Today is the birthday (1780) of Elizabeth Fry (née Gurney), an English prison reformer, social reformer and philanthropist. Fry was a major driving force behind new legislation to make the treatment of prisoners more humane, and she was supported in her efforts by Queen Victoria.
Elizabeth Fry was born in Norwich in Norfolk, England into a prominent Quaker family, the Gurneys. Her childhood family home was Earlham Hall, which is now part of the University of East Anglia. Her father, John Gurney (1749–1809), was a partner in Gurney’s Bank. Her mother, Catherine, was a member of the Barclay family who were among the founders of Barclays Bank. Her mother died when Elizabeth was 12 years old. As one of the oldest girls in the family, Elizabeth was partly responsible for the care and education of the younger children, including her brother Joseph John Gurney, a philanthropist.
She met Joseph Fry (1777–1861), a banker whose uncle founded the Fry’s chocolate company, who was also a Quaker, when she was 20 years old. They married on 19th August 1800 at the Norwich Goat Lane Friends Meeting House and moved to St Mildred’s Court in the City of London. Elizabeth Fry was recorded as a minister of the Religious Society of Friends in 1811. Joseph and Elizabeth Fry lived in Plashet House in East Ham between 1809 and 1829, then moved to The Cedars on Portway in Forest Gate, where they lived until 1844. They had eleven children, five sons and six daughters.
Prompted by a family friend, Stephen Grellet, Fry visited Newgate Prison in 1813. The conditions she saw there horrified her. The women’s section was overcrowded with women and children, some of whom had not even received a trial. The prisoners did their own cooking and washing in the small cells in which they slept on straw. She returned the following day with food and clothes for some prisoners. She was unable to personally further her work for nearly 4 years because of difficulties within the Fry family, including financial difficulties at the Fry bank, which Elizabeth helped extricate her husband from. Put simply, she had a strong sense of business, and her husband had hardly any. Fry returned to Newgate in 1816 and was eventually able to fund a prison school for the children who were imprisoned with their mothers. Rather than attempt to impose discipline on the women, she suggested rules and then asked the prisoners to vote on them. In 1817 she helped found the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. This association provided materials for women so that they could learn to sew and knit and then once they were out of prison they could earn money for themselves. This led to the eventual creation of the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners in 1821 She also promoted the idea of rehabilitation instead of harsh punishment which was taken on by the city authorities in London as well as many other authorities and prisons.
Elizabeth Fry also campaigned for the rights and welfare of prisoners who were being transported. The women of Newgate Prison were taken through the streets of London in open carts, often in chains, huddled together with their few possessions. They were pelted with rotten food and filth by the people of the city. The fear was often enough to make women condemned to transportation riot on the evening before. Fry’s first action was to persuade the governor of Newgate prison to send the women in closed carriages and spare them this last indignity before transportation. She visited prison ships and persuaded captains to implement systems to ensure each woman and child would at least get a share of food and water on the long journey. Later she arranged each woman to be given scraps of material and sewing tools so that they could use the long journey to make quilts and have something to sell as well as useful skills when they reached their destination. She also included a Bible and useful items such as string and knives and forks in this vital care package. Elizabeth Fry visited 106 transport ships and saw 12,000 convicts. Her work helped to start a movement for the abolition of transportation. Transportation was officially abolished in 1837, however Elizabeth Fry was still visiting transportation ships until 1843.
Elizabeth Fry wrote in her book Prisons in Scotland and the North of England that she stayed the night in some of the prisons and invited nobility to come and stay and see for themselves the conditions prisoners lived in. Her kindness helped her gain the friendship of the prisoners and they began to try to improve their conditions for themselves. Thomas Fowell Buxton, Fry’s brother-in-law, was elected to Parliament for Weymouth and began to promote her work among his fellow MPs. In 1818 Fry gave evidence to a House of Commons committee on the conditions prevalent in British prisons, becoming the first woman to present evidence in Parliament.
Elizabeth Fry also helped the homeless, establishing a “nightly shelter” in London after seeing the dead body of a young boy in the winter of 1819/1820 on the streets. In 1824, during a visit to Brighton, she instituted the Brighton District Visiting Society. The society arranged for volunteers to visit the homes of the poor and provide help and comfort to them. The plan was successful and was duplicated in other districts and towns across Britain. Elizabeth Fry also used her influential network and worked with other prominent Quakers to campaign for the abolition of the slave trade.
After her husband went bankrupt in 1828, Fry’s brother became her business manager and benefactor. Thanks to him, her work expanded. In 1838 the Friends sent a party to France: Fry and her husband, Lydia Irving, and abolitionists Josiah Forster and William Allen. They were there on other business but despite the language barrier Fry and Lydia Irving visited French prisons.
In 1840 Fry opened a training school for nurses. Her program inspired Florence Nightingale, who took a team of Fry’s nurses to assist wounded soldiers in the Crimean War.
In 1842, Frederick William IV of Prussia went to see Fry in Newgate Prison during an official visit to Great Britain. The king, who had met Fry during her previous tours of the continent promoting welfare change and humanitarianism, was so impressed by her work that he told his reluctant courtiers that he would personally visit the gaol when he was in London.
Queen Victoria admired Fry’s work and granted her an audience a few times before she became queen, and contributed money to her cause after she ascended the throne. Robert Peel was also an admirer, and passed several acts to further her cause including the Gaols Act 1823. The act was largely ineffective, because there were no inspectors to make sure that it was being followed.
Fry died from a stroke in Ramsgate, England, on 12th October 1845. Her remains were buried in the Friends’ burial ground at Barking. More than a thousand people stood in silence during the burial at the Ramsgate memorial. Following her death, a meeting chaired by the Lord Mayor of London, resolved that it would be fitting “to found an asylum to perpetuate the memory of Mrs Fry and further the benevolent objects to which her life had been devoted.” An 18th-century town house was purchased at 195 Mare Street, in the London Borough of Hackney and the first Elizabeth Fry refuge opened its doors in 1849. Funding came via subscriptions from various city companies and private individuals, supplemented by income from the inmates’ laundry and needlework. Such training was an important part of the refuge’s work. In 1924, the refuge merged with the Manor House Refuge for the Destitute, in Dalston in Hackney, becoming a hostel for girls on probation for minor offences. The hostel soon moved to larger premises in Highbury, Islington and then, in 1958, to Reading, where it remains today.
I searched Mrs Beeton and found this anecdote on prisons and punishment, rather typical of Victorian humor, followed by her recipe for baked ham, which I think would make a fine dish in honor of Elizabeth Fry (although I would love to sneak in a bar of Fry’s Turkish Delight in honor of her husband’s uncle).
HOG NOT BACON. ANECDOTE OF LORD BACON.—As Lord Bacon, on one occasion, was about to pass sentence of death upon a man of the name of Hogg, who had just been tried for a long career of crime, the prisoner suddenly claimed to be heard in arrest of judgment, saying, with an expression of arch confidence as he addressed the bench, “I claim indulgence, my lord, on the plea of relationship; for I am convinced your lordship will never be unnatural enough to hang one of your own family.”
“Indeed, replied the judge, with some amazement,” I was not aware that I had the honour of your alliance; perhaps you will be good enough to name the degree of our mutual affinity.”
“I am sorry, my lord,” returned the impudent thief, “I cannot trace the links of consanguinity; but the moral evidence is sufficiently pertinent. My name, my lord, is Hogg, your lordship’s is Bacon; and all the world will allow that bacon and hog are very closely allied.”
“I am sorry,” replied his lordship, “I cannot admit the truth of your instance: hog cannot be bacon till it is hanged; and so, before I can admit your plea, or acknowledge the family compact, Hogg must be hanged to-morrow morning.”
TO BAKE A HAM.
- INGREDIENTS.—Ham; a common crust.
Mode.—As a ham for baking should be well soaked, let it remain in water for at least 12 hours. Wipe it dry, trim away any rusty places underneath, and cover it with a common crust, taking care that this is of sufficient thickness all over to keep the gravy in. Place it in a moderately-heated oven, and bake for nearly 4 hours. Take off the crust, and skin, and cover with raspings, the same as for boiled ham, and garnish the knuckle with a paper frill. This method of cooking a ham is, by many persons, considered far superior to boiling it, as it cuts fuller of gravy and has a finer flavour, besides keeping a much longer time good.
Time.—A medium-sized ham, 4 hours.
Average cost, from 8d. to 10d. per lb. by the whole ham.
Seasonable all the year.