From 2001, her face was on every Bank of England £5 note, but who was Elizabeth Fry? She was born into a banking family in Norwich, England, in 1780. When she was 18, she heard a Quaker preacher and was converted. She joined a Quaker assembly, where a woman had a prophecy for her: “You are born to be a light to the blind, speech to the dumb and feet to the lame.”
Immediately, Fry was moved to charitable acts. She collected old clothes for the poor, visited those who were sick in her neighbourhood, and started a Sunday School to teach children to read. Marriage took her to London, and motherhood kept her so busy that after 12 years she lamented: “I fear my life is slipping away to little purpose.” How wrong she was!
Another Quaker minister told her of the horrifying conditions in the capital’s prisons. Fry went to the infamous Newgate jail to see for herself. She found hundreds of women and their children living violent lives in unsanitary conditions and sleeping on the floor without bedding.
Fry sprang into action. Immediate practical needs had to be met. She enlisted local women to make clothes for the children. She got permission to start a school for prison children. She founded an organisation of women who would visit prisoners, pray and read scriptures with them, and provide them with materials to sew and knit goods which could be sold to give them some income.
But more visionary action was required if lasting change was to happen. Fry took to spending some nights in the jail and invited members of the aristocracy to come and do so too, to experience at first had the inhumane conditions. Her brother-in-law, a Member of Parliament, also promoted her work in government circles.
The atmosphere at Newgate changed so noticeably that Fry’s model was followed in other towns and even abroad. She became well known. She was the first woman ever to give evidence to a parliamentary select committee, leading to a series of prison reforms in the 1820s. Queen Victoria admired her and made donations.
Fry’s work didn’t stop there. Even while raising 11 children and suffering from what today would be called post-natal depression, she established a night shelter for the homeless in London; campaigned for more humane treatment of orphans; raised awareness of the plight of newly-released prisoners with nowhere to go; began an outreach ministry to sailors and founded a school for nurses. It was nurses trained at Fry’s school who went with Florence Nightingale to the Crimea.
She was incensed at the transportation of women prisoners to Australia. The night before they left, there were always riots in the prisons. The women would reach Australia penniless and with dependent children, leaving prostitution as the only option for many. Elizabeth lobbied parliament and personally visited all deportees, giving them materials for making clothes on the voyage which they could sell on arrival.
Together with her husband, Fry also agitated against capital punishment. At that time, upwards of 200 crimes were punishable by death. After initial indifference in high circles, they gained the ear of Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, who met with them and started the process of penal reform.
Elizabeth’s motives in all these activities were avowedly Christian. Her faith was the centre of all she did. Quakers allowed anointed women to preach, and Elizabeth did so. It is said that her voice carried such emotion that hard hearts would weep.
“Let us cleave to God in spirit,” she exhorted, “and make it the first business of our lives to be conformed to His will and live to His glory, whether prosperity or adversity be our portion, and though our years pass away like a brief tale. Through His unbounded love, the blessings of the Most High will rest upon us.”
Fry proved it. The prophecy was fulfilled absolutely. Called “the Angel of Mercy” in her lifetime, when she died in 1845 over a thousand people lined the way to her grave, to honour the passing of a truly great woman.
Trevor Saxby is a mentor, pastor and PhD in church history. Author of Pilgrims of a Common Life and part of the Jesus Fellowship Church in the UK. I love learning from the ‘movers and shakers’ of the past, as I want to be one today!