On this day in history : 21st May 1780 – The birth of English Quaker and prison reformer Elizabeth Fry…. Often referred to as the ‘Angel of Prisons’ – but also a social reformer in many other ways….

Elizabeth Fry the ‘Angel of Prisons’ – Flickr Commons – Public domain

Born Elizabeth Gurney, into a wealthy Quaker family in Norwich, she was known as ‘Betsy’ to those who knew her well…. At the age 12 she was devastated when her mother died – but even at such a young age she was expected to help bring up her younger brothers and sisters….

It was after hearing a prominent Quaker preacher in 1797 that she vowed to do something to help others…. She set up a Sunday school in the laundry room of the family home for children working in the factories of Norwich…. Her sisters called them ‘Betsy’s imps’…. She also began visiting the sick and those in need….

When she was 20 Elizabeth met Joseph Fry – part of the Fry’s chocolate family…. They were married on the 19th of August 1800….and set up home in East Ham, London…. They had eleven children, five sons and six daughters, one of whom – Betsy – died at the age of 5…. Elizabeth and Joseph were later to have 25 grandchildren….

Elizabeth Fry – Public domain

Elizabeth hated violence of any kind – she campaigned against capital punishment and flogging…. She once sacked a governess to her children on the spot, having caught her administering a beating…. Elizabeth’s compassion also stretched to those unfortunate enough to find themselves in Britain’s squalid gaols of the time….

A visit to Newgate Prison in 1813 shocked and horrified Elizabeth….over 300 women and children living in filthy, overcrowded conditions – some of the women had not even had a trial…. The gaoler did not want her to enter the prison alone ~ “they’ll tear off your things and scratch and claw you. And first of all they’ll snatch your watch” …. Elizabeth conceded to leave her watch behind but adhered to her resolve to visit the women and their children alone….

Elizabeth Fry – Reproduction of lithograph – credit: Wellcome Collection CC BY

At the time her own family were having financial difficulties and she was not in a position to do much to help the prisoners….but in 1816 she returned…. One of the first things she did was to fund a school for the children of the women prisoners – it was common for children to accompany their mothers to prison….

In 1817 she helped found the ‘Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners of Newgate’…. One of the areas the Association worked in was to provide the materials and equipment for the women to learn to sew and knit – to give them the skills and an opportunity to earn a living once they got out of prison…. Elizabeth believed in rehabilitation rather than harsh punishment….

Elizabeth Fry reading to inmates in Newgate Prison – by Jerry Barrett CC BY-SA 4.0

On a visit to England the King of Prussia, Frederick William IV, requested that he accompany Elizabeth Fry on one of her visits to Newgate Prison…. Such was the admiration for her work that support came from high places; Robert Peel helped where he could within his Parliamentary capacity….and Princess Victoria championed her cause and contributed money….

Elizabeth’s work in the reform of the penal system for women also included the welfare of those about to be transported…. For over 25 years she visited every convict ship bound for Botany Bay….her mission to improve conditions on board for the women prisoners – to make sure they were properly fed and had access to water…. Materials and sewing equipment would be provided for the women to make items – such as quilts – so they had something they could sell on reaching Australia….

She even campaigned for the prisoners to have closed carriages from the prison to the convict ship…. The practice had been for the women to be taken by open cart….to be met by hostility from people in the street – who relished yelling abuse and hurling rotten fruit – or worse…. Elizabeth fought to give those about to be transported some degree of dignity….

The Neptune, a convict ship that took convicts to Australia – Public domain

Her work and dedication to making conditions for prisoners more humane was demanding enough – but with Elizabeth it didn’t stop there….

She proposed reforms for mental asylums and founded hostels and soup kitchens for the homeless…. She promoted education for working women and worked to provide housing for the poor….

Elizabeth was personally adept at tending to the sick….and particularly supported vaccination against smallpox…. She had been trained in the procedure herself by Dr. Willan – an early advocate of the smallpox vaccination…. She also founded a nursing school at Guy’s Hospital, which inspired a distant relative of hers – Florence Nightingale….who took a team from Elizabeth’s school to the Crimea with her….

Elizabeth died in Ramsgate, Kent on the 12th of October 1845 – after suffering a stroke…. In 2001 the Bank of England commemorated her by featuring her picture on the reverse side of the £5 note….remaining until its replacement by an image of Sir Winston Churchill in 2016….

Elizabeth Fry (after Charles Robert Leslie) – Public domain

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