Elizabeth Fry – Prison Reformer

This is the day that … Elizabeth Fry was born, in Norfolk, England, in 1780.

The Gurney family (Fry being her married name) were well to do Quakers who “did not wear the usual garb, nor practise the peculiarities … of that faith.”  On the contrary, they lived “in the gaiety of the world” (Doing Good, by R. Steel, page 285).

But at the age of 17 Elizabeth heard William Savery, an American Quaker, preach for over two hours, and she was awakened to a need of serious commitment.  It was 4 February, 1798.  “Since that time,” she wrote 45 years later, “I have never awakened from sleep, in sickness or in health, by day or by night, without my first waking thought being how best I might serve the Lord” (Great Women, by E. Dean, page 170).

On 19 August, 1800, she married Joseph Fry, and bore him 11 children.  At the age of 31 she was accepted as a minister in the Society of Friends (Quakers).  And there began a remarkable philanthropic work among the female prisoners in Newgate whose conditions were horrendous.  Every day at 9.00 a.m. and 6.00 p.m. a bell would ring, and the inmates would gather to hear Mrs Fry read the Scriptures to them.  More than that, she also fought for a betterment of prison conditions.  She visited every prison ship leaving London.  She founded a nightly shelter for the homeless (1819), a nurses’ training home (1840), and more!

Both Florence Nightingale and the young Queen Victoria admired Elizabeth for her compassionate exercise outside the home. Yet her determination to expose the inhumane conditions in English prisons also brought her opposition. “We long to burn her alive,” Reverend Sydney Smith wrote of Elizabeth in 1821. He added, “Examples of living virtue disturb our repose and give birth to distressing comparisons.”  (Howard League web article)

Dr Boreham records her deathbed scene:  “The more I think of it,” she murmured, “the more I am touched by the exquisite tenderness of the Saviour’s ministrations – of His tone and manner to sinners …” And with her last breath, “O my dear Lord, help and keep Thy servant” (Temple of Topaz, page 225).