Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845)

Elizabeth Gurney Fry (1780-1845)

Elizabeth Fry, often known as Betsy Fry, was a Quaker, philanthropist, social reformer, and prison reformer in England. Fry has been called the "Angel of Prisons" because she was a significant driving force for new legislation to enhance the treatment of convicts, particularly female detainees. The 1823 Gaols Act, which required sex-segregated prisons and female warders for female inmates to safeguard them from sexual exploitation, was made possible in large part thanks to her advocacy. Fry kept extensive diaries, and one of them makes it clear that female convicts must be shielded from rape and sexual exploitation.

Early Life

The wealthy Quaker community in Norfolk, in the east of England, was Betsy Gurney's upbringing. The Quakers strongly believed in peace and equality. They were interested in a variety of charity endeavors and were among the first opponents of the slave trade. Betsy's mother passed away when she was just twelve years old, and this had a big influence on the young girl and threw a shadow over her adolescence. She nevertheless demonstrated an early dedication to performing "good deeds," founding and managing a primary school for underprivileged children in her own house at the age of 17. In 1800, she wed Joseph Fry, with whom she gave birth to eleven children. She nevertheless continued her volunteer efforts in the neighborhood, such as caring for ailing and isolated neighbors.

Elizabeth Fry's first visit to Prison

In 1813, Elizabeth Fry made her first visit to London's Newgate prison. (The prison was shut down and destroyed in the beginning of the 20th century.) The inhumane conditions in which women and children were detained startled her. The accounts of her interactions with the female prisoners in Newgate Prison serve as impressive records of what she saw and her resolve to change their circumstances. She sent an invitation to powerful individuals to come see the prison for herself in order to advance her campaign. more specifically Fry disagreed with the prevalent penalty at the time—solitary confinement. She maintained that the practice was detrimental to the convicts' physical and mental well-being. Fry became the first jail reformer to concentrate on improving the morals of inmates through one-on-one interactions, dialogues, education, and employment.

She also established another innovation to carry out this work: volunteer committees of women to plan prison visits and coordinate support once the inmates were released and returned to society. This evolved into the precursor to expert probation services.

Elizabeth Fry promoted three key elements for her reforms:

  • Female and male convicts were to be housed separately, and guards had to be the same gender as the prisoners, according to Elizabeth Fry's proposed reforms. Since then, this has become accepted international practice.
  • The volunteers also had to take care of schooling, paid job, and support once their clients left prison. Regular visits to female convicts were arranged.
  • Opportunities for paid job and study were to be provided for prisoners.
Fry made numerous trips to prisons in the UK. Her techniques were so successful that a significant portion of them were included into British prison law in 1823. She was consulted by Queen Victoria and Parliament, and Florence Nightingale, a pioneer in nursing, found inspiration from her. She also presented her art on a global scale, for instance in the Netherlands.

Treatment of prisoners improved due to Elizabeth Fry's innovative social work, which has been acknowledged in a variety of ways. The School of Social Work at Stanford University is housed in a building that bears her name, and in 2002 she was honored for her contributions by appearing on the British five pound note.


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