
  3. ^ "Memoirs of the life and gospel labours of Stephen Grellet". 1860.
  4. ^ "Life of William Allen: With Selections from His Correspondence". H. Longstreth. 1847.
  5. ^ "Earlham Hall, UEA". Archived from the original on 24 October 2008. Retrieved 11 July 2008.
  6. ^ Francisca de Haan, 'Fry , Elizabeth (1780–1845)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2007 accessed 18 Sept 2017
  7. ^ Pewsey, Stephen (1996). Stratford, West Ham & The Royal Docks. Sutton Publishing. p. 44. ISBN 0-7509-1417-3.
  8. ^ Historic England. "WEST HAM PARK, Newham (1001685)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 22 March 2018.
  9. ^ Katharine Fry (I9028), Stanford University, retrieved 11 February 2013
  10. ^ a b c "Elizabeth Fry", Quakers in the World
  11. ^ Hudson Gurney: ODNB article Peter Osborne, 'Gurney, Hudson (1775–1864)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [1]
  12. ^ Hunter, Clare (2019). Threads of life : a history of the world through the eye of a needle. London: Sceptre (Hodder & Stoughton). p. 50. ISBN 9781473687912. OCLC 1079199690.
  13. ^ "Elizabeth Fry", The Howard League for Penal Reform Archived 27 March 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ a b Amanda Phillips, 'Irving, Lydia (1797–1893)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 20 June 2017
  15. ^ Thomas, Sue (5 May 2009). Victorian Traffic: Identity, Exchange, Performance. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4438-1025-8.
  16. ^ a b Elizabeth Fry: Britain's Second Lady on the Five-Pound Note, Dennis Bardens, ISBN 0954197356
  17. ^ Grovier, Kelly (2009). The Gaol. John Murray. p. 278. ISBN 978-0-7195-6133-7.
  18. ^ a b The Elizabeth Fry Charity (2020). "History - Elizabeth Fry". www.elizabethfry.co.uk. Retrieved 11 February 2022. Elizabeth Fry died in 1845. Wishing to commemorate her work, the Lord Mayor of London convened a meeting at which it was decided to found an institute for ex-prisoners in her memory – the Elizabeth Fry Refuge
  19. ^ "Elizabeth Fry Probation Hostel". discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk. The National Archives. The Elizabeth Fry Refuge was founded in 1849, following a public subscription undertaken in 1846 shortly after the death of the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845).
  20. ^ "Summaries of records created by: Fry, Elizabeth, (1780-1845), penal reformer and philanthropist". discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk. The National Archives.
  21. ^ Barrett, Elizabeth (10 August 2021). "Elizabeth Fry: The Angel of Prisons". East End Women's Museum. Retrieved 11 February 2022.
  22. ^ 'Memoirs of Mrs. Elizabeth Fry' (second edition) by Rev. Thomas Timpson. London : Aylott and Jones, 1847
  23. ^ "The Calendar". The Church of England. Retrieved 8 April 2021.
  24. ^ "Current Banknotes £5 Note (Elizabeth Fry)". Bank of England. Archived from the original on 24 March 2006. Retrieved 19 October 2008.
  25. ^ Allen, Katie (26 April 2013). "New £5 note replaces Elizabeth Fry with Sir Winston Churchill". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 June 2013.
  26. ^ "Elizabeth Fry Street, City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality, Gauteng, South Africa". za.geoview.info. Retrieved 24 October 2019.
  27. ^ Bruin, Mary BA (2005). The transcription and notation of Elizabeth Fry's journal 1780-1845 (Thesis). Brunel University Brunel Business School PhD Theses.

Bibliography and further reading[edit]

  • Anderson, George M. "Elizabeth Fry: timeless reformer." America 173 (Fall 1995): 22–3.
  • Clay, Walter Lowe. The Prison Chaplain. Montclair. New Jersey.: Patterson Smith, 1969.
  • Fairhurst, James. "The Angel of Prisons." Ireland's Own 4539 (Fall 1996):5.
  • Fry, E., & Ryder, E. (1883). Elizabeth Fry: Philanthropist, preacher, prison-reformer: Life and labors / taken from the Memoir edited by her daughters, including her journal and from other sources, by Edward Ryder. Pawling, N.Y.: P.H. Smith. MMSID 991006613419702626
  • Fry, Katherine. Memoir of the Life of Elizabeth Fry. Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1974. Second edition, 1848 available on GoogleBooks.
  • Hatton, Jean. Betsy, the dramatic biography of a prison reformer. Oxford UK & Grand Rapids, Michigan, Monarch Books, 2005. (ISBN 1-85424-705-0 (UK), ISBN 0-8254-6092-1 (USA)).
  • Johnson, Spencer. The Value of Kindness: The Story of Elizabeth Fry. 2nd ed. 1976. (ISBN 0-916392-09-0)
  • Kent, J. (1962). Elizabeth Fry / John Kent. (Makers of Britain). London: Batsford. MMSID 991009174159702626
  • Lewis, Georgina. Elizabeth Fry. London, England: Headley Brothers, 1909. MMSID 991013186339702626
  • Francisca de Haan, 'Fry, Elizabeth (1780–1845)’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [2], accessed 21 May 2009.
  • Pitman, E.R. Elizabeth Fry. Boston, Mass.: Roberts Brothers, 1886.
  • Rose, June. Elizabeth Fry, a biography. London & Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1980. (ISBN 0-333-31921-4) reprinted 1994 by Quaker Home Service ISBN 0-85245-260-8.
  • Rose, June. Prison Pioneer: The Story of Elizabeth Fry. Quaker Tapestry Booklets, 1994.
  • Timpson, Thomas. "Memoir of Mrs. Elizabeth Fry." London: Aylott and Jones, 1847.
  • Whitney, Janet. Elizabeth Fry: Quaker Heroine. London UK: George Harrap & Co. Ltd., 1937, New York, N.Y.: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1972.
  • www.hackney.gov.uk/archives

External links[edit]