Elizabeth Gurney was born in Norwich England to a rich Quaker family. Her mother believed that women should be educated as well as men, with the result that Elizabeth learnt History, Geography, French and Latin.
On August 18th, 1800 Elizabeth married Joseph Fry. The Fry family were wealthy tea, coffee and spice merchants. Their first child Katherine, was born in August of 1801 and over the next 20 years Elizabeth gave birth to another 11 children.
In 1812, prompted by a family friend, Elizabeth visited Newgate prison. 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. They did their own cooking and washing in the small cells in which they slept. She returned the following day with food and clothes for some of the prisoners and to comfort the ill prisoners.
Elizabeth was unable to further her work for nearly 4 years because of difficulties within the Fry family, including financial difficulties in the Fry bank. Elizabeth returned in 1816 and was eventually able to found a prison school for the children who were imprisoned with their parents. She began a system of supervision and required the women to sew and to read the Bible. In 1817 she helped found the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. This led to the eventual creation of the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners, widely described by biographers and historians as constituting the first “nationwide” women’s organization in Britain.
In 1818 she was asked to give evidence to a Committee of the House of Common on London prisons, the first woman to do so. She described in detail the lives of the prisoners, and recommended that women, not men, should look after women prisoners, and stressed her belief in the importance of useful employment.
One area where she made important changes was in the treatment of prisoners sentenced to transportation to the colonies. Elizabeth Fry arranged for them to be taken in closed carriages to protect them from the stones and jeers of the crowds, and promised to go with them to the docks. In the five weeks before the ships actually sailed, the ladies of the Association visited daily, and provided each prisoner with a ’useful bag’ of things the prisoners would need. During the next twenty years she regularly visited the convict ships: in all 106 came under her care.
As well as her work with prisoners, Elizabeth Fry set up District Visiting Societies to work with the poor, libraries for coastguards and a training school for nurses. When a small boy was found frozen to death near her home, she set up another Ladies Committee to offer hot soup and a bed to homeless women and children.