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October 12 — Elizabeth Fry

Today’s Bible reading

Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. — Hebrews 13:3

More thoughts for meditation about Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was a pioneering campaigner for better conditions in prisons during the Victorian Period. She was born Elizabeth Gurney in 1780, in Norwich, England to a prominent Quaker family. Her father was a partner in Gurney bank, and her mother was a relative of the Barclays, who founded Barclays Bank. After her mother died when she was 12, she took an active role in bringing up her other siblings. When Elizabeth was 18, she was influenced by the humanitarian message of William Savery, an American Quaker who spoke of the importance of tackling poverty and injustice. She became inspired to be involved in helping local charities and at a local Sunday School, which taught children to read. When she was 20, she married Joseph Fry, who was also a banker and Quaker. They moved to London where they had eleven children.

Elizabeth was a strict observant; as a Quaker Minister she didn’t engage in activities like dancing and singing. However, she was well connected in London society and often met influential members of the upper-middle classes of London.

newgate
The infamous Newgate prison before demolition

Around 1812, she made her first visit to Newgate prison, which housed both men and women prisoners, some of who were awaiting trial. Fry was shocked at the squalid and unsanitary conditions in which she found the prisoners. Fry felt this fermented both bad health and fighting. In 1813, she wrote:

“All I tell thee is a faint picture of reality; the filth, the closeness of the rooms, the furious manner and expressions of the women towards each other, and the abandoned wickedness, which everything bespoke are really indescribable.”

She spent the night in prison to get a better idea of what conditions were like. She sought to improve conditions by bringing in clean clothes and food. She also encouraged prisoners to look after themselves better; for example, she suggested rules that they could vote on themselves. She felt her mission was:

” … to form in them, as much as possible, those habits of sobriety, order, and industry, which may render them docile and peaceable while in prison, and respectable when they leave it.”

She would put a better-educated prisoner in charge and encourage them to cooperate in keeping their cells cleaner and more hygienic. Fry felt one of the most important things was to give prisoners a sense of self-respect which would help them to reform, rather than fall into bad habits and become re-offenders.

She wrote a book Prisons in Scotland and the North of England (1819) and encouraged her fellow society friends to go and visit the prison to see conditions for themselves.

“It must indeed be acknowledged, that many of our own penal provisions, as they produce no other effect, appear to have no other end, than the punishment of the guilty.

In 1817, she founded the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate; this later became the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners. It was one of the first nationwide women’s organizations in Britain. The aims of the organization were:

“to provide for the clothing, the instruction, and the employment of these females, to introduce them to knowledge of the holy scriptures, and to form in them as much as lies in our power, those habits of order, sobriety, and industry which may render them docile and perceptible whilst in prison, and respectable when they leave it.”

In 1818, Fry became the first women to give evidence at a House of Commons committee, during an inquiry into British prisons. In 1825, she published an influential book. “Observations of the Siting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners.” – which gave detail for improving penal reforms. Fry’s unique contribution was the willingness to raise an unpopular topic, others would rather leave untouched; she also sought to take practical steps to improve conditions in prisons.

As well as campaigning for better prisons, Fry also established a night shelter for the homeless, giving the homeless a place to stay. This was motivated by seeing a young boy dead on the street. In 1824, she instituted the Brighton District Visiting Society, which arranged for volunteers to visit the homes of the poor to offer education and material aid. She was supported in her work by her husband, but after he went bankrupt in 1828, her brother, also a banker stepped in to provide funds and support.

Fry became well known in society; she was granted a few audiences with Queen Victoria who was a strong supporter of her work. Another royal admirer was Frederick William IV of Prussia; in an unusual move for a visiting monarch, went to see Fry in Newgate prison and was deeply impressed by her work. The Home Office Minister Robert Peel was also an admirer. In 1823, he passed the Gaol Act which sought to legislate for minimum standards in prisons. This went some way to improve conditions in prison in London but was not enforced in debtors prisons or local gaols (jails) around the country.

At the time, it was unusual for a woman to have an active public profile and move out of the confines of the home. Particularly in the early years, Fry was criticized for neglecting her role as mother and housewife. Lord Sidmouth, the home secretary preceding Peel, rejected her criticisms of the prisons. In this regard, she can be seen as an important figure in giving women a higher profile in public affairs. She could be seen as an early feminist and forerunner of the later suffragists, who campaigned for women to be given the vote.

She also established a nursing school, which later inspired Florence Nightingale to take a team of nurses, trained by Fry’s school, to the Crimea.

More?

From Biography online

Geared for High School people

From Christian History magazine

Nice extra facts.

One minute video

Book: Betsy: The Dramatic Biography of Prison Reformer Elizabeth Fry

On the 5 Pound note.

Suggestions for action

Conviction causes us to take risks. Maybe you don’t have the intelligence, imagination and courage of Elizabeth Fry, but what do you have? What is a need you can enter today? Who can you comfort? Who is in “jail” in some way and you can remember them and suffer with them?

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