Elizabeth Fry

Prison and Mental Asylum Reformer

Elizabeth Fry
Elizabeth Fry. From Little Journeys To The Homes Of Famous Women, 1916

Known for: prison reform, reform of mental asylums, reform of convict ships to Australia

Dates: May 21, 1780 - October 12, 1845
Occupation: reformer
Also Known as: Elizabeth Gurney Fry

About Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry was born in Norwich, England, into a well-off Quaker (Society of Friends) family. Her mother died when Elizabeth was young. The family practiced "relaxed" Quaker customs, but Elizabeth Fry began to practice a stricter Quakerism. At 17, inspired by the Quaker William Saveny, she put her religious faith into action by teaching poor children and visiting the sick among poor families. She practiced more plain dress, pain speech, and plain living.


In 1800, Elizabeth Gurney married Joseph Fry, who was also a Quaker and, like her father, a banker and merchant. They had eight children between 1801 and 1812. In 1809, Elizabeth Fry began to speak at Quaker meeting and became a Quaker "minister."

Visit to Newgate

In 1813 came a key event in Elizabeth Fry's life: she was talked into visiting the women's prison in London, Newgate, where she observed women and their children in horrible conditions. She didn't return to Newgate until 1816, having two more children int aht time, but she began working for reforms, including those that became themes for her: segregation of the sexes, female matrons for female prisoners, education, employment (often kitting and sewing), and religious instruction.

Organizing for Reform

In 1817, Elizabeth Fry began the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners, a group of twelve women who worked for these reforms. She lobbied authorities including Members of Parliament -- a brother-in-law was elected to Parliament in 1818 and became a supporter of her reforms. As a result, in 1818, she was called to testify before a Royal Commission, the first woman to so testify.

Widening Circles of Reform Activism

In 1819, with her brother Joseph Gurney, Elizabeth Fry wrote a report on prison reform. In the 1820s, she inspected prison conditions, advocated reforms and established more reform groups, including many with women members. By 1821, a number of women's reform groups came together as the British Ladies' Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners. In 1822, Elizabeth Fry gave birth to her eleventh child. In 1823, prison reform legislation was finally introduced in Parliament.

Elizabeth Fry in the 1830s

Elizabeth Fry traveled extensively in western European countries in the 1830s advocating her preferred prison reform measures. By 1827, her influence had diminished. In 1835, Parliament enacted laws creating harsher prison policies instead, including hard labor and solitary confinement. Her last trip was to France in 1843. Elizabeth Fry died in 1845.

More Reforms

While Elizabeth Fry is known more for her prison reform activities, she was also active in investigating and proposing reforms for mental asylums. For more than 25 years, she visited every convict ship leaving for Australia, and promoted reform of the convict ship system. She worked for nursing standards and established a nursing school which influenced her distant relative, Florence Nightingale. She worked for the education of working women, for better housing for the poor including hostels for the homeless, and she founded soup kitchens.

In 1845, after Elizabeth Fry died, two of her daughters published a two-volume memoir of their mother, with selections from her journals (44 handwritten volumes originally) and letters. It was more hagiography than biography. In 1918, Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards, daughter of Julia Ward Howe, published Elizabeth Fry, the Angel of the Prisons.

In 2003, Elizabeth Fry's image was selected to appear on the English ​five-pound note.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Elizabeth Fry." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/elizabeth-fry-biography-3530236. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, September 3). Elizabeth Fry. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/elizabeth-fry-biography-3530236 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Elizabeth Fry." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/elizabeth-fry-biography-3530236 (accessed March 23, 2023).