|Elizabeth Fry from Elizabeth Fry, the angel of the prisons|
by LE Richards (1916)
Elizabeth, known as Betsy, was moody, often unwell and tormented by numerous fears. She was dubbed stupid by her siblings for being slow to learn, but was most probably dyslexic. In 1792, Betsy was devastated when her mother died.
In 1798, an American Quaker named William Savery visited the Friends’ Meeting House in Goat Lane where the Gurneys worshipped. Betsy had a spiritual experience which was strengthened later that year when she met Deborah Darby, a Quaker minister, who prophesied that Betsy would become “a light to the blind, speech to the dumb and feet to the lame.”1
In 1811, Betsy became a minister for the Religious Society of Friends and started to travel around the country to talk at Quaker meetings.
On 19 August 1800, Betsy married Joseph Fry, a plain Quaker whose business was tea and banking. They went to live in Mildred’s Court in Poultry, Cheapside, London, which was also the headquarters for Joseph’s business. In 1808, Joseph inherited the family estate at Plashet in East Ham, further out of London.
It was a fruitful marriage though not always a harmonious one. Joseph and Betsy had 11 children: Katherine (1801), Rachel (1803), John (1804), William (1806), Richenda (1808), Joseph (1809), Elizabeth (1811), who died young, Hannah (1812), Louisa (1814), Samuel Gurney (1816) and Daniel Henry (1822).
In 1813, while living at Mildred's Court, she visited the women’s wing of nearby Newgate Prison for the first time. Betsy was filled with compassion for the awful state of the women and took flannel clothes with her to dress their naked children.
|The front of Newgate Prison|
from Old and New London Vol II by Walter Thornbury (1872)
Encouraged by her success, Betsy set out to help the women themselves. She read the bible to them and set up a workroom where the women could make stockings. All the female prisoners agreed to abide by Betsy’s rules. Against all odds, the scheme was successful. The women became more manageable and the atmosphere of the prison was transformed.
|Elizabeth Fry in Newgate Prison from Elizabeth Fry, the angel of the |
prisons by LE Richards (1916)
Over the years that followed, Betsy visited prisons up and down the country, in Scotland, Ireland and on the continent. She became one of the foremost authorities on prison conditions and twice spoke as an expert witness on the subject to Parliamentary Select Committees – in 1818 and again in 1835.
Many of Betsy’s recommendations were included in the Prison Act of 1823 and in 1827 she published Observations on the Visiting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners which became a manual for good management of prisons and prison visiting.
The Frys were often forced to economise because of financial problems with Joseph’s business. Betsy’s brothers repeatedly came to their rescue, but in 1828, Joseph was declared bankrupt. They had to move permanently to a much smaller house in Upton Lane, Essex, and Joseph was expelled from the Society of Friends in disgrace.
She instigated a project to provide libraries of books for the coastguards whose chief role of preventing smuggling made them isolated and unpopular. This was so successful that the government took over the project and extended it to the navy.
Betsy also set up the first nursing academy, to train nurses who could go into private homes and provide care for those who could not normally afford it.
In 1914, a marble statue of Elizabeth Fry was erected inside the Old Bailey in London, on the site of the Newgate Prison where her prison ministry had begun.
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