Elizabeth Fry: A Humble Philanthropist

By Ella Stephens

Elizabeth Fry: Who Was She?

Elizabath Fry. From Great Britain and Her Queen, by Anne E. Keeling http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/13103

In the nineteenth century, the prison system was an institution with the sole aim to punish the prisoners, with no intent to provide rehabilitation or restitution. Prisons were often overcrowded and turned a blind eye to the indecency and brutality that the inmates faced. It was commonly believed that these people deserved this treatment, and if anyone was disturbed by the treatment they frequently assumed that this was the only way prisons could be or that the system had gone too far to be amended. One woman, however, refused to let this continue to be the custom. Elizabeth Gurney Fry used her Quaker faith and social influence to enact changes in the prison system, especially in the social understanding of the system.

Quaker Beliefs

To understand Fry’s motives in reforming the prison system, one must first understand the tenents of the Quaker faith to which she so strongly adhered. Fundamental to the Quaker faith is the idea of spiritual equality, which in turn led to opposition to war and slavery, as well as a strong sense of social activism. The movement, beginning in England in the mid seventeenth century, was first viewed as highly radical and Quakers were discriminated against and many fled to America.

An aspect of the Quaker faith is its adherence to testimonies. Testimonies are “expressions of the commitment to put [the] beliefs…of living life in the spirit of love and truth and peace, reaching for the best in oneself, and answering ‘that of God’ in everyone.”[1] Modeled after the way Christ lived, they are a way of life, a practice intended to draw a person closer to God. The ways one is expected to follow the testimonies are not explicitly stated anywhere within the Quaker faith, but expectations are instead set forth by the Quaker following them and apply to the ways in which that individual lives. The main testimonies are peace, equality, integrity, community, simplicity, and stewardship.[2] The testimony most prevalent in Fry’s life was equality. Because Quakers believe that God holds all people as equal in His eyes and therefore have equal rights to the “inner light,” it “leads Friends [or, Quakers] to treat each person with respect, looking for ‘that of God’ in everyone.”[3] This in turn leads to an egalitarian stance towards men and women, something that would have been very radical for the time. They acknowledge the spiritual authority of women, and women were frequently appointed as ministers, or “those believed to have a ‘gift’ of ministry…the term used to describe the particular calling given to everyone by God.”[4] Ministers were treated similarly to elders in other denominations, without the same connotation that the term “minister” has in the general Christian context. This understanding of the equality between men and women as well as the equality between people of all levels of society led to Fry’s prison reform work being generally accepted by the Quaker tradition as things that were in line with their teachings.

In the UK, Quakers first faced persecution for heresy and blasphemy, but were gradually accepted into society. While the faith began radical, over time they amended many of their practices to avoid persecution while still ensuring that the basic theology behind them remained intact. In both the UK and America, Quakers placed a large emphasis on remaining in contact with fellow Quakers, and traveling ministers were commonly sent out to check in on Quaker groups and families.[5] This contrasted the rising popularity of traveling pastors in other denominations, who were mainly focused on converting people who were not already Christian, and instead was directed toward existing Quakers. Elizabeth Fry lived in a time just before major Quaker theological shifts, as the nineteenth century brought rifts over the influence of Evangelical Revival and emphasis on the authority of scripture. Fry’s brother Joseph John Gurney brought about the sect of Gurneyite Quakers in the mid-nineteenth century, which turned more toward the authority of scripture and held it in equal regard to the concept of an Inward Light, which some sects had come to hold in high regard.

Early Life

Elizabeth Fry was born in 1780 to a well-established Quaker family in Norwich, England. Her parents, Catherine Bell and John Gurney, came from the wealthy banking families of the Barclays and the Gurneys, respectively.[6] This wealth that Fry was born into would have a significant impact on her successes in the social sphere later in life. Elizabeth was one of twelve children, and the children were raised in a more moderate understanding of the Quaker faith. The family intermixed with other upper-middle-class families, which exposed Fry and her siblings to a variety of values and religious beliefs. Before she died, Fry’s mother provided an early education for Fry and her siblings, and her love of nature was passed on so that her children might be able to understand God through nature and creation, something that stuck with Fry for the rest of her life.[7] Because the family was wealthy and known in the community, the Gurneys did not want their children to stand out as fanatics, so their practice of the Quaker faith was more liberal than the Society of Friends may have preferred. For the Gurneys, the liberal extent of their faith was limited to outward appearances, concerning dress and speech. Fry was raised as a lady and would generally address people according to their social status and not as “thou,” as the faith demanded.[8]

Fry was also a very anxious child from an early age, and she wrote in her journals about her near-constant worrying. She describes her fears ranging from guns to the dark to bathing, and later in life she recalled “I had, as well as a fearful, rather a reserved mind, for I never remember telling of my many painful fears, though I must often have shown them by weeping when left in the dark, and on other occasions.”[9] This anxiety, developed in her youth, would remain present in Fry’s life, especially surrounding her concerns over status and appearance, motherhood, and her work in the prisons.

Influences on Her Faith and Adult Life

In 1798, Elizabeth Fry attended a Friends’ Society meeting that featured the American traveling minister William Savery. Fry’s sister Richenda described the experience in her journals, saying

At last William Savery began to preach. His voice and manner were arresting, and we all liked the sound; [Elizabeth’s] attention became fixed: at last I saw her begin to weep, and she became a good deal agitated. As soon as [the] Meeting was over, I have a remembrance of her making her way to the men’s side of the Meeting, and having found my father, she begged him if she might dine with William Savery at the Grove.[10]

His teachings were simple, but they caught the attention of a young Elizabeth Gurney. Part of his teachings leaned on looking through nature to see God, something that Elizabeth found appealing because of her mother’s influence.[11] Savery’s teachings were a major influence on Fry’s decision to become a full plain Quaker in 1799.

Elizabeth Gurney became Elizabeth Fry in 1800, the year after she decided to become a Plain Quaker. Joseph Fry was a strong, very conservative Quaker from a wealthy family.[12] In the first ten years of their marriage in London she and Joseph had seven children, and at times she felt motherhood to be a burden. In one journal entry, she wrote “my course has been very different to what I expected: instead of being, as I had hoped, a useful instrument in the Church Militant, here I am, a care-worn wife and mother.”[13] The family moved to Joseph’s family home, Plashet Manor, and from there Fry began her social reform work. When her father died in 1809, Fry felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to pray at his funeral. Her prayer was so clearly a heavenly gift that she was then given the “command to speak” at a number of Quaker Meetings.[14] Given her anxiety she experienced as a child and continued to experience as an adult, it showed even further her spiritual gift in this newfound ability to speak in front of such crowds. The presence of the Holy Spirit in her testifying was recognized by the Society of Friends and she was acknowledged as a regular minister in 1811.[15]

Fry’s brother Joseph John Gurney was also highly influential on her life. While many of their siblings remained more moderate Quakers or turned away from the faith altogether, Joseph John followed his older sister’s footsteps and became a plain Quaker.[16] After she began her activism in prison reform, the pair began to travel the country to attend Quaker meetings and visit prisons.[17] He traveled with her through Europe and published his account of the travels, Notes on a Visit Made to Some of the Prisons in Scotland and the North of England, in Company with Elizabeth fry; With Some General Observations on the Subject of Prison Discipline in 1819, a widely-read document that explicitly stated the mistreatment of the prisoners and led to general public support of the movement.[18] Together, the pair published several other brochures and documents describing their accounts of the conditions in the prisons they visited.

Prison Work

In 1813, at the urging of other Quakers visiting Newgate prison, Elizabeth Fry went to visit the women to try to do something about the state of squalor in the prison. The women were held on what was known as the untried side of the prison. Fry’s daughter described the state of the prison, saying:

The women’s division consisted [of] four rooms comprised of about one hundred and ninety superficial yards, into which, at the time of these visits, nearly three hundred women, with their numerous children, were crowded; tried and untried, misdemeanants and felons…with no other superintendence than that given by a man and his son, who had charge of them by night and day. Destitute of sufficient clothing, for which there was no provision; in rags and dirt, without bedding, they slept on the floor, the boards of which were in part raised to supply a sort of pillow.[19]

In England in the early nineteenth century, criminal law was very severe, and crimes such as “the theft of a pair of stockings… a sheep, [or] a horse… cutting down a tree, or being an accomplice to forgery”[20] all warranted the death penalty. The prison was overcrowded and understaffed, with little to no monitoring of the situation of the female prisoners and their children. When Fry visited Newgate for the first time, she was equally as appalled as her Quaker associates, and she brought the women food and clothes.[21] Because some of her children were still young and because of financial stress on the family, this was all Fry did for the time being, and she did not take any further action for another few years. But the knowledge of the state of things in Newgate did not leave her.

In 1816 and 1817, Fry began an experiment at Newgate involving the education of the women in the institution, as well as attempting to form a school for the children of the female inmates. Close to the beginning of this endeavor, she wrote in her journal:

My mind has been deeply affected in attending a poor woman who was executed this morning… This poor creature murdered her baby; and how inexpressibly awful to have her life taken away! The whole affair has been truly afflicting to me; to see what poor mortals may be driven to, through sin and transgression, and how hard the heart becomes, even to the most tender affections.[22]

Following this, Fry attempted to limit her one-on-one contact with prisoners, as her mental state was so disturbed by this particular experience. Gradually, Fry was able to work up numbers of other ladies to join her in visiting Newgate and they formed a group of visionaries for change in the system. Though officers in the prison and friends of the ladies were doubtful of the potential success of the experiment, the women were earnest. They encouraged the women in the prison to select one of their own to be a pseudo schoolmistress for the children, and their selection, Mary Conner, exhibited a strong adherence to the rules of the prison as well as a high regard for Christianity and acceptance of Jesus as her Lord.[23] In 1817, a twelve women from the Quaker community formed “An Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate,”**PICTURE 1 HERE** and their goal was to provide basic clothing and education for future employment, as well as a knowledge of the Bible and “to form in them, as much as possible, those habits of order, sobriety, and industry, which may render them docile and peaceable whilst in prison, and respectable when they leave it.”[24] In 1818, Fry was asked before the House of Commons to present evidence of her successes at Newgate and was “the first woman other than a queen to be called into the councils of the government in an official manner to advise on a matter of public concern.”[25]

Fry continued on a number of inspection tours around the UK and on the continent, sometimes with her brother Joseph Gurney. Beginning in 1827, Fry embarked on an inspection of prisons in Ireland and continued to inspect the Channel Islands and Scotland over the next seven years.[26] Until her death in 1845, Fry traveled through the UK, France, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Belgium, and Denmark, inspecting prisons and providing feedback and enacting changes.[27] In 1837, Britain established the first women-only prison in Dublin and Fry provided the recommendation for the matron.[28] Observers of the changes in the penal system gave insight that perhaps a more feminine touch was necessary in the management and establishment of these prisons.[29] As the movement grew, Fry became more of a spokesperson for the penal system reform movements and a consultant for local prisons.

Legacy

Elizabeth Fry, while her humanitarian works clearly brought about significant change, was criticized in her time for seemingly rejecting her duties as a mother. It became a national question at the time, with people wondering “was it womanly, was it fitting, for a mother of nine to paly such an important role in national life?”[30]

Quakers were hesitant to endorse her works because of the celebrity status she had gained through her works. Even today, her actions are seen as controversial. Fry was featured on the British £5 note from 2001-2016,[31] drawing her and her actions back into the public eye. Some view her motives as vain or idolatrous, solely building upon the social status that she had as a child.[32] Certainly, the disownment of her husband in 1828 following the bankruptcy of his business would have taken a substantial blow to her status both within the Quaker community and in the community at large. Additionally, some show concern that she acted without regard for what would actually be best for the women in the prison. She was highly idealistic, perhaps too much so. While she reported on the horrifying conditions in Newgate, prison officials reported that the women were orderly and behaved.[33] In reality, it was likely some combination of the two, as both may have exaggerated the state of the prison in order to appeal to their target audience. When Fry established readings and lectures in the prisons, they were generally well attended by inmates, but as her fame grew so did the number of visitors coming to lectures from outside the prison. This resulted in fewer spaces for inmates and more preference placed on the ladies of society who came to listen.[34]

The organization of Quaker women formed under Fry’s leadership, “An Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate” eventually paved the way for the “British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners,” an organization that spread throughout Britain and is recognized by many historians to be the first women’s movement to spread nationwide in the UK.[35]

While Fry’s motives may come into question, one cannot deny her influence in instigating remarkable change in the social concern for prisons and the overall change that ensued because of this new public interest. She was a woman ahead of her time, stepping forward as a leader in an era when women’s voices tended to be silenced. Her leadership, drive, and faith led to reforms that continue to impact the way the western world thinks about the prison system.
 

Notes

[1] Ibid. 4.
[2] Ibid. 5-16.
[3] Ibid. 7.
[4] Pink Dandelion, The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 132.
[5] Ibid. 24.
[6] Elizabeth Fry, Elizabeth Fry: A Quaker Life: Selected Letters and Writings, ed. Gil Skidmore (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2005). 1.
[7] Ibid. 2.
[8] Ibid. 5.
[9] Ibid. 19.
[10] Elizabeth Fry, Katharine Fry, and Rachel Cresswell, Memoir of the Life of Elizabeth Fry, vol. 1 (London, 1848), 47.
[11] Elizabeth Fry, Elizabeth Fry: A Quaker Life: Selected Letters and Writings, ed. Gil Skidmore (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2005). 9.
[12] Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards, Elizabeth Fry: The Angel of the Prisons (London: D. Appleton and, 1916), 87.
[13] Ibid. 95
[14] Ibid. 99
[15] Ibid. 100
[16] Elizabeth Fry, Elizabeth Fry: A Quaker Life: Selected Letters and Writings, ed. Gil Skidmore (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2005). 10.
[17] Annemieke Van Drenth and Francisca De Haan, The Rise of Caring Power: Elizabeth Fry and Josephine Butler in Britain and the Netherlands (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999), 57.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards, Elizabeth Fry: The Angel of the Prisons (London: D. Appleton and, 1916), 103.
[20] Annemieke Van Drenth and Francisca De Haan, The Rise of Caring Power: Elizabeth Fry and Josephine Butler in Britain and the Netherlands (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999), 55
[21] Elizabeth Fry, Elizabeth Fry: A Quaker Life: Selected Letters and Writings, ed. Gil Skidmore (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2005). 12.
[22] Elizabeth Fry, Katherine Fry, and Rachel Cresswell, Memoir of the Life of Elizabeth Fry, vol. 1 (London, 1848), 279
[23] Ibid. 283
[24] Ibid. 289
[25] Annemieke Van Drenth and Francisca De Haan, The Rise of Caring Power: Elizabeth Fry and Josephine Butler in Britain and the Netherlands (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999), 57
[26] Anne Isba, The Excellent Mrs Fry: Unlikely Heroine (A&C Black, 2010), 209
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Alana Barton, “A Womans Place: Uncovering Maternalistic Forms of Governance in the 19thCentury Reformatory,” Family & Community History 14, no. 2 (2011): , doi:10.1179/175138111×13153986167570, 94-5.
[30] Annemieke Van Drenth and Francisca De Haan, The Rise of Caring Power: Elizabeth Fry and Josephine Butler in Britain and the Netherlands (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999), 54
[31] Rosalind Crone, “The People on the Notes: Elizabeth Fry,” OpenLearn, February 21, 2017, accessed May 01, 2018, http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/the-people-on-the-notes-elizabeth-fry.
[32] Elizabeth Fry, Elizabeth Fry: A Quaker Life: Selected Letters and Writings, ed. Gil Skidmore (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2005). 1.
[33] Rosalind Crone, “The People on the Notes: Elizabeth Fry,” OpenLearn, February 21, 2017, accessed May 01, 2018, http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/the-people-on-the-notes-elizabeth-fry.
[34] Ibid.
[35] “Fry, Elizabeth Gurney 1780-1845,” WorldCat Identities, January 01, 1970, accessed May 01, 2018, http://www.worldcat.org/identities/lccn-n50023419/.

 

Bibliography

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Barton, Alana. “A Womans Place: Uncovering Maternalistic Forms of Governance in the 19th Century Reformatory.” Family & Community History14, no. 2 (2011): 89-104. doi:10.1179/175138111×13153986167570.

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Isba, Anne. The Excellent Mrs Fry: Unlikely Heroine. A&C Black, 2010.

Richards, Laura Elizabeth Howe. Elizabeth Fry: The Angel of the Prisons. London: D. Appleton and, 1916.

Van Drenth, Annemieke, and Francisca De Haan. The Rise of Caring Power: Elizabeth Fry and Josephine Butler in Britain and the Netherlands. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999.