Elizabeth Gurney was brought up in a wealthy Quaker family. Her marriage in 1800 to Joseph Fry, another member of the Society of Friends (Quakers), took her to London. There the poverty and degradation she could not help but notice became more and more of a challenge to her religious beliefs. The Quakers were one of the first Christian groups to recognise the equality of the sexes and to advocate education for women. This background and her independence of mind and firmness of character soon led her to find practical outlets for her concern. They had eleven children, five sons and six daughters but despite her growing family, by 1808 she was able to establish a girls’ school at Plashet near East Ham in London. The Society of Friends recognised her work when in 1811 they acknowledged her as a “minister”.
Two years later in 1813 she became so concerned with the horrendous prison conditions of the time that she began her welfare work with the women prisoners in Newgate jail. As well as daily visits, she undertook a programme of regular Bible readings and sewing classes, but knew while every small thing helps such a programme was hardly adequate. In 1817 she launched a campaign for prison reform, which had as its aims the separation of the sexes, the employment of women warders to supervise women prisoners, the classification of prisoners, the provision of both religious and secular education, and the creation of useful employment. A year later she was invited to give evidence on prison conditions before a select committee of the House of Commons. Her submission was influential in shaping subsequent legislation, both in the United Kingdom (England) and in other European countries, which quickly recognised her as a leading promoter of prison reform. Her concern for the welfare of prisoners and her knowledge of the effects on their future lives of a custodial sentence culminated in 1839 in the formation of a society devoted to the care and rehabilitation of former offenders.
Other causes in addition to prison reform benefited from Elizabeth’s desire to assist those who had neither the means nor the energy to reshape their lives. In 1820 she was involved in the establishment of a “Nightly Shelter for the Homeless” in London, and later in her life she was also instrumental in the formation of societies in and beyond London which were concerned with the plight of those reduced to beggary. The conditions suffered by those unfortunate enough to be confined to psychiatric hospitals (which were horrendous) were also a matter of concern, and she did a great deal to bring about improvements in the hospital system and in particular the treatment of the insane. In 1836 she was able to arrange for the provision of libraries in coastguard stations and in certain naval hospitals.
Underpinning all her philanthropic work was her deep religious faith, and throughout her life active evangelisation was never separated from social action. In 1827, together with her brother J.J. Gurney, Elizabeth wrote a report on social conditions in Ireland, where extreme poverty was widespread. But the work which most clearly emphasised her convictions was a devotional book called Texts for Every Day in the Year. This was first published in 1831 and ran into several editions before her death. At her passing Seamen of the Ramsgate Coast Guard flew their flag at half mast in respect of Mrs Fry; a practice that until this occasion had been officially reserved for the death of a ruling monarch. More than a thousand people stood in silence during the burial at the Ramsgate memorial. She was depicted on the Bank of England £5 note from 2001–2016 and a statue of her stands in the Old Bailey Court.
BORN: 21 May 1780, Norwich,
DIED: 12 October 1845, Ramsgate, England