Continuing a short series on some "October" women who made a big difference.
Elizabeth Gurney was born in Norwich, England in 1780 to a well-off Quaker (Society of Friends) family. In 1800 the twenty-year old Elizabeth married Joseph Fry, also a Quaker, a wealthy tea dealer. Children came quickly, eventually numbering eleven.
From the age of eighteen, she dedicated her life to help the downtrodden. She gave medicine and clothes to the homeless and helped establish the Sisters of Devonshire Square, a nursing school. In 1813, aged 33, her attention turned to the female prisoners in London's Newgate prison. She began to visit the prison almost daily, and what she found there horrified her.
At Newgate, women awaiting trial for stealing apples were crammed into the same cell as women who had been convicted of murder or forgery (both capital crimes). Women ate, defecated, and slept in the same confined area. If an inmate had children, they accompanied her to prison and lived in the same inhumane conditions. For those without help from family, friends, or charities, the options were to beg and to steal food, or to starve to death. Many women begged for alcohol as well, languishing naked and drunk. The sight of children clinging to their mothers as they were dragged to the gallows was a scene replayed time and again.
Elizabeth began working for reform, campaigning for segregation of the sexes, female matrons for female prisoners, education and employment (often knitting and sewing) and religious instruction. In 1817 Elizabeth Fry created the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners, and along with a group of 12 other women lobbied authorities including Parliament. In 1818 she gave testimony before the House of Commons on the state of English prisons, which contributed to the Prison Reform Act of 1823.
Whilst Elizabeth Fry is most well known for her prison reform activities, she was also involved in investigating and proposing reforms in 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 to improve 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 and was responsible for the establishment of soup kitchens. Elizabeth Fry died on 12th October, 1845. Wishing to commemorate her work, the Lord Mayor of London convened a meeting at which it was decided to found an institute for ex-prisoners in her memory – the Elizabeth Fry Refuge. In 1925 it was reconstituted as a charitable organisation and became a hostel for women on probation which in 1949 was officially approved by the Home Office. It moved to Reading in 1962 where the work continues in her memory, as The Elizabeth Fry Charity.
From the Charity itself: - "The Elizabeth Fry Charity provides support to women, mostly on licence from prison, who have a range of complex needs. Through our work, we help women to begin to address the issues they face, to improve their lives and reduce the likelihood of further offending. There are 101 Approved Premises for England and Wales. Elizabeth Fry House is a 24-bed Approved Premises for women,
one of only eleven Approved Premises provided by Independent organisations rather than the National Probation Service."
Information from "The Elizabeth Fry Charity" & "Christianity Today"
PRAYER OF ELIZABETH FRY
O Lord, may we be directed what to do,
and what to leave undone,
and then may we humbly trust that a blessing will be with us.
Enable us, O Lord, to feel tenderly and charitably toward all.
Help us to have no soreness toward any.
Let us think no evil, bear all things, hope all things, endure all things.
Let us walk in all humility before all we meet,
and into your sight. Amen. "For you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you clothed me,
I was sick and you visited me,
I was in prison and you came to me.’