Who was Elizabeth Fry?

Elizabeth Fry (Gurney) was born in England in 1780. Although raised in a wealthy influential Quaker family, at 17 she chose to work with those less fortunate members of society. Early in 1813, Elizabeth Fry visited the women's section of Newgate Prison in London for the first time, and was shocked by the appalling conditions in which the female prisoners and their children were kept.

In some of the smaller prisons, the women were not separated from the men and in others, men who were labeled "lunatics", or in danger from other men, could be placed in the women's section for the jailer's convenience. Consequently, many babies were born to the inmate mothers, who then lived in the prison. Female prisoners were also kept for the domestic or sexual convenience of the jailer.  


Prison fees were hard on women because they were often friendless and penniless. In some prisons, the doors between the men and women's sections were unlocked at night. Prostitution was often the only way a woman could supplement the meager prison diet.  


Women prisoners were whipped in public until 1817 and in private until 1820.  


Her insight, persistence, organizational ability and her willingness to see a 'divine light' in every person resulted in striking reforms taking place in the manner in which women and children were treated in London's Newgate Prison.  


She:

  • Introduced reforms by encouraging women to care for themselves and their children.
  • Convinced authorities to set up schools inside the prison so the women and their children could be provided with basic education.
  • Provided material so the women could knit and do needlework and found a market for their goods.
  • Insisted that women prisoners be kept in separate quarters from male prisoners and that they be supervised by other females.


The essence of Elizabeth Fry's religiously inspired thinking about prisoners (male and female) was that they were fellow human beings. Their treatment, therefore, should be based on 'the principles of justice and humanity'.