During Prison’s Week (9th – 15th October), we remember Prison Reformer, Elizabeth Fry
Elizabeth Fry had endless compassion and endless energy, and together with a steadfast determination to do God’s work, this outstanding philanthropist became one of the foremost promoters of prison reform not just in Britain, but in all of Europe.
Elizabeth was born in 1780, far from any prison. The family lived in Norwich, where her father was a wealthy Quaker banker and merchant. In 1800 she married a London merchant, Joseph Fry.
Elizabeth could have spent her life safely at home, raising her many children, but felt compelled to help the desperate social needs of the time.
There was a good reason for this. Back in 1798, when she had been attending a Quaker meeting in Norwich, someone had spoken what Elizabeth felt was a prophetic word for her life. As she noted in her diary at the time:
‘Deborah Darby then spoke… she addressed part of it to me; I only fear she says too much of what I am to be. A light to the blind; speech to the dumb; and feet to the lame; can it be? She seems as if she thought I was to be a minister of Christ. Can I ever be one? If I am obedient, I believe I shall.’
And she was.
Elizabeth was accepted as a Quaker ‘minister’, and her good works in London began.
But it was not until one day in 1813, when she visited Newgate Prison in London, that Elizabeth’s life changed forever. That day she witnessed such horrors of the circumstances in which women and children were kept, that she knew she had found the focus for her life’s work.
Soon her daily visits to the prison, where she read the Bible and taught the women to sew, grew into a campaign to achieve basic rights for the women prisoners. She fought for the classification of criminals, the segregation of the sexes, female supervision of women, and some provision for education.
In 1817 she created the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners, and then lobbied Parliament. By 1818 Elizabeth had raised such a storm that she was called to give evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee which was examining conditions in prison. They accepted many of her proposed reforms.
In 1820 Elizabeth tackled the huge problem of destitution in London. She opened a ‘Nightly Shelter for the Homeless in London’, which became the first of many. She founded a society to help released prisoners with rehabilitation. She was certainly a ‘hands-on’ sort of lady; it was said that for the next 20 years she personally inspected every single ship containing women convicts before it sailed to Australia.
Between 1838 and 1842 Elizabeth visited all the prisons in France, reporting to the Interior Minister. She then inspected prisons in Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Scotland, and Ireland.
Elizabeth also founded schools for poor girls, soup kitchens for the hungry, better housing for the poor, and also investigated mental asylums. She even established a nursing school, which influenced her distant relative, Florence Nightingale.
By the time Elizabeth died in 1845, she had helped tens of thousands of helpless people to find some relief from their suffering. She had indeed lived her life as a ‘Minister of Christ’.
Feature Image: Elizabeth Fry ( copy after an original of 1823) by Charles Robert Leslie (d. 1859) National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons