Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was an influential worker for the welfare of prisoners, particularly female prisoners.
She was born on 21 May 1780, the fourth child and third daughter of John and Catherine Gurney of Norwich. This was a prosperous Quaker family, in which, however, the father indulged in shooting and fishing, and there was no conformity to the "plain dress" or "plain speech". Her childhood was marked by ill health, shyness, mood swings (which continued throughout her life), doubts about God, and dislike of Quaker worship. The preaching of the American Quaker minister William Savery ("I have felt that there is a God" she wrote in her journal), supported by a new friendship with her connections Priscilla Hannah Gurney and Deborah Darby, converted her to an intense form of religion, in conformity with plain Quaker standards, and devoted to service. The service first manifested itself in starting a school for poor children. Her family opposed much of this, and she was variously criticised and supported by them all her life. In 1800 she married Joseph Fry, though she found his London lifestyle no more agreeable than that of her Norwich family, and from 1801 gave birth to a succession of children, twelve in all. Her charitable visits, which she had resumed, were curtailed in 1812 by the first of several crises in Fry's Bank, from all of which except the last, it was rescued by the Gurneys.
In 1813 she paid her first visit to Newgate prison, and was sickened by the conditions in which women prisoners and their babies were held, the prisoners being considered wild and beyond discipline or redemption. However, she did not return there till 1816, after the foundation of the Society for the Reformation of Prison Discipline, by, among others, her brother-in-law Thomas Fowell Buxton. In Newgate she started by setting up a school for the children, then moved on to training for the women (which Buxton opposed). For this training she had very definite rules, which the prisoners had agreed, and she considered religious instruction to be integral. She found a sales outlet for the work produced by the trainees, so that they could be paid. She started on tours of prisons, including those in Scotland, writing up reports for the visiting magistrates who were supposed to supervise them. These activities led both to her becoming well known (her Bible readings became showpieces), and to criticism for her neglect of her children. In 1821 she founded the British Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners. Later she made several visits to Ireland
In 1823, Robert Peel's Prison Reform Act was the first result of the prison reform campaigns, setting national standards for prisons. Though that act was generally positive, later developments included the central control of prisons, where the new policy was to promote solitary confinement for all prisoners, a policy which Elizabeth Fry opposed, with little effect.
In 1828 Fry's bank closed, one result being that Joseph Fry was eventually "disowned". Elizabeth continued to be supported by her brother Samuel Gurney, both financially and in her work. Despite failing health, in 1838 and 1839 she paid visits to France, in 1840 to Belgium and some German states, in 1841 to the Netherlands, some German states and Denmark, and in 1843 to France again. She attracted large crowds, and was consulted by reformist rulers, with some effect.
She died on 13 October 1845 in Ramsgate.