Fry was a major driving force behind new legislation to make the treatment of prisoners more humane, and she was supported in her efforts by the reigning monarch. Since 2002, she has been depicted on the Bank of England £5 note.
Birth and family background
Elizabeth Gurney was born in Gurney Court, off Magdalen Street, Norwich, Norfolk, England to a Quaker family. Her family home as a child was Earlham Hall, which is now part of the University of East Anglia. Her father, Joseph Gurney, was a partner in Gurney's bank. Her mother, Catherine, was a part of the Barclay family, who were among the founders of Barclays Bank. Her mother died when Elizabeth was only twelve years old. As one of the oldest girls in the family, Elizabeth was partly responsible for the care and training of the younger children, including her brother Joseph John Gurney.
At 18 years old, the young Elizabeth Gurney was deeply moved by the preaching of William Savery, an American Quaker. Motivated by his words, she took an interest in the poor, the sick, and the prisoners. She collected old clothes for the poor, visited those who were sick in her neighbourhood, and started a Sunday school in the summer house to teach children to read. She met Joseph Fry (1777 –1861), a banker and also a Quaker, when she was twenty years old. They married on 19 August 1800 at the Norwich Goat Lane Friends Meeting House and moved to St. Mildred's Court in the City of London. They had eleven children in all born between 1801 and 1822, including Katherine Fry (1801-1886), who wrote a History of the Parishes of East and West Ham (1888). Elizabeth Fry was recorded as a Minister of the Religious Society of Friends in 1811.
Joseph and Elizabeth Fry lived in Plashet House in East Ham between 1809 and 1829, then moved to Upton Lane in Forest Gate. One of their daughters, called Betsy, died at the age of five.
Fry's prison work
Prompted by a family friend, Stephen Grellet, Fry visited Newgate prison. The conditions she saw there horrified her. The women's section was overcrowded with women and children, some of whom had not even received a trial. They did their own cooking and washing in the small cells in which they slept.
She returned the following day with food and clothes for some of the prisoners. She was unable to further her work for nearly 4 years because of difficulties within the Fry family, including financial difficulties in the Fry bank. Fry returned in 1816 and was eventually able to found a prison school for the children who were imprisoned with their parents. She began a system of supervision and required the women to sew and to read the Bible. In 1817 she helped found the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. This led to the eventual creation of the British Ladies' Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners, widely described by biographers and historians as constituting the first "nationwide" women's organization in Britain.
Thomas Fowell Buxton, Fry's brother-in-law, was elected to Parliament for Weymouth and began to promote her work among his fellow MPs. In 1818 Fry gave evidence to a House of Commons committee on the conditions prevalent in British prisons, becoming the first woman to present evidence in Parliament.
Fry and her brother, Joseph John Gurney, took up the cause of abolishing capital punishment. At that time, people in England could be executed for over 200 crimes. Early appeals to the Home Secretary were all rejected, until Sir Robert Peel became the Home Secretary, when they finally got a receptive audience. They persuaded Peel to introduce a series of prison reforms that included the Gaols Act 1823. Fry and Gurney went on a tour of the prisons in Great Britain. They published their findings of inhumane conditions in a book entitled Prisons in Scotland and the North of England.
Fry's other humanitarian work
Fry also helped the homeless, establishing a "nightly shelter" in London after seeing the body of a young boy in the winter of 1819/1820. In 1824, during a visit to Brighton, she instituted the Brighton District Visiting Society. The society arranged for volunteers to visit the homes of the poor and provide help and comfort to them. The plan was successful and was duplicated in other districts and towns across Britain.
After her husband went bankrupt in 1828, Fry's brother became her business manager and benefactor. Thanks to him her work went on and expanded.
Fry became well known in society. Some people criticized her for having such an influential role as a woman. Others alleged that she was neglecting her duties as a wife and mother in order to conduct her humanitarian work. One admirer was Queen Victoria, who granted her an audience a few times and contributed money to her cause.
Her whole life was dedicated to the poor until she died in Ramsgate, England, on October 12, 1845. Her remains were buried in the Friends' burial ground at Barking. Over a thousand people stood in silence during the burial.
Two plaques commemorate her birthplace, at Gurney Court, off Magdalen Street, Norwich, and her childhood home of Earlham Hall. There is also an Elizabeth Fry Road in Earlham. There is another plaque at St. Mildred's Court, City of London, where she lived when she was first married, which in turn is commemorated in St. Mildred's Road in Earlham.
Her resting place at the former Society of Friends Burial Ground, off Whiting Avenue in Barking, Essex, was restored and on October 8, 2003, a new commemorative plinth made of marble was officially unveiled.
Elizabeth Fry is also depicted on two panels of the Quaker Tapestry, panels E5 and E6.
In February 2007 a new plaque was placed in her honour on the Friends Meeting House in Upper Goat Lane, Norwich.
The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies honours her memory by advocating for women who are in the criminal justice system. They also celebrate and promote a National Elizabeth Fry Week in Canada each May.
There is an Elizabeth Fry Ward in Basildon Hospital in Basildon, Essex.