Elizabeth Fry: Quaker Prison Reformer

I’ve been reading a biography of Elizabeth Fry (1780 – 1843) that I bought from the USFW used book table in the meetinghouse. The biography is itself a century old and USFW used book table in the meetinghouse. The biography is itself a century old and better ones have probably been written since. But I’ve been inspired by reading it. I’m only about half-way through it at the time of this writing, but here are some interesting points so far. Elizabeth Gurney grew up in a wealthy Quaker banking family in Norwich, England. She was one of eleven children, mostly sisters. But a brother, Joseph John Gurney, would become a key actor in the evangelical renewal of Friends. His travels in America in the 1830s were a watershed event that strongly influenced Friends, including here in New England. Elizabeth and her sisters were “gay Friends” – which in those days meant that they rejected the traditional plain dress, speech and lifestyle of Friends. They enjoyed literature, “mirth,” singing and even dancing(!) Betsy wore purple boots with scarlet laces, even to meeting for worship. The family were members at the Goat’s Lane Meeting in Norwich. She and her sisters disliked going to meeting – or what they called being “goatified.” Elizabeth’s story reads something like a Jane Austen novel that goes off the rails. At age fourteen she asked her father to take her to see the women in the Norwich House of Correction. The conditions she saw there horrified her, causing her to ask, “If this is the world, where is God?” She became a religious skeptic, but still caught between her love of diversion and her grief at social conditions outside her comfortable home. A major turning-point came when she was seventeen and William Savery, a traveling Quaker minister from America, spoke at her meeting. His message (two and a half hours long!) reached her powerfully. He came to the Gurney home for breakfast the next morning and prophesied great things about Elizabeth. She wrote that Savery’s “having been gay and disbelieving only a few years ago makes him better acquainted with the heart of one in the same situation.” Her sisters were annoyed by the changes in Elizabeth in the following months. She became more serious, kind, and charitable to the poor. She preferred reading the Bible to dancing, became more patient, humble and plain. What a drag! During a trip to London, a “weighty” elder Friend, Deborah Darby, also prophesied great things of her. Elizabeth wondered, “Can this be?” At age twenty, she married Joseph Fry, of another Quaker banking family in London. She started a school for girls and did various works of charity. But her greatest work would take place at the Newgate prison in London. Its terrible conditions had claimed the lives of some Friends in the early days of persecution in the
1600s. On average, five deaths occurred there every month from lack of ventilation and overcrowding. The criminal and mentally ill were thrown together. Men, women and even minors were executed for offenses as minor as theft and forgery. About four executions occurred daily. The French evangelical Friend Stephen Grellet visited Newgate in 1813 and went at once to Elizabeth Fry to ask her to help the 300 women prisoners and their children there. The degrading conditions of the prison (and the alcohol available to anyone with money to buy it) led to degraded behavior, outright mayhem at times. Fry spoke to that of God in the women and children by treating them with respect, assuring them of God’s love and her own for them, and offering education for the children along with productive work for the women. The results were immediate and profound. The ventilation didn’t improve but the overall atmosphere among the prisoners did. Fry also campaigned against capital punishment for theft and forgery, arguing that it showed a higher regard for property than for human life. Stay tuned for more on Elizabeth Fry in the next newsletter. Doug