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
- 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.
Fry died on 12 October 1845.