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Who is Elizabeth Fry?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 23, 2024
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Elizabeth Fry was a wealthy English woman and Quaker humanitarian best known for being a prison reformer. She especially focused her work on women and children in the prison system. Elizabeth Fry advocated education for those in the prison system and also worked to have the women not housed in the same quarters as male prisoners.

In 1817, Fry started the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners in Newgate Prison. Prison authorities allowed Elizabeth Fry to implement her methods of prison reform as her changes brought order to the jails. Her prison reform methods changed prison life for women throughout Great Britain and Europe. Elizabeth Fry gave clothing and food to prisoners when the prison did not provide them. She also set rules that included reasonable work expectations and Bible readings each day.

Elizabeth Fry was born Elizabeth Gurney on 21 May 1780 into a wealthy Quaker family in Norfolk, England. Her family home, Earlham Hall, became a section of the University of East Anglia. At age 18, Elizabeth Fry began collecting old clothes for the poor. She also organized a summer Sunday school that taught children to read. Elizabeth married a Quaker banker named Joseph Fry on 19 August 1800 and the couple lived in London and had eleven children and 25 grandchildren. Despite being involved with her own family as well as her church community, Elizabeth remained committed to her work with prison reform.

Today, the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies helps women involved in the justice system. Other humanitarian efforts handled by the Association include services to help victims of family violence and Elizabeth Fry helpers have also built homeless shelters and participated in a network of visitors to visit and comfort the poor. The Elizabeth Fry Societies strive to carry on the work and philosophy of their namesake. Just as Elizabeth Fry herself did, the people involved the Societies are committed to treating women prisoners with compassion and the understanding that prisoners are still people worthy of kindness and respect. Although Elizabeth Fry died 12 October, 1845 her charity work continues to live on.

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Discussion Comments
By momothree — On Mar 06, 2011

Thank you Elizabeth Fry for paving the way to more humane treatment of women prisoners! My favorite quote from Elizabeth Fry is “Oh Lord, may I be directed what to do and what to leave undone”.

By googie98 — On Mar 05, 2011

Elizabeth Fry was truly an awesome woman! I read the Elizabeth Fry biography and learned a lot that I did not know.

There was a man that was a good friend of the Fry family named Stephen Grellet. In 1813, Grellet made a visit to Newgate Prison. He was terribly shocked and appalled by what he saw. He was told that the women’s part of the prison was even worse. Grellet asked if he could visit that part of the prison and he was advised against it and was told the women were unruly and could possibly do him physical harm. However, Grellet insisted. He could not believe what he saw.

To make a long story short, Grellet told Elizabeth Fry about what he had seen and how the women were treated. She decided to visit the prison herself. She reported that 300 women and their children were all huddled together in two wards and two cells. Some of the women had not yet been found guilty of their crimes. Fry reported that the females had to sleep on the floors without nightclothes or bedding. They had to cook, sleep, and wash in the same cell.

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