Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.
Elizabeth (Gurney) Fry
21 May 1780 – 12 October 1845
Elizabeth (Betsy) Gurney was born in Gurney Court, off Magdalen Street, Norwich, Norfolk, England to the Quaker family of the Gurneys. Her family home as a child was Earlham Hall, which is now part of the University of East Anglia. Her father, John Gurney, was a partner in Gurney’s bank. Her mother, Catherine, was a part of the Barclay family, who were among the founders of Barclays Bank. Her mother died when Elizabeth was only twelve years old. As one of the oldest girls in the family, Elizabeth was partly responsible for the care and training of the younger children, including her brother Joseph John Gurney, a philanthropist. One of her sisters was Louisa Gurney Hoare, a writer on education.
At the age of 18, young Elizabeth was deeply moved by the preaching of William Savery, an American Quaker. Motivated by his words, she took an interest in the poor, the sick, and the prisoners. She collected old clothes for the poor, visited those who were sick in her neighbourhood, and started a Sunday school in the summer house to teach children to read.
She met Joseph Fry (1777–1861), a banker and also a Quaker, when she was twenty years old. They married on 19 August 1800 at the Norwich Goat Lane Friends Meeting House and moved to St Mildred’s Court in the City of London. Elizabeth Fry was recorded as a Minister of the Religious Society of Friends in 1811.
Joseph and Elizabeth Fry lived in Plashet House in East Ham between 1809 and 1829, then moved to Upton Lane in Forest Gate. They had eleven children, five sons and six daughters:
- Katharine (Kitty) Fry
- Rachel Elizabeth Fry, married Francis Cresswell
- John Gurney Fry of Warley Lodge, married Rachel Reynolds
- William Storrs Fry, married Juliana Pelly
- Richenda Fry, married Foster Reynolds
- Joseph Fry, married Alice Partridge
- Elizabeth (Betsy) Fry
- Hannah Fry, married William Champion Streatfeild
- Louisa Fry, married Raymond Pelly (brother of Juliana, William’s wife)
- Samuel Fry born, married Sophia Pinkerton aunt to poet & translator Percy Edward Pinkerton
- Daniel Fry, known as “Henry” or “Harry”, married Lucy Sheppard
Prompted by a family friend, Stephen Grellet, Fry visited Newgate prison. The conditions she saw there horrified her. The women’s section was overcrowded with women and children, some of whom had not even received a trial. They did their own cooking and washing in the small cells in which they slept on straw. Elizabeth Fry wrote in the book Prisons in Scotland and the North of England that she actually stayed the nights in some of the prisons and invited nobility to come and stay and see for themselves the conditions prisoners lived in. Her kindness helped her gain the friendship of the prisoners and they began to try to improve their conditions for themselves.
She returned the following day with food and clothes for some of the prisoners. She was unable to further her work for nearly four years because of difficulties within the Fry family, including financial difficulties in the Fry bank. Fry returned in 1816 and was eventually able to found a prison school for the children who were imprisoned with their parents. She began a system of supervision and required the women to sew and to read the Bible. In 1817 she helped found the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. This led to the eventual creation of the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners, widely described by biographers and historians as constituting the first “nationwide” women’s organisation in Britain.
Thomas Fowell Buxton, Fry’s brother-in-law, was elected to Parliament for Weymouth and began to promote her work among his fellow MPs. In 1818 Fry gave evidence to a House of Commons committee on the conditions prevalent in British prisons, becoming the first woman to present evidence in Parliament.
Elizabeth Fry also helped the homeless, establishing a “nightly shelter” in London after seeing the body of a young boy in the winter of 1819/1820. In 1824, during a visit to Brighton, she instituted the Brighton District Visiting Society. The society arranged for volunteers to visit the homes of the poor and provide help and comfort to them. The plan was successful and was duplicated in other districts and towns across Britain.
After her husband went bankrupt in 1828, Fry’s brother became her business manager and benefactor. Thanks to him, her work went on and expanded.
In 1840 Fry opened a training school for nurses. Her programme inspired Florence Nightingale, who took a team of Fry’s nurses to assist wounded soldiers in the Crimean War.
In 1842, Frederick William IV of Prussia went to see Fry in Newgate Prison during an official visit to Great Britain. The King of Prussia, who had met the social reformer during her previous tours of the continent promoting welfare change and humanitarianism, was so impressed by her work that he told his reluctant courtiers that he would personally visit the gaol when he was in London.
Fry became well known in society. Some people praised her for having such an influential role as a woman. Others alleged that she was neglecting her duties as a wife and mother in order to conduct her humanitarian work. One admirer was Queen Victoria, who granted her an audience a few times and contributed money to her cause. Another admirer was Robert Peel who passed several acts to further her cause including the Gaols Act 1823. The act was largely ineffective, because there were no inspectors to make sure that it was being followed.
Following her death in 1845, a meeting chaired by the Lord Mayor of London, resolved that it would be fitting “to found an asylum to perpetuate the memory of Mrs Fry and further the benevolent objects to which her life had been devoted.” * A fine 18th-century town house was purchased at 195 Mare Street, in the London Borough of Hackney and the first Elizabeth Fry refuge opened its doors in 1849. Funding came via subscriptions from various city companies and private individuals, supplemented by income from the inmates’ laundry and needlework. Such training was an important part of the refuge’s work. In 1924, the refuge merged with the Manor House Refuge for the Destitute, in Dalston in Hackney, becoming a hostel for girls on probation for minor offences. The hostel soon moved to larger premises in Highbury, Islington and then, in 1958, to Reading, where it remains today. The original building in Hackney became the CIU New Lansdowne Club but became vacant in 2000 and has fallen into disrepair. Hackney Council, in 2009, was leading efforts to restore the building and bring it back into use. The building did undergo substantial refurbishment work in 2012 but as of July 2013, the entire building is for sale. The building and Elizabeth Fry are commemorated by a plaque at the entrance gateway.
Elizabeth Fry died from a stroke in Ramsgate, England, on 12 October 1845. Her remains were buried in the Friends’ burial ground at Barking. Seamen of the Ramsgate Coast Guard flew their flag at half mast in respect of Mrs Fry; a practice that until this occasion had been officially reserved for the death of a ruling monarch. More than a thousand people stood in silence during the burial.
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