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 Elizabeth Fry: prison reformer and campaigner

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  • Elizabeth Fry, nee Gurney, was born in Norwich on 21 May 1780 to John and Catherine Gurney. Both her mother and father were prominent members of the Society of Friends. The family was very wealthy. Her father owned a wool stapling and spinning factory and was a partner in the renowned Gurney Bank; her mother was a member of the Barclay banking family. Catherine Gurney died in childbirth when Elizabeth was twelve. As one of the eldest girls, Elizabeth was expected to help look after her 11 siblings.
  • From the age of 18, Elizabeth took on an active charity role. She helped the poor, visited the sick, helped educate children (even setting up and running a Sunday School in the family house).
  • In 1799, Elizabeth met Joseph Fry, the son of a successful tea, coffee and spice merchant from Essex and a Quaker. The pair were married the following year and went to live in Fry's native Plashet (now East Ham). In the next twenty years, Elizabeth gave birth to 11 children, one of whom (Betsy) died aged five.
  • Her first contact with the prison system came in 1813. A family friend, Stephen Grellet, had visited Newgate Prison and was shocked by what he saw. Grellet told Fry of his experience and she decided to visit the prison herself. Fry was appalled by the conditions. Upto 300 women and their children were housed together in two wards and two cells. The women had no option but to sleep on the floor and were forced to cook, wash and sleep in the same room. Fry took immediate action. She supplied the prisoners with clothes, established a school and chapel and persuade the prison to adopt a system of supervision where the prisoners were given tasks and supervised by matrons. Her input did not end there. In 1817 Fry and 11 other Quakers formed the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. In the following year, one of the members, who was also Fry's brother-in-law, Thomas Fowell Buxton, published a tract entitled An Inquiry into Prison Discpline which was based on his observations at Newgate.
  • Also in 1818 Buxton became MP for Weymouth and started to campaign for better prison conditions. Fry used this contact immediately, giving evidence to a House of Commons Select Committee and making appeals to Lord Sidmouth (then Home Secretary) on behalf of many prisoners. However, Sidmouth and other members of the government paid little attention to Fry and her campaign. It was not until Sir Robert Peel became Home Secretary that any changes were made.
  • The most important measure introduced by Peel was the Gaols Act of 1823. This lifted the death penalty from over 130 minor offences, introduced payment for gaolers and made an attempt to improve conditions in prison (for example, forbidding alcohol and ensuring that female prisoners were cared for by female warders). However, since the Act did not apply to debtor's prisons or local town gaols, Fry felt the measure was not far-reaching enough.
  • Fry believed that extra evidence about conditions in prisons was needed and, accompanied by her brother, Joseph Gurney, went on a tour of British prisons. Their findings were published in a book called Prisons in Scotland and the North of England.
  • Fry continued her work with prisons and with the poor but suffered a personal blow in 1828. In November of that year, her husband was declared bankrupt. Rumours began to fly around that money paid to the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate had been used to try to solve the Bank's problems. This was not true but the accusations damaged Fry's reputation and that of the charities she was involved with. In the end, Joseph Gurney took over the business, paid off the debts and arranged for his sister to have £1600 per year to use for charity work.
  • Fry continued to campaign on various issues for the rest of her life. In addition to fighting for better prison conditions, she campaigned for the homeless, patients in mental asylums, and the poor and destitute. Towards the end of her life she started a training school for nurses and was an influence on Florence Nightingale.
  • Elizabeth Fry died on 12 October 1845.

 

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