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Fry [née Gurney], Elizabethlocked

  • Francisca de Haan

Elizabeth Fry (1780–1845)

by George Richmond, 1844

Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery / private collection

Fry [née Gurney], Elizabeth (1780–1845), penal reformer and philanthropist, was born on 21 May 1780 at Magdalen Street, Norwich, the fourth of twelve children, seven daughters and five sons, of John Gurney (1749–1809), a merchant and banker, and Catherine Bell (1754–1792). Her parents were both descendants of old Quaker families, Catherine Bell being the great-granddaughter of the Quaker apologist Robert Barclay. Elizabeth's siblings included Joseph John Gurney, Samuel Gurney (1786–1856), Daniel Gurney, and Louisa Gurney Hoare. In 1786 the family moved to Earlham Hall, 2 miles from Norwich. The seven sisters received a fairly thorough education, although Elizabeth, often plagued by her ‘nerves’, missed many lessons and learned to spell properly only much later. Her mother, Catherine, a pious woman and serious Friend, died in 1792 aged thirty-eight. Her father, John Gurney, was a Quaker by birth and habit rather than by choice. His children in the 1790s began to share the feeling—common among the élite—that religious feeling was something to look down on.

Elizabeth Gurney, therefore, went against the ways of her immediate family when, in February 1798, she 'felt there [was] a God' (Rose, 19). The usual tale of her religious conversion stresses the role of the travelling Quaker William Savery, who visited Norwich at the time. Yet, as her diary shows, she was equally inspired by two women Quakers, her cousin Priscilla Hannah Gurney and Deborah Darby, later in 1798 (Memoir, 1.58–60, 74). In 1799 Elizabeth Gurney made herself known to the world as a plain or strict Friend by adopting Quaker dress and speech. Her religious belief became the pillar of her life and pervaded all that she did.

On 19 August 1800 the strong-minded Elizabeth Gurney married Joseph Fry (1777–1861), a shy but warm-hearted young man from a family of orthodox and wealthy Quakers. The Fry business dealt in colonial wares; in 1808 Joseph started a bank as well. Between 1801 and 1816 the couple had ten children; an eleventh child was born in 1822. They first lived at St Mildred's Court in London, but, to Elizabeth's joy, in 1809 they removed to Plashet House in East Ham. Despite her busy family life, Elizabeth Fry undertook work in the community. She was a regular visitor of the so-called ‘Irish colony’, where she distributed clothing, food, and medicine. An advocate of vaccination, she also contributed to the near elimination of smallpox among the children of neighbouring villages. In 1811 she was acknowledged as a Quaker minister. Although Joseph Fry supported her philanthropic activities, Elizabeth Fry felt a tension between her married state and religious ambitions most of her life.

Early in 1813 Elizabeth Fry visited the women's side of Newgate prison in London to find several hundred female prisoners—young and old, tried and untried, hardened criminals and first offenders—with their children, packed in a few crowded and poorly supervised rooms. Her interest in the treatment of prisoners was part of Quaker tradition, and was shared by other, often religiously inspired, reformers and philanthropists, who were appalled by the conditions in English prisons and by the severity of the criminal law. But if she was not alone in her concerns, she was a pioneer in her attempts to improve significantly the situation of female prisoners. During the next four years, however, family affairs prevented her from a serious involvement in the prison cause.

Education had always been high on Elizabeth Fry's social agenda. At Earlham she had improvised a Sunday school, attended by some eighty pupils. In East Ham she was co-founder of a girls' school. When she returned to Newgate prison about December 1816, her first innovation was the establishment of a little school for the prisoners' children. After discussions with the prisoners and meetings with the prison authorities, Fry and her female collaborators introduced a system of classification of the prisoners, prison dress, constant supervision by a matron and monitors (chosen from among the prisoners), religious and elementary education, and paid employment. The result was a remarkable transformation in the conduct especially of convicted prisoners (although the removal of alcohol and playing cards was not universally welcomed). Fry or one of her helpers visited Newgate daily; she herself read to prisoners from the Bible on Fridays. Her melodious voice melted her listeners, hardened criminals as well as experienced politicians, who came to see the changes for themselves. The work gained a more permanent basis in April 1817 with the creation of the Ladies' Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate, extended in 1821 into the British Ladies' Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners, with correspondents in Russia, Italy, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. The British Ladies' Society appears to have been the first nationwide women's organization in Britain.

The essence of Elizabeth Fry's religiously inspired thinking about prisoners (male and female) was that they were fellow human beings, whose treatment should be based on 'the principles of justice and humanity' (Fry, Observations, 74). Imprisonment, instead of contributing to the physical and moral degradation of inmates, ought to lead to their reformation in prisons operating as 'schools of industry and virtue' (Gurney, Notes, v). In order to 'amend the Character and change the Heart', prisoners were to be treated with kindness—Fry's watchword—instead of cruelty and neglect. Her other guiding principle was that women prisoners should be 'under the care of women'—matrons, turnkeys, visitors—and preferably in prisons of their own (Fry, Observations, 16–17, 22, 27–33; Memoir, 1.281, 292).

Impressed by the changes in Newgate, contemporaries regarded them as proof that reformation of prisoners was possible. The fact that the female inmates of Newgate had traditionally been seen as 'of all characters the most irreclaimable' (T. F. Buxton, Inquiry whether Crime and Misery are Produced or Prevented, by our Present System of Prison Discipline, sixth edition, 1818, 133) only added to Elizabeth Fry's fame. Beginning in 1818, she made a number of journeys through England, Scotland, and Ireland, combining her work as a Quaker minister with prison reform. She visited prisons, suggested measures for improvement to the local authorities, and established ladies' committees for visiting female prisoners. In 1827 she published her handbook Observations on the Visiting, Superintendence, and Government, of Female Prisoners (reprinted with additions in the same year), and in 1840 Hints on the Advantages and the Duties of Ladies' Committees who Visit Prisons. Two related causes taken up by her were capital punishment—in her Observations she presented her own system as an alternative—and the treatment of female prisoners on board convict ships to New South Wales, Australia, which she managed to improve substantially.

In 1828 Fry's husband's bank went bankrupt, a humiliating experience, especially for one as sensitive to status as Elizabeth. Joseph Fry was disowned by the Quakers and the family had to move to a smaller house, The Cedars, in Upton Lane, West Ham. In the 1830s Elizabeth was also confronted with serious opposition to her prison work, which was labelled amateurish. Never one to give up, and with the financial support of her brothers, between 1838 and 1843 Fry made five demanding journeys to the continent. There she met with fellow reformers and inspected prisons and other institutions. She was received by the highest authorities, with whom she pleaded for a more humanitarian treatment of prisoners and lunatics, the abolition of slavery (especially in Denmark and the Netherlands), and religious toleration. She also preached and distributed religious tracts, among them her own Texts for every Day in the Year (1839), which has since been translated into French, German, and Italian. Although prison reform was her main cause, she also established a Maternal Society in Brighton in 1813, libraries for the coastguard of England, several district visiting societies, a servant's society, and a Society of Nursing Sisters (1840), the first attempt to reform nursing in Britain. After several years of declining health, Fry died after a stroke at Ramsgate on 13 October 1845, and was buried on 20 October in the Quaker burial-ground at Barking.

Fry's is an interesting legacy. Her work undoubtedly contributed to dramatic improvements in British prison conditions and, through her collaboration with her brother-in-law Thomas Fowell Buxton, to revisions in the criminal law. Several of her ideas about the treatment of female prisoners were laid down in legislation. In Europe, the USA, Canada, and Australia her name became synonymous with the compassionate treatment of prisoners—primarily, but not exclusively, female. From Berlin (1840) and The Hague (1916) to Vancouver (1939), her example led to the establishment of societies for prison visiting and prison reform, most of them by women. Of great significance was her call on women to become active on behalf of those of 'their own sex' (Fry, Observations, 3, 8), which stimulated 'woman's work for woman', and thus the organized women's movement. The numerous biographies to appear in Britain and elsewhere have contributed to her status as one of the most celebrated women of the nineteenth century and ensured that her memory continued to inspire others. Florence Nightingale seems to have been one of them (but, contrary to popular myth, no hard evidence of any personal contact between the two women exists). In May 2002 she beat off competition from Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Octavia Hill to become only the second woman (after Nightingale) to appear on a Bank of England note (five pounds).

Elizabeth Fry is, however, only marginally represented in mainstream accounts of prison history. As a religiously motivated woman she was considered old-fashioned and unprofessional by later (male, professional, secular) reformers and historians. Her activities were mainly directed towards women, who are often absent from general histories of prison reform. Finally, throughout her career as a prison expert she opposed the new system of solitary confinement, denouncing it as inhumane, dangerous to the mental and physical health of the prisoners, prone to abuse by the guards, and inadequate to prepare prisoners for re-entering active life. But since this system won the day, her opposition has allowed opponents to label her work as passé.


  • Memoir of the life of Elizabeth Fry, with extracts from her letters and journal, ed. [K. Fry and R. E. Cresswell], 2 vols. (1847)
  • E. Fry, diaries and correspondence, 1797–1845, RS Friends, Lond., Gurney MSS 255–273
  • E. Fry, Observations on the visiting, superintendence, and government, of female prisoners (1827)
  • J. J. Gurney, Notes on a visit made to some of the prisons in Scotland and the north of England, in company with Elizabeth Fry (1819)
  • A concise view of the origin and progress of the British Ladies' Society for promoting the reformation of female prisoners [n.d., 1840]
  • [J. J. Gurney], Brief memoirs of Thomas Fowell Buxton and Elizabeth Fry (1845)
  • Elizabeth Fry's journeys on the continent, 1840–1841, from a diary kept by her niece Elizabeth Gurney, ed. R. B. Johnson [1931]
  • F. de Haan and R. van der Heide, ‘Vrouwen-Vereenigingen, Dames-Comité's en feministen. De zorg van vrouwen voor vrouwelijke gevangenen in de negentiende eeuw’, Tijdschrift voor Sociale Geschiedenis, 23 (1997), 278–311
  • J. Rose, Elizabeth Fry (1994)
  • A. Summers, ‘“In a few years we shall none of us that now take care of them be here”: philanthropy and the state in the thinking of Elizabeth Fry’, Historical Research, 67 (1994), 134–42
  • F. de Haan and A. van Drenth, The rise of caring power: Elizabeth Fry and Josephine Butler in Britain and the Netherlands (1999)
  • J. Whitney, Elizabeth Fry. Quaker heroine, new edn (1937)
  • E. B. Freedman, Their sisters' keepers: women's prison reform in America, 1830–1930 (1981)
  • A. Summers, Female lives, moral states: women, religion and public life in Britain, 1800–1930 (2000)
  • R. G. Huntsman, ‘Mary Bruin and Deborah Holttum, 'twixt candle and lamp: the contribution of Elizabeth Fry and the Institute of Nursing Sisters to nursing reform’, Medical History, 46 (2002), 351–80
  • digest registers (burials), RS Friends, Lond.
  • digest registers (births), RS Friends, Lond. [London and Middlesex quarterly meeting; Catherine Bell]
  • d. cert.


  • BL, copy of diary made by daughter, Add. MSS 47456–47457
  • BL, letters and annotated Bible, Add. MSS 73528–73533
  • Bodl. RH, corresp. with Thomas Fowell Buxton and letters to her sister Hannah Buxton and niece Priscilla Buxton
  • Boston PL, papers and corresp.
  • Devon RO, family corresp.
  • Norfolk RO, journals, notebook, papers, and corresp.
  • Norfolk RO, letters and family papers
  • RS Friends, Lond., diaries and corresp.; extracts from journals [microfilm copy]
  • Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania
  • BL, Egerton MSS, letters with other corresp. of Fry and Gurney families
  • Bodl. Oxf., papers of her niece Elizabeth Gurney, incl. papers relating to continental travel and letters to queen of Denmark
  • Lpool RO, letters to Lord Stanley
  • Som. ARS, Osborne MSS, family papers incl. those relating to her death
  • U. Durham L., letters to Jonathan and/or Hannah Backhouse


  • S. Drummond, miniature, 1815, NPG
  • G. Scharf senior, pencil drawing, 1819, BM
  • R. Dighton, coloured etching, pubd 1820 (In prison and ye came unto me), BM
  • C. R. Leslie, portrait, 1823, NPG
  • G. Richmond, watercolour, 1844, priv. coll. [see illus.]
  • S. Cousins, mezzotint, pubd 1850 (after G. Richmond), BM
  • line engraving (after C. R. Leslie), NPG
  • oils (after C. R. Leslie, 1823), NPG
  • photograph (after albumen print of a group portrait, 1842–1843), RS Friends, Lond.
  • stained glass window, St Olave's Church, Hart Street, London


Religious Society of Friends, London