Elizabeth Fry


Elizabeth Gurney was born on May 21, 1780 in Norwich, England.  She was the third of twelve children of John and Catherine Gurney.  Her father was a wealthy banker and the family was active in the Society of Friends, commonly called the Quakers, although they did not follow the traditional teachings closely.  As a child, Elizabeth received a well-rounded education because her mother strongly believed in education for girls and boys. C atherine also introduced Elizabeth to working with the sick and poor, which would profoundly influence her later life.  Sadly, when Elizabeth was twelve years old, her mother passed away, forcing Elizabeth to help take care of her younger siblings.

When she was eighteen, Elizabeth heard the preaching of William Savery, an American Quaker.  Savery’s words led her to continue her work with the sick and poor, as well as those in prison. She also started to adhere to the Quaker religion strictly, which her family did not approve of.  In 1799, she met a fellow Quaker, Joseph Fry, and they married in 1800.  They moved to London and quickly started a family, having a total of eleven children.  Elizabeth felt that she had abandoned her mission in favor of having a family and wrote, "I fear that my life is slipping away to little purpose" in her diary in 1812.

In 1813, Elizabeth met another American Quaker minister, Stephen Grellet.  Grellet had visited several prisons and found their conditions appalling and asked Elizabeth for help.  As his urging, she visited the women’s prison at Newgate the very next day.  Elizabeth and her sister-in-law brought the prisoners blankets and clothing, against the advice of the prison guards.  She did not return to the prison again until the end of 1816, due to family hardships.  In 1817, she formed the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate, which established a school for the prisoners and allowed them to create crafts to sell. 

In 1818, she was called to testify by the House of Commons about the conditions of the prison, making her the first woman to ever be called before the House.  Her work led to the founding of other prison reform associations all over Europe.  In 1927, Elizabeth published Observations, on the visiting superintendence and government of female prisoners.  The book not only advocated for prison reform, but also for the rights of women.  On October 12, 1845, she passed away in Ramsgate, England. Over 1,000 people attended her funeral.                                             



Additional Resources:

  • Fry, Katherine. Memoir of the Life of Elizabeth Fry. Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1974.
  • Whitney, Janet. Elizabeth Fry: Quaker Heroine , Ayer Publishing, 1972.
  • http://www.quakerinfo.com/fry.shtml
  • http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/16606 (E-text of Elizabeth Fry by Mrs. E.R. Pitman)