Fry, Elizabeth (DNB00)

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FRY, ELIZABETH (1780–1845), prison reformer, born at Earlham in Norfolk, 21 May 1780, was third daughter of John Gurney, banker in Norwich, and member of an old quaker family. Her younger brothers included Daniel Gurney [q. v.] and Joseph John Gurney [q. v.] Elizabeth in youth joined in social gaieties. Under the preaching and influence of an American named Savery she became deeply impressed by the gospel. Her earliest work was to visit the poor at Earlham and in Norwich, relieving the sick, and forming a class for the instruction of the children. At the age of twenty she married Joseph Fry, who appears to have been of a much colder and more commonplace nature than his wife. Their family was large. Amid all her public labours she never ceased to devote herself to their welfare; it was a great disappointment to her that some of them left the Society of Friends.

Soon after her marriage she was much exercised by the question whether or not she was called to the ministry among her people. Naturally she had an intense aversion to such a work, but on the death of her father, when she was twenty-nine, she was constrained to take part in the public service, and thereafter experienced such ‘incomings of love, joy, peace,’ that she no longer doubted, and was accordingly soon after recognised as a minister. She spoke with marvellous effect. The pathos of her voice was almost miraculous, and melted alike the hardest criminals and the most impervious men of the world. Cool observers who had witnessed the effects of her appeals in Newgate prison could hardly describe the scene without tears.

Her connection with prisons began practically in 1813. As a child of fifteen she had been deeply interested in the house of correction at Norwich, and had prevailed on her father to allow her to visit it. At the instigation of some of her friends who had come to know of the state of things at Newgate, and particularly of William Forster (1784–1854) [q. v.], she now turned her attention to the condition of the female prisoners. The state of things was appalling. Nearly three hundred women, with their children, were huddled together in two wards and two cells; some of them convicted, some not yet tried, innocent and guilty, misdemeanants and felons, all tumbled together; without employment, without nightclothes or bedclothes, sleeping on the bare floor, cooking and washing, eating and sleeping in the same apartment. A tap in the prison gave them the opportunity of supplying themselves with drink. Even the governor was afraid to trust himself in the place, and when the quakers were about to visit it he advised them to leave their watches behind. ‘The begging,’ as she afterwards described the scene to a committee of the House of Commons, ‘swearing, gaming, fighting, singing, dancing, dressing-up in men's clothes were too bad to be described, so that we did not think it suitable to admit young persons with us.’

At first she tried no more than to supply the most destitute with clothes. Then she established a school, which was very successful. A matron was afterwards appointed. But the main cause of reformation was her personal influence and exertions. The reading of the scriptures was a leading part of her remedial measures, and her impressive tones and profound reverence made a deep impression. She was the heart and soul of an association formed in 1817 for the improvement of female prisoners in Newgate. The effects of her labours were thus described by the American minister of the day: ‘Two days ago I saw the greatest curiosity in London, aye and in England too, compared to which Westminster Abbey, the Tower, Somerset House, the British Museum, nay parliament itself, sink into utter insignificance. I have seen Elizabeth Fry in Newgate, and I have witnessed there the miraculous effect of true christianity upon the most depraved of human beings. And yet the wretched outcasts have been tamed and subdued by the christian eloquence of Mrs. Fry. …’

Her success attracted the attention of all classes, including royalty. Transported criminals were sent in those days to New South Wales, and the voyage was performed without classification, employment, or superintendence. At New South Wales no arrangements were made for enabling them to earn an honest living. Mrs. Fry exerted herself greatly to induce the government to make proper regulations for the voyage, and to provide a suitable home and proper employments for them on arriving.

She took a lively interest in the condition of other prisons besides Newgate. Sometimes combining her work as a minister of the quaker communion with her prison labours, she would travel through the country, especially visiting places where there were prisons, ascertaining their condition, conferring with the local authorities, making suggestions to them, and forming ladies' associations for more effectually carrying out the object. Her visits, too, extended beyond the limits of the United Kingdom. In 1820 she corresponded with the Princess Sophie Mestchersky of Russia; the dowager-empress became deeply interested, and her son Nicholas allowed her to convert a royal palace into a palace prison. Mrs. Fry, however, did not desire to encourage such sentimental philanthropy. In France, Louis-Philippe and his queen received her kindly; so did the king of Prussia and his family. At Kaiserswerth she had a most interesting time; Fliedner owned that her example had moved him greatly; while she was impressed, after visiting Kaiserswerth, with the importance of having trained nurses to attend the sick, and instituted an order of ‘nursing sisters,’ whose aid has been sought and valued by persons of all classes.

Although prison reform was her chief work, she attended to other questions. She was much impressed by the miseries of homeless wanderers in London during the rigorous winter of 1819–20, and especially by the death of a poor boy who was found frozen to death on a doorstep. A ‘nightly shelter for the homeless’ was the result, soup and bread, as well as a bed, being given to those who applied. The scheme prospered under a committee of ladies, of whom she was the head, and they did not limit their efforts merely to providing the night's lodging, but tried to find occupation for the unemployed. In like manner, finding Brighton to be greatly infested with beggars, she instituted a district visiting society designed to relieve real distress, to prevent mendicity and imposture, and encourage industry. Observing how the members of the blockade or preventive service were exposed to dreary idleness, she got them a supply of bibles and useful books, and by-and-by libraries were supplied to the preventive stations. A remark on the temptations of discharged prisoners led to the opening, by a lady who heard it, of the Royal Manor Hall Asylum.

In 1828 her husband became bankrupt, and he and his family sank from affluence to poverty. Much suffering was entailed on others, and Mrs. Fry could no longer help the needy as she had been accustomed to do. But she continued her duties as a minister, in addition to all her philanthropic work and her domestic duties. She was equally at home with all ranks; at one time we find her entertaining the king of Prussia at dinner, at another drinking tea with a poor shoemaker who had been able to procure but one luxury for her entertainment—a little fresh butter. She died at Ramsgate on 12 Oct. 1845, and was buried in the Friends' burial-ground at Barking. Mrs. Fry was the author of: 1. ‘Observations on … Female Prisoners,’ Lond., 1827. 2. ‘Report by Mrs. Fry and J. J. Gurney on their late visit to Ireland,’ Lond., 1827. 3. Preface to John Venn's ‘Sermon on Gradual Progress of Evil,’ Lond., 1830. 4. ‘Texts for Every Day in the Year,’ Lond., 1831; translated into French, German, and Italian.

[Memories of [Mrs. Fry], by her daughter, R. E. C[resswell], 1845; Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Fry, by two of her daughters, 1847; Abridged Memoir by Mrs. Cresswell, 1856; Memoirs of Mrs. Elizabeth Fry, by Thomas Timpson, 1847; The Life of Elizabeth Fry, compiled from her Journals, by Susanna Corder, 1853; Smith's Friends' Books, i. 811–13.]

W. G. B.