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  (Sara) Margery Fry (1874–1958), by Claude Rogers, 1939 (Sara) Margery Fry (1874–1958), by Claude Rogers, 1939
Fry, (Sara) Margery (1874–1958), penal reformer and college head, was born at Highgate, London, on 11 March 1874, the eighth child and sixth daughter of , judge of the High Court, Chancery Division, and his wife, Mariabella Hodgkin (1833–1930). was her elder sister. Educated at home until she was seventeen, she then spent a year at Penelope Lawrence's boarding-school (later Roedean) at Brighton. In 1892 her father retired from the bench and the family moved to Failand in Somerset. Encouraged by her brother , Margery hoped initially to go to Newnham, but her Quaker parents regarded Cambridge with suspicion as a breeding-ground of agnostics. She later came to accept an agnostic position, but reached it by another route. Eventually she succeeded in obtaining permission to sit the entrance examination for Somerville College, Oxford, and went up to read mathematics in 1894, staying until 1897, but taking no examinations. Somerville friendships, with Eleanor Rathbone and Dorothea Scott among others, remained important through her life. For the next eighteen months she returned to the duties of a daughter at home. The opportunity for an active and independent life came with the unexpected offer of the librarianship at Somerville. There she spent five years from 1899, combining the development and rehousing of the college library with that understanding concern for the young and their problems which remained one of her outstanding qualities. Her duties included some coaching in mathematics, about which she sought advice from a family acquaintance, Bertrand Russell.

Birmingham wardenship and wartime relief work

Fry's next post gave her scope to extend this interest in a new setting. Birmingham University had been granted its charter in 1900, and in 1904 she was appointed to the wardenship of a hall of residence for women students in Hagley Road, Edgbaston. Her functions were ‘the superintendence of housekeeping and the maintenance of discipline’ (Jones, 70): the latter she interpreted with her customary liberalism, reducing rules to a minimum and allowing students to invite their men friends to dances. In 1908 the hostel moved into new quarters at University House, for which she had worked hard, and where she used all the resources available to her—pictures, furnishings, music, play-acting, wit, and friendship—to create a living community. On the initiative of Charles Beale, the vice-chancellor, she was made a member of the university council. During this period the range of causes in which she was interested, and of committees on which she served, became increasingly wide—the Staffordshire education committee, the county insurance committee (set up under the National Insurance Act), the county subcommittee on mental deficiency. Practical experience of the problems of social reform sharpened her tendency towards radicalism. ‘Brummagem’, she wrote, ‘is making a first-rate democrat of me’ (ibid., 75).

Shortly before the outbreak of war in 1914 she became financially independent through a legacy from her uncle, Joseph Storrs Fry, and in the summer of 1914 she resigned her post. Her Quaker background and conscience, combined with her experience of social work, made it natural that early in the war she should be drawn (with her younger sister Ruth) into work with the Friends' War Victims Relief Committee, first in the Marne and Meuse area, later in the whole of France. From early 1915 until the end of 1917 she remained based in Sermaize, with periodic journeys to other parts of France, dealing with the whole range of problems of those whose lives had been disrupted by the war, from the reconstruction of agriculture to the teaching of embroidery.

Howard League for Penal Reform

Back in England in 1918 Margery Fry was uncertain where her next work should lie, although with a sense of continuing commitment to education in the widest sense. Three events particularly determined the subsequent direction of her life and activities. At the beginning of 1919 she moved to London and set up house at 7 Dalmeny Avenue, overlooking Holloway prison, with her brother Roger and his children. She thus became more deeply involved in his world, his relationships with artists and writers in particular. In May 1919 she was invited to become a member of the newly established University Grants Committee, on which she continued to serve until 1948, devoting much of her time and energies to visiting universities and gaining firsthand knowledge of their problems.

At the end of 1918 she had been persuaded by Stephen and Rosa Hobhouse to accept the secretaryship of the Penal Reform League, which in 1921 amalgamated with the Howard Association to form the Howard League for Penal Reform, housed at this period in the Frys' front sitting-room. From then on the Howard League, which she served as secretary until 1926 and later as chairman and vice-chairman, remained the most important focus of her work. Her understanding of the problems of penal reform was increased by her appointment in 1921 as one of the first women magistrates and in 1922 as the first education adviser to Holloway. In her efforts to improve prison conditions, one of the many developments which she initiated was to bring Marion Richardson in to teach painting to young prisoners. Her two main preoccupations became closely related: visits to universities were combined with visits to prisons; it was sometimes difficult to remember, she once remarked, whether students were in for crimes or prisoners in for examinations.

Principal of Somerville College

In 1926, on the retirement of Emily Penrose, Margery Fry somewhat reluctantly accepted the principalship of Somerville. In spite of her strong continuing affection for the college, on whose council she had served since 1904, she genuinely doubted her suitability as a ‘non-academic’ woman for the post and was concerned at the limitations on her independence which it would involve. But, though finding Oxford in many ways uncongenial and obscurantist, she enjoyed this new opportunity for exercising her remarkable talent for understanding, and unobtrusively advising, the young, and opening their minds to her whole wide range of interests, from penal reform to birdwatching. At Oxford she wore a bright red coat for which she had painted large wooden buttons and there was always ‘something festive’ in her appearance, ‘a string of fine beads, an embroidered jacket’ (Jones, 138). When the Oxford tutor J. D. Mabbott called on her in 1929 he found her ‘a very lively looking girl, sitting in a corner and typing furiously, with her hair all over the place’, and thought at first that she was the principal's secretary (Mabbott, 81). Finding the principal's lodgings too formal, she moved to nearby Radcliffe House, where her vitality and musicality were much in evidence. She was instinctively on the side of the undergraduates, fearing not that they would work too little, but that they would work too much. At the same time she retained some of the prejudices of a world different to their own, assuming, for example, that if they sought a career it would involve unpaid social work: ‘it seemed not to occur to her that an undergraduate who did not have to earn her own living should wish to do so’ (Adams, 168).

Although never deeply involved in university politics, she made occasional notable incursions which left their mark, as when in 1927 she spoke in congregation with Cyril Bailey in an unsuccessful effort to resist the imposition of a quota restricting the numbers of students admitted by the women's colleges. In that year she was disenchanted over the university's treatment of her brother Roger, whose candidature for the Slade professorship of fine art was successfully opposed ‘on a frivolous pretext’ by those who objected to the irregularity of his private life (K. Clark, ‘Fry, Roger Eliot’, DNB). Students who came in contact with her were especially impressed by the fact that ‘she knew so much about wickedness, and yet could make one believe and work for happy and rational solutions of the most tangled moral and political problems’. She continued to work on these problems—as a member of the street offences committee (concerned with prostitution and soliciting, but doomed by its composition) and the young offenders' committee, through which she tried to secure an adequate probation service and to get probation extended to cover a much wider range of offences. But above all she was deeply involved, in association with Roy Calvert, D. N. Pritt, and others, in the campaign for the abolition of capital punishment, presenting evidence on behalf of the Howard League to the abortive select committee set up by J. R. Clynes as home secretary in 1929.

Retirement and reforming causes

Margery Fry had never intended to spend more than about five years at Somerville. Soon after her retirement in 1931 she established a new base in London, at 48 Clarendon Road, Notting Hill, ‘absolutely on the borderline of slum and respectability’ (Jones, 171), and filled it with paintings and objects of beauty collected over the years. For the remainder of her life this was her home, and a home for the homeless and wanderers of many countries, as well as a meeting place for radicals and reformers with different interests and shades of opinion. In the 1930s the worsening world situation and her own growing international reputation involved her in a new range of activities, supplementing but not displacing the old.

In 1933, shortly after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the Universities China Committee invited Fry to make a lecture tour of Chinese universities. Her interest in the great transformations taking place in Chinese society, as well as in its ancient civilization, remained intense, expressed both through her friendships with Chinese teachers and students and her work with the China Campaign Committee, for which she lectured and spoke at meetings throughout Britain. Her understanding of Chinese politics made her particularly concerned to ensure that aid from Britain reached the Chinese communists and was not directed solely to the Kuomintang government.

During this period Fry also became increasingly occupied with the problems of penal reform in an international setting, particularly in societies where conditions were worst and factual information most defective. She visited Geneva in 1935 to try to induce the League of Nations to adopt a convention which would lay down minimum standard rules for the treatment of prisoners. In 1936 she became a member of the Colonial Office's newly established advisory committee on penal reform, and in 1937 she took part in a Howard League mission to study the prisons and penal systems of south-eastern Europe.

In Britain during the late 1930s Fry's political sympathies lay with those of the non-communist left who were working for some form of popular front. She consequently resigned her membership of the Labour Party (which she had joined in 1918) when early in 1939 its executive expelled Sir Stafford Cripps for advocating such a policy. A more specific contribution to make radical intellectuals more effective was her sponsorship of the serious but short-lived organization For Intellectual Liberty.

When war began in 1939 Margery Fry was already sixty-five, no longer able, as in 1914, to move into some entirely different field of work. She carried on with her existing activities as far as practicable, and took on new commitments where this seemed likely to be useful. She continued to serve as a magistrate; worked on her Clarke Hall lecture, The Ancestral Child (never delivered, but published in 1940); visited France early in 1940 to investigate the problem of intellectual refugees; experienced the blitz; took part in a study of evacuation and evacuees; served, unwillingly, on the government committee on non-enemy interned aliens (those imprisoned under 18B); and wrote with Champion B. Russell an ‘ABC for juvenile magistrates’ (published in 1942 as A Note Book for the Children's Court), regarding ‘rational occupation’, for herself as for prisoners, as the best remedy for misery. Although much distressed by the prospect of leaving her sisters for so long a period, she spent the year 1942–3 in the United States, speaking on penal questions, visiting universities and prisons.

During the dozen years of life which remained to her after the war Margery Fry retained a vigorous interest in the causes with which she had become identified, withdrawing somewhat from active campaigning, but continuing to talk, write, and educate with all her old wit and understanding. During the 1930s she had discovered that she enjoyed broadcasting and was good at it, and had served as a governor of the BBC from 1937 to 1939. In 1942 she became a member of , originally on BBC radio, and in 1948 took part in the earliest series of Any Questions? Her central ideas on penal reform were set out in the pamphlet, The Future Treatment of the Adult Offender (1944). These were further developed in her one full-length book, Arms of the Law (1951), in which she put together the material which she had collected over the years on the development of crime and punishment in human society and her proposals for future advance. Some of the many objectives for which she had worked, notably the abolition of the death penalty, were partially realized in her lifetime. But where she knew what ought to be done, half-measures left her unsatisfied. And at eighty she still had the freshness of mind to move into new fields and confront new problems: the importance of developing criminology and penology as academic studies; the need to work out a national scheme of compensation for the victims of violence; the problems of the aged, discussed in her address, ‘Old age looks at itself’ (1955), to the International Association of Gerontology.

Although any account of Margery Fry's life is bound to pay attention to causes, people mattered a great deal more to her: causes were important in so far as they were ways of trying to increase the happiness and diminish the misery of individual people. Deeply disliking all forms of dogmatism, in ethics and politics as well as religion, she believed in working for a world in which the sorts of pleasure she valued most—playing the flute, painting pictures, walking in the woods of Provence, enjoying the conversation of friends—could be made as widely available as possible. In later years her ‘fine profile, framed in a huge halo of grey hair’ and her ‘musical and persuasive voice’ became familiar to millions through her performances on the televised Brains Trust (The Times, 22 April 1958). She died at her home in Clarendon Road, where she could watch the birds in the trees at the back, on 21 April 1958 and was cremated at Golders Green on 24 April.

Thomas L. Hodgkin, rev. Mark Pottle


E. H. Jones, Margery Fry: the essential amateur (1990) · private information (1971) · personal knowledge (1971) · The Times (22 April 1958) · The Times (23 April 1958) · The Times (24 April 1958) · The Times (25 April 1958) · The Times (30 April 1958) · P. Adams, Somerville for women: an Oxford college, 1879–1993 (1996) · WWW · L. Radzinowicz, Penal reform in England: introductory essays on some aspects of English criminal policy (1940) · J. D. Mabbott, Oxford memories (1986)


NRA, priv. coll., family papers · U. Birm. L., corresp. · U. Birm. L., papers as warden of University House, Birmingham |  Bodl. Oxf., corresp. relating to Society for Protection of Science and Learning · CUL, corresp. with Sir Samuel Hoare




BL NSA, current affairs recordings


C. Rogers, oils, 1939, NPG [see illus.] · photograph, c.1950–1959, NPG · R. Fry, oils, Somerville College, Oxford · photograph, repro. in The Times (1 Jan 1938), 10 · photograph, repro. in The Times (22 April 1958), 14a

Wealth at death  

£50,584 2s. 0d.: probate, 1958, CGPLA Eng. & Wales