Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was a British reformer and Quaker lay evangelist, who worked for prison reform, particularly to relieve the physical misery and moral degradation of women prisoners.

An evangelist who relied on prayer and Bible-reading to inculcate virtue, Elizabeth Fry epitomized the reformer inspired by religious motives. She also relied on her access to the politically powerful, an advantage she enjoyed as a member of a well-connected Quaker family and enhanced by the celebrity status that she quickly attained through her prison visits. Her work on behalf of women prisoners caught the popular fancy, and she enjoyed a prestige in her country and in other European countries that few women in a society ruled by men could match. On the other hand, England soon rejected her approach to prison reform.

People worried about the increase in crime that had started with the Industrial Revolution; it had increased even more after the end of the long wars with France brought extensive unemployment. A combination of the 18th-century Enlightenment critique of traditional institutions and a humanitarianism largely rooted in Evangelical (and Quaker) religion encouraged a fresh look at crime and punishment.

Fry inspired confidence as a devout, motherly woman of unquestionable sincerity. Her prison visits belonged to a tradition of well-off, benevolent women visiting the unfortunate, a kind of unpaid social work. Helping women prisoners appeared to be a respectable philanthropy for pious women with time, energy, and money to spare. Although the Society of Friends had an English membership of less than 20,000 during Fry's lifetime, Quaker women took a disproportionate role in charity and reform.

Elizabeth Fry was born into a happy, prosperous family, the Gurneys, at Norwich in eastern England, blighted only by the early death of her mother. Her father's relaxed Quakerism abandoned many of the restrictions identified with that religion, such as the requirement to wear only simple clothing and to avoid worldly society. She grew up enjoying fashionable parties and dances that earlier Quakers would have avoided. Some of her sisters would eventually withdraw from Quakerism to join the state Anglican Church, and her banker brothers would greatly add to the family riches.

Fry was in her teens in 1798 when an American member of the Society of Friends attacked the luxurious "gayness" of the local Quakers and awakened in Fry a sense of God that began her conversion to a strict Quakerism. This was not the common Evangelical conversion experience— a realization of guilt, followed by a sense of God's forgiveness—but instead a mystical communion with God. She never desired religious ceremonies or theology or a highly organized church. Her religion was a very personal one, founded on silent meditation, aided by the reading of the Bible, that sometimes led to informal but eloquent sermons. Virtually alone among religious denominations of the early 19th century, the small Society of Friends allowed women and men an equal right to speak at religious services because of the Quaker principle of direct inspiration.

Fry gradually adopted the strict Quaker policies on dress and Quaker peculiarities of speech (such as saying "thee" and "thou" instead of "you"). She became what contemporaries called a plain Friend. By 1799, she rejected singing as a distraction from true piety. (Her younger brother Joseph John Gurney followed her in reviving many of the old distinctive practices of the Quakers that separated them from other people; although as the leader of the Evangelical Quakers, he encouraged good relations with all Evangelical Protestants.)

After her father's death in 1809, Fry began to speak at Quaker meetings and was recognized officially as a full minister two years later. Her marriage in 1800 to a London Quaker, Joseph Fry, delayed her wider public career; she bore ten children between 1801 and 1816 (and an 11th in 1822).

Although at the urging of an American Quaker she had visited Newgate Gaol (jail) in London during 1813, it was at the end of 1816 that Elizabeth Fry began her systematic work as a prison reformer. She visited many prisons in the British Isles during the following years, but she made her special mission the reform of the women imprisoned in Newgate. Approximately 300 women and children were crowded in a women's ward comprising 190 square yards. Hardened criminals guilty of serious crimes were mixed with those jailed for minor offenses. Children lived in the prison with their mothers, in rags, filth, and idleness. As the prison furnished no uniforms, many poverty-stricken women existed half-naked. Prison policy combined occasional brutality with a permissiveness that allowed inmates considerable freedom—tolerating drinking and fighting— and made no attempt at rehabilitation, such as training the women for jobs outside prison walls.

In 1817, Fry organized the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners in Newgate. Two members visited the prisoners everyday to read the Scriptures aloud. When Fry read from the Bible (and preached) at Newgate, so many people wanted to attend that the London magistrates authorized her to issue tickets. Association members adopted a personal approach toward women prisoners and tried to gain their active cooperation through kindness and persuasion. Fry's association put the women prisoners to work, sewing and knitting, under the supervision of prisoner monitors. With a prisoner as the instructor, it also organized a school for the women (and their children) to teach them to read the Bible. One of Fry's rules for the Newgate women declared "that there be no begging, swearing, gaming, card-playing, quarrelling, or immoral conversation."

Fry's work was not confined to Newgate. In 1818, she made a tour of prisons in northern England and Scotland with her brother Joseph John Gurney, described in a book published under his name, Notes on a Visit Made to Some of the Prisons in Scotland and the North of England in Company with Elizabeth Fry. Middle-class ladies' committees sprang up to visit prisons all over the country. In 1821, they joined together as the British Ladies' Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners.

Fry was an activist, not in most respects an original thinker. Ironically, most of her ideas resembled that of Jeremy Bentham, an earlier prison reformer who often is contrasted with Fry because he despised religion. Like Bentham, Fry favored classifying prisoners (in contrast to the prevalent mixing of all types), providing productive work for them, and establishing healthful living conditions. Her more distinctive opinions favored the employment of matrons to supervise women prisoners, rejected capital punishment (and flogging) in principle, minimized the role of unproductive hard labor such as working the treadmill, and repudiated bread-and-water diets. She tried, with modest success, to mitigate the sufferings of the women sentenced to transportation to Australia, a form of penal exile. Above all, she insisted that women criminals could be redeemed.

For a few years, Fry had the ear of Cabinet ministers and parliamentary committees, but she soon lost her influence. Overestimating what she could do, she offended those whom she wanted to persuade. This was the case in 1818 when she lobbied the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, to stop the execution of a Newgate prisoner.

By 1827, when she published the short book Observations on the Visiting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners, based on her practical experience, her time of importance had already passed. She continued to argue for the importance of local ladies' committees; the influence of public-spirited women was needed to supplement and correct the laws and regulations established by men. For the prisoners themselves, she urged the women visitors to show a spirit of mercy: "Great pity is due from us even to the greatest transgressors among our fellow-creatures."

Fry lost prestige (and money for her prison charities) when her husband's businesses failed in 1828. As a bankrupt, he was excluded from the Society of Friends, and the Fry family became dependent on the financial generosity of the wealthy Gurneys.

By the mid-1820s, other prison reformers increasingly advocated policies contrary to Elizabeth Fry's. Many Quakers (including two of her brothers-in-law) were prominent in the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline and the Reformation of Juvenile Reformers (founded in 1818), but after a brief period when it supported her, the Society lobbied for a centralized professional prison administration and detailed bureaucratic rules that left no place for the visits of "meddlesome" ladies' committees. Fry's rivals campaigned for the harsh prison policies pioneered in the United States at Philadelphia, such as solitary confinement and exhausting hard labor. These principles became law when Parliament adopted the Prison Act of 1835.

Although lacking any practical influence, Fry remained a celebrity, particularly on the continent of Europe. Acclaimed in 1838 and 1841 when she visited France and the German states, she was also honored in 1842 by the king of Prussia who visited her Bible-reading at Newgate and lunched at her home.

Two years after Elizabeth Fry died in 1845, two of her daughters published a Memoir of the Life of Elizabeth Fry with Extracts from her Journal and Letters, an abridgment in two volumes of her 44 volumes of handwritten journals. The Memoir sought to make Fry a saint and left out whatever the daughters regarded as not fitting that image. Until 1980, Fry's biographers failed to read the original journals.

Fry was not the perfect woman that her daughters presented. She embodied many contradictions. She adhered to a strict Quakerism that required plain living and the rejection of worldly vanities; yet, as some fellow Quakers grumbled, her simple clothes were cut from expensive fabrics, and she rejoiced in her opportunities to mingle with politicians, aristocrats, and royalty. Nothing was more important for her than her religion, yet, to her great anguish, she failed to nurture a commitment to Quakerism among her children, nearly all of whom left the Society of Friends when they grew up.

Despite her limitations, Elizabeth Fry deserves to be remembered as a genuinely good woman, as her contemporaries acknowledged, and a much wiser one than the men who belittled her as a naive amateur realized. In the early 19th century, women reformers were loved more often than they were respected. Although far from perfect, Fry's philosophy of prison reform avoided numbing bureaucracy and dehumanizing brutality and encouraged the participation of members of the general public in the conduct of prison life.


Further Reading on Elizabeth Fry

Cooper, Robert Allan. "Jeremy Bentham, Elizabeth Fry, and English Prison Reform," in Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 42. (1981): 675-90.

Dobash, Russell P., R. Emerson Dobash, and Sue Gutteridge. The Imprisonment of Women. Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Kent, John. Elizabeth Fry. B.T. Batsford, 1962.

Rose, June. Elizabeth Fry. Macmillan, 1980.

Ignatieff, Michael. A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850. Pantheon, 1978.

Isichei, Elizabeth. Victorian Quakers. Oxford University Press, 1970.

McConville, Sean. A History of English Prison Administration, 1750-1877. Vol 1. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.

Prochaska, Frank K. Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century England. Clarendon Press, 1980.

Punshon, John. Portrait in Grey: A Short History of the Quakers. Quaker Home Services, 1984.