Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845)
The gentle, kindly face of Elizabeth Fry was chosen by the Bank of England to grace the £5 note between 2002 and 2016, reflecting the high regard in which she continues to be held almost two hundred years after her death. Through her work as a prison reformer the lives of thousands of convicts were transformed. Yet that was just one part of her far-ranging ministry which is still influential today. At the heart of her thinking and practice was the regular reading of the Bible.
She was born Elizabeth Gurney, into a wealthy Quaker banking family. She was converted in 1798 after hearing the American preacher William Savery, who emphasised the cross of Christ in his message. Her life changed at once. She gave up the socialising, theatre and opera-going, and fine clothes that had been a regular part of family life. Bible reading and personal prayer became central to her daily routine. She developed an active social concern, visiting the poor and the sick in the local village, the inmates of the local house of correction, and starting a school for the education of poor children.
In 1800, Elizabeth married Joseph Fry, a wealthy Quaker merchant from Bristol. Between 1801 and 1822 they had eleven children. Elizabeth’s new faith had helped her overcome the terrible fears she had of thieves and robbers which left her ‘ready to jump out at my own shadow,’ but she still regularly battled nervousness, illness and depression. After 1809 she began to address Quaker meetings, promoting evangelical teachings, including the atoning work of Christ, the authority of Scripture, and the need for a personal conversion experience.
Reforming the prisons
In 1813, she visited the female inmates of the notorious Newgate prison in London. Here three hundred women lived in appalling, overcrowded conditions. One visitor described ‘half-naked, drunken women… shrieking curses, brawling, spitting and tearing each other’s hair.’ Many had their children with them, and often the first words they learned were swear words. Such an environment was alarming and dangerous to respectable middle-class female visitors. The prison authorities only maintained control by means of physical brutality. Despite her personal timidity, Elizabeth Fry found that she was able to speak calmly and confidently to the prisoners about the gospel, and that they listened carefully and respectfully.
In 1816 she began her famous prison reform work. The prison authorities considered her plans admirable, but impossible, because of the wildness of the inmates. Through patient persistence Elizabeth obtained permission to start a school for the children of the prisoners. The cell used for the classes was crowded, and other women, who also desperately wanted an education, stood outside listening to the lessons. Mary Connor, an educated young prisoner, assisted with the teaching. Through the work of the visitors, Mary came to faith in ‘the merits of her Lord and Saviour’. Fifteen months later she received a pardon, and was released.
Elizabeth Fry witnessed heart-rending daily scenes in Newgate. Some of the women were facing the death penalty for crimes such as passing forged bank notes. At times she despaired as to whether any good could be done at all in such desperate situations, aware that what she was witnessing was only ‘an atom in the abyss of vice, and consequent misery’ in London.
Her plan was to teach the prisoners the Bible, and ‘to form in them, as much as possible, habits of order, sobriety and industry which may render them peaceable while in prison, and respectable when they leave it’. She started the ‘Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners in Newgate.’ Its female members visited the prison daily, and a matron was appointed to work with the women. Elizabeth Fry sought wider reforms, including removing male warders from the female part of the prison.
Elizabeth Fry took the vital and unheard of step of inviting the prisoners to be partners in her project, which relied on their cooperation. They approved the proposal unanimously. The female prisoners were provided with sewing work, for which they were paid, supervised by other prisoners working as ‘monitors.’ Mrs Fry’s calm presence, her insistence on reading to them from the Bible each day, and her deep care for the inmates, was fundamental to her work. Within weeks, ‘Hell on earth’ had become a ‘well-regulated family’. Some called the transformation ‘miraculous’. The prison authorities were persuaded to take on responsibility for the school and pay the salary of the matron. She had quickly become a widely respected prison reformer. In 1818 she was afforded an unprecedented honour for a woman when she gave evidence to a House of Commons Committee on London Prisons.
Elizabeth Fry was also concerned for prisoners after their discharge, and in 1822 started an institution to support them, followed in 1824 by a home for girls convicted of minor offences. As well as Christian teaching, they were provided with education and life-skills in an attempt to stop them falling into more serious crime. By 1832, 103 girls had been admitted, and of them only two had returned to prison and four had fallen back into crime. She similarly worked to improve the conditions on ships transporting prisoners to Australia, and to reform the penal settlements of New South Wales.
All these achievements came at great personal cost. Her frequent absences meant her home life was sometimes neglected. Because of the family’s growing financial difficulties, six out of her nine surviving children spent time living away from home with other close relatives. There was a profound shock in 1828 when Joseph Fry was declared bankrupt after the bank he had established failed. This was considered a cause of great shame in a Quaker family, and significantly reduced Elizabeth’s capacity for further social concern projects.
Elizabeth Fry challenged the growing view that prison was only for punishment. She opposed those who argued for short, sharp, periods of imprisonment ideally in solitary confinement. She expressed concern over the suicide rate and the impact on the mental health of prisoners held in isolation, and difficulties they subsequently faced adjusting to normal life on release.
In 1840, Elizabeth Fry started a training school for ‘Protestant Sisters of Charity’. The sisters were trained in local hospitals, and devoted themselves to tending to the needs of the poor and sick in their locality, and reading the Scriptures to them. By 1854, there were forty ‘Fry Sisters.’
Elizabeth Fry died in 1845, aged 65, internationally influential as a prison reformer. Her ideas on criminal justice continue to be practised today. She inspired other women into more public spheres of social reform work, including Florence Nightingale. Through deep faith, a strong evangelistic impulse, and compassion for the poorest and most degraded people, she transformed not only the conditions, but also the lives of hundreds of prisoners and ex-offenders. From her, one biographer comments, ‘flowed a wave of tolerance and compassion which swept through nineteenth-century Europe’.
This article is based on a chapter in Evangelicals and Social Action, from John Wesley to John Stott (IVP, 2021), by Ian J. Shaw. The book contains studies of responses to eighteen major social issues in which evangelicals actively combined evangelism and social action, including healthcare, poverty, children ‘at risk’, addiction, and racial equality.