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Bill Samuel, August 4, 2002
Bill Samuel

Elizabeth Gurney Fry (1780-1845)
Quaker Prison Reformer

by Bill Samuel
Originally published August 1, 2001 at

 Elizabeth Fry portrait
Elizabeth Fry
Courtesy of Department of Education
Arts & Libraries
London Borough of Barking & Dagenham
You are born to be a light to the blind, speech to the dumb and feet to the lame.
-Prophesy about Elizabeth Gurney at age 18 given by Deborah Darby

Nothing short of the Holy Spirit can really help forward the cause of righteousness on earth.
-Elizabeth Gurney Fry
Few Quakers have inspired people in the larger society as much as Elizabeth Gurney Fry. Yet most know of only one aspect of ther life. Here I seek to provide a brief overview of the life of this woman who had such an impact on public life at a time when that was not well accepted.

Early Life

Elizabeth Gurney was the third of 12 children of John and Catherine Gurney of Norwich, England. John Gurney was a successful banker and businessman. Catherine was a member of the Barclay banking family. Both their families were active in the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Catherine believed that girls as well as boys should have a well rounded education, so Elizabeth got the basics of all the major academic subjects from her mother. Catherine also told the children Bible stories and read Psalms to them. She spent much time visiting and helping the sick and the poor, and the child Elizabeth loved to go on these visits with her mother. Elizabeth must have been deeply grieved at the age of 12 when her mother died shortly after giving birth to her twelfth child.

The Gurney family was not a typical Quaker family. They stood out when they went to meeting for worship with their bright, fahionable clothes among the plain Friends. Elizabeth was not a serious youth, and sometimes made excuses in order to avoid attending meeting for worship.

Spiritual Development and Early Years of Marriage

I think my feelings that night...were the most exalted I remember...suddenly my mind felt clothed with light, as with a garment and I felt silenced before God; I cried with the heavenly feeling of humility and repentance.
-Memoir of Elizabeth Fry
On February 4, 1798, this vain youth attended meeting for worship wearing purple boots and scarlet laces. That meeting was attended by a visiting American Quaker minister, William Savery, whose ministry touched the girl's heart. She wrote about her reaction, "I have felt there is a GOD." Later, when visiting London, she had the opportunity to hear Savery's ministry again.

Touched by God through plain Friends, Elizabeth struggled with the way she lived her life. Her interest in amusements wained. Although her family was not very sympathetic to her changes in religious attitudes, she found herself coming to use the traditional Quaker plain language and adopting plain dress. She started a Sunday school in the family home at Earlham Hall.

In the summer of 1799, Joseph Fry, a shy plain Friend from a wealthy Quaker family, came to visit her family. Taken with Elizabeth, he asked her to marry him. At first she refused, but Joseph grew on her and she married him the following year. The couple had eleven children.

Following in her mother's footsteps, Elizabeth began to visit a workhouse for the poor to teach the children. She also became respected for her vocal ministry in worship, and was recorded as a minister in 1811 by her Quaker meeting. However, the demands of motherhood occupied most of her time, and in 1812 she wrote in her diary, "I fear that my life is slipping away to little purpose."

The Angel of Newgate Prison

 Elizabeth Fry reading to prisoners
Elizabeth Fry reading to prisoners in Newgate prison, 1823
Courtesy of Department of Education, Arts & Libraries
London Borough of Barking & Dagenham
Once again at a key moment in her life a visiting Quaker minister from America plays an important role. In 1813, Stephen Grellet came to ask for her help. He had visited some prisons, and was horrified by the conditions in the women's prison at Newgate. Hundreds of women and their children were crowded into the prison, many sleeping on the floor without nightclothes or bedding. Elizabeth immediately sent out for warm material and enlisted other women Friends to help make clothing for the infants.

The next day, Elizabeth and her sister-in-law went to Newgate prison. The turnkeys warned them that the women were wild and savage, and they would be in physical danger. However, they went in anyway. On that and two more visits, they brought warm clothing and clean straw for the sick to lie on. Elizabeth also prayed for the prisoners.

After these initial visits, family difficulties, including the death of a daughter, kept her away from the prison for years. But during the Christmas season of 1816, she returned and began a ministry that lasted many years. She asked the women what she could do for their children, and together they agreed on the need for a school.

In 1817, Elizabeth organized a group of women into the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. This group organized a school, and provided materials so the prisoners could sew, knit and make goods for sale. They took turns visiting the prison and reading the Bible to the prisoners.

Spreading Influence and Hardships

Elizabeth's work soon extended well beyond Newgate prison. In 1818, a committee of the House of Commons asked her to testify on prison conditions, the first woman to be called as such a witness. Societies like the Newgate Association sprung up at other prisons in Britain and Europe.

Her concerns went beyond the prisons. She also set up District Visiting Societies to help the poor, libraries for coast guards, and a nurses' training school. She influenced Florence Nightingale's nurse training program, and nurses trained by Fry's school accompanied Nightingale to the Crimea.

In 1827, Fry published a book called Observations, on the visiting superintendence and government of female prisoners. In that book, she not only laid out the need for prison reform, but raised broader concerns. She called for more opportunites for women and strongly condemned the death penalty.

Fry was so well known and respected that her work received support from Queen Victoria, and the king of Prussia visited her. But this did not save her from humiliation when her husband's bank crashed in 1828. Not only did this plunge the family into poverty, but their Quaker meeting disowned (removed from membership) her husband because he had put other people's money at risk.

Fry's brother Joseph John Gurney stepped in and took over her husband's business arrangement, arranging for his debts to be paid. He also arranged an annual stipend for Elizabeth, enabling her to continue her work. Fry continued her work until her death in 1845. More than a thousand people stood in silence as she was laid to rest in a Quaker burial ground.

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