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On this day in history in 1845, died Elizabeth Fry.

Fry was a philanthropist and social reformer, who brought about a revolution in prison management.

Elizabeth Gurney was born on 21st May 1780, at Norwich, into a prosperous banking family. Her mother, Catherine Gurney, nee Barclay, came from the family that founded Barclay’s Bank. Her family home was Earlham Hall, Norwich, now part of the University of East Anglia.  

Elizabeth lost her mother at the age of 12, and became responsible for the upbringing of her younger siblings. At the age of 18, she was inspired by the uplifting words on Christian charity, from a Quaker preacher, William Savery, and took to visiting the poor, sick and imprisoned. She collected clothing for the poor, food and necessities for the sick, and founded a Sunday school to teach children to read. In 1799, she met Joseph Fry, a merchant and banker, and married him in 1800.  

The Frys had 8 children but family responsibilities did not deter Elizabeth from carrying on her work with the poor. On one occasion, she visited Newgate Prison, and was revolted by the conditions.  Women prisoners were crammed into tiny cells, where they had to do their own cooking and washing, and had to sleep on a stone floor. Children of the prisoners were also confined in their cells. In 1817, she founded the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate, an organisation which visited the prisoners, with food and clothing, ran a prison school for the children of the inmates, and organised useful employment, sewing and dressmaking, for the women.  

Having endeavoured to improve conditions at Newgate, Fry travelled the country, visiting prisons. She wrote her findings in a book entitled Prisons in Scotland and the North of England, an indictment of gross overcrowding, deprivation and lack of employment and educational opportunities. In 1818, she gave evidence to a House of Commons committee, on the state of British prisons. She recommended separation of the sexes, classification of criminals, female supervision for women, adequate provision for religious and secular instruction, and useful employment. None of her proposals were taken up. It was a sad fact that in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, with population movements from the countryside to the towns, the municipal authorities did not have the skills necessary to control crime or enforce the law efficiently. They responded by imprisoning suspects, convicting on flimsy evidence, and imposing harsh prison sentences.  

In 1823, Fry finally found sympathetic attention from the new Home Secretary, Robert Peel, who introduced some prison reforms in the Gaols Act. During the Nineteenth Century, further reforms were made, with purpose built jails, divided into wings for greater control and with an emphasis on reforming the inmates. Prisoners were kept in isolation, in order that they could reflect on their misdeeds and not be influenced by other criminals. The only person they were allowed to speak to was the prison chaplain. Unfortunately this process often led to insanity, and prisoners were often transferred to the lunatic asylum.  

Fry also became interested in helping vagrants, often people who had been released from prison and were likely to return, due to lack of support. She established night shelters in London, which provided a modicum of food and a place of rest. She instituted Visiting Societies, which had volunteers visiting the homes of the poor and sick, with food and other necessities.  

In 1840, Fry opened a training school for nurses to provide assistance for the poor and sick. Her programme encouraged Florence Nightingale to take a company of ‘Fry nurses’ to comfort the wounded in the Crimean War.  

Fry’s compassionate works attracted considerable criticism. It was said that a woman should not be allowed to control charitable societies or influence government policy, and that her duties, as a wife and mother, would inevitably suffer. However, she did find support from Queen Victoria, who contributed to her causes and granted her several audiences.  

Fry died at Ramsgate on 12th October 1845, and was buried at the Quaker burial ground at Barking. Over 1000 mourners attended her funeral. The cemetery is now built over and a council office stands over her grave. [North Street, Barking, Essex, IG11 8JD] In 2002, her grim but resolute features were portrayed on the Bank of England five pound note.  

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