Men and women together in crowded wards, without adequate clothing or food. The accused and the guilty housed together, violent criminals with the non-violent, murderers alongside pickpockets. If a prisoner had children, they would be imprisoned in the ward as well. Cooking, washing, daily ablutions—all took place in the same cell where the prisoners slept on straw.

The women’s four rooms were a “den of wild beasts,” (as Fry’s friend Mary Sanderson described it), containing upwards of 300 women and children (32, 27). It was called “hell above ground,” “people with beings scarcely human, blaspheming, fighting, tearing each other’s hair, or gaming with a filthy pack of cards for the very clothes they wore, (which often did not suffice even for decency)” (37). The guards were all male. 

A devout member of the Religious Society of Friends and a recognized Quaker minister, Fry visited the prison several times in 1813, taking clothes and food, family obligations kept her away until 1816. Fry’s husband was an active father, but, by 1813, the couple had eight children aged 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, and 12, and welcomed three more children, in 1814, 1816, and 1822, respectively. 

In 1816, however, with the death of five-year-old Betsy, Elizabeth Fry returned to her prison work with vigor. Fry advocated separating the men from the women, then she began by establishing rules (voted on by the inmates) for what would constitute appropriate behavior. She next turned her attention to the children incarcerated with their parents, setting up a school. 

Believing that the best method for reforming the prisoners lay in religious instruction and useful work, she organizing the women into teams with a female guard, teaching them skills, like knitting or sewing, and helping them earn and save money in anticipation of their eventual release, a “leaving fund” to which Fry contributed a set amount for each woman as an incentive. Believing deeply in her fellow humans’ value, she opposed capital punishment, and she improved the conditions aboard ships for women being transported to Australia. Kindness, she believed, was essential to reform.

Importantly, Fry also encouraged women in the fashionable set to participate. In 1817, she formed the Ladies Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners at Newgate—the first women’s association to extend across Britain—and from this group, reform spread across the country. These associations became the foundation of her efforts, taking on the responsibility for enacting and maintaining reforms in their regions.

In 1818 she travelled through the country, visiting prisons in England, Scotland, and Ireland, her observations published in her Notes on a Visit to Prisons. In 1818 and 1835, she testified before a Parliamentary Select Committee on the status of prisons—the first woman to give evidence to Parliament. Her 1818 testimony influenced the 1827 Prison Act, in which year she published Observations, on the visiting, superintendence, and government of female prisoners

But Fry’s work extended beyond the prison system. An advocate of vaccination, Fry is credited with helping eliminate small-pox in the villages near her home. In 1819, she opened a “shelter” for the homeless, providing them with a place to sleep and a meal for the day. In 1824, during a visit to Brighton to recuperate from illness, Fry established a maternal society. She also observed the isolation of the coast guards, and she began a campaign to create libraries for the men. Eventually, with the help of her fellow Quakers, her Ladies Associations, and the government, 600 libraries were created, containing more than 52,000 books.

Sadly, beginning in the 1820s, the Prison Discipline Society, a group of men, determined that—contrary to Fry’s emphasis on industry—reforming the prisoners required them to suffer. Sydney Smith in the 1822 Edinburgh Review dismissed Fry’s efforts as too soft: 

Mrs Fry is an amiable and excellent woman […] but her’s [sic] is not the method to stop crimes. In prisons which are really meant to keep the multitude in order, and to be a terror to evil doers, there must be no sharing of profits—no visiting of friends—[…] There must be a great deal of solitude […] ’hard, incessant, irksome, eternal labour [and] a planned and regulated and unrelenting exclusion of happiness and comfort’ (qtd in Roberts 140).

For that labour, the Prison Discipline Society advocated the treadmill (Roberts 139). As men, the members of the Prison Discipline Society were able to gain political appointments (something closed to women), and through those appointments, power. In the 1830s, deeming Fry’s methods ‘amateurish,’ these men ‘professionalized’ the prison system (Roberts 139). And by doing so, they systematically excluded the committed corps of women volunteers working under Fry’s model.

Fry turned her attention to the Continent, and between 1838 and 1843, she made 5 journeys there, visiting prisons, meeting with the powerful. In 1840 she established a society of nursing sisters—the first effort to reform nursing, and when Florence Nightingale went to the Crimea, Fry’s nurses went with her. 

Fry authored or co-authored many reports and books, including the following:

1819: Notes on a visit made to some of the prisons in Scotland and the north of England in company with Elizabeth Fry : with some general observations on the subject of prison discipline by Joseph John Gurney

1827: Observations on the visiting, superintendence, and government of female prisoners 

1827: Report addressed to the Marquess Wellesley, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, by Elizabeth Fry and Joseph John Gurney, respecting their late visit to that country

1831: Texts for every day in the year : principally practical and devotional

1841: An address of Christian counsel and caution to emigrants to newly-settled colonies and posthumously, 

and posthumously

1847: Memoir of the life of Elizabeth Fry, with extracts from her journal and letters

Fry died in October 1845. At the core of all her efforts was the belief that her fellow human beings should be treated with kindness. 

The second woman—after Florence Nightingale—to appear on a British bank note, Fry has appeared on the 5 pound note since 2002: she will be replaced in fall of 2016 with the new polymer Winston Churchill fiver.

Her work continues today with the Elizabeth Fry Society.


All information comes from the following:

The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) provides a useful biography of Fry on their website. 

A brief memoir of Elizabeth Fry

Roberts, M. J. D. Making English Morals. Voluntary Associations and Moral Reform in England. Cambridge, 2004. 

You might also enjoy the short audio biography of Elizabeth Fry from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

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