When a woman of beauty, great wealth, and the highest social position,
devotes her life to the lifting of the lowly and the criminal, and
preaches the Gospel from the north of Scotland to the south of France,
it is not strange that the world admires, and that books are written
in praise of her. Unselfishness makes a rare and radiant life, and
this was the crowning beauty of the life of Elizabeth Fry.
Born in Norwich, England, May 21, 1780, Elizabeth was the third
daughter of Mr. John Gurney, a wealthy London merchant. Mrs. Gurney,
the mother, a descendant of the Barclays of Ury, was a woman of much
personal beauty, singularly intellectual for those times, making her
home a place where literary and scientific people loved to gather.
Elizabeth wellnigh idolized her mother, and used often to cry after
going to bed, lest death should take away the precious parent. In the
daytime, when the mother, not very robust, would sometimes lie down
to rest, the child would creep to the bedside and watch tenderly and
anxiously, to see if she were breathing. Well might Mrs. Gurney say,
"My dove-like Betsy scarcely ever offends, and is, in every
sense of the word, truly engaging."
Mrs. Fry wrote years afterward: "My mother was most dear to me, and
the walks she took with me in the old-fashioned garden are as fresh
with me as if only just passed, and her telling me about Adam and Eve
being driven out of Paradise. I always considered it must be just
like our garden.... I remember with pleasure my mother's beds of wild
flowers, which, with delight, I used as a child to attend with her; it
gave me that pleasure in observing their beauties and varieties that,
though I never have had time to become a botanist, few can imagine, in
my many journeys, how I have been pleased and refreshed by observing
and enjoying the wild flowers on my way."
The home, Earlham Hall, was one of much beauty and elegance, a seat of
the Bacon family. The large house stood in the centre of a well-wooded
park, the river Wensum flowing through it. On the south front of the
house was a large lawn, flanked by great trees, underneath which wild
flowers grew in profusion. The views about the house were so artistic
that artists often came there to sketch.
In this restful and happy home, after a brief illness, Mrs. Gurney
died in early womanhood, leaving eleven children, all young, the
smallest but two years old. Elizabeth was twelve, old enough to feel
the irreparable loss. To the day of her death the memory of this time
was extremely sad.
She was a nervous and sensitive child, afraid of the dark, begging
that a light be left in her room, and equally afraid to bathe in
the sea. Her feelings were regarded as the whims of a child, and her
nervous system was injured in consequence. She always felt the lack of
wisdom in "hardening" children, and said, "I am now of opinion that my
fear would have been much more subdued, and great suffering spared,
by its having been still more yielded to: by having a light left in my
room, not being long left alone, and never forced to bathe."
After her marriage she guided her children rather than attempt "to
break their wills," and lived to see happy results from the good sense
and Christian principle involved in such guiding. In her prison work
she used the least possible governing, winning control by kindness and
Elizabeth grew to young womanhood, with pleasing manners, slight and
graceful in body, with a profusion of soft flaxen hair, and a bright,
intelligent face. Her mind was quick, penetrating, and original. She
was a skilful rider on horseback, and made a fine impression in her
scarlet riding-habit, for, while her family were Quakers, they did not
adopt the gray dress.
She was attractive in society and much admired. She writes in her
journal: "Company at dinner; I must beware of not being a flirt, it is
an abominable character; I hope I shall never be one, and yet I fear I
am one now a little.... I think I am by degrees losing many excellent
qualities. I lay it to my great love of gayety, and the world.... I am
now seventeen, and if some kind and great circumstance does not happen
to me, I shall have my talents devoured by moth and rust. They will
lose their brightness, and one day they will prove a curse instead of
Before she was eighteen, William Savery, an American friend, came to
England to spend two years in the British Isles, preaching. The seven
beautiful Gurney sisters went to hear him, and sat on the front seat,
Elizabeth, "with her smart boots, purple, laced with scarlet."
As the preacher proceeded, she was greatly moved, weeping during the
service, and nearly all the way home. She had been thrown much among
those who were Deists in thought, and this gospel-message seemed a
revelation to her.
The next morning Mr. Savery came to Earlham Hall to breakfast. "From
this day," say her daughters, in their interesting memoir of their
mother, "her love of pleasure and the world seemed gone." She,
herself, said, in her last illness, "Since my heart was touched, at
the age of seventeen, I believe I never have awakened from sleep, in
sickness or in health, by day or by night, without my first waking
thought being, how best I might serve my Lord."
Soon after she visited London, that she might, as she said, "try all
things" and choose for herself what appeared to her "to be good." She
"I went to Drury Lane in the evening. I must own I was extremely
disappointed; to be sure, the house is grand and dazzling; but I
had no other feeling whilst there than that of wishing it over.... I
called on Mrs. Siddons, who was not at home; then on Mrs. Twiss, who
gave me some paint for the evening. I was painted a little, I had my
hair dressed, and did look pretty for me."
On her return to Earlham Hall she found that the London pleasure had
not been satisfying. She says, "I wholly gave up on my own ground,
attending all places of public amusement; I saw they tended to promote
evil; therefore, if I could attend them without being hurt myself, I
felt in entering them I lent my aid to promote that which I was sure
from what I saw hurt others."
She was also much exercised about dancing, thinking, while "in a
family, it may be of use by the bodily exercise," that "the more the
pleasures of life are given up, the less we love the world, and our
hearts will be set upon better things."
The heretofore fashionable young girl began to visit the poor and the
sick in the neighborhood, and at last decided to open a school for
poor children. Only one boy came at first; but soon she had seventy.
She lost none of her good cheer and charming manner, but rather grew
more charming. She cultivated her mind as well, reading logic,--Watts
on Judgment, Lavater, etc.
The rules of life which she wrote for herself at eighteen are worth
copying: "First,--Never lose any time; I do not think that lost which
is spent in amusement or recreation some time every day; but always be
in the habit of being employed. Second,--Never err the least in truth.
Third,--Never say an ill thing of a person when I can say a good thing
of him; not only speak charitably, but feel so. Fourth,--Never be
irritable or unkind to anybody. Fifth,--Never indulge myself
in luxuries that are not necessary. Sixth,--Do all things with
consideration, and when my path to act right is most difficult, put
confidence in that Power alone which is able to assist me, and exert
my own powers as far as they go."
Gradually she laid aside all jewelry, then began to dress in quiet
colors, and finally adopted the Quaker garb, feeling that she could
do more good in it. At first her course did not altogether please her
family, but they lived to idolize and bless her for her doings, and to
thankfully enjoy her worldwide fame.
At twenty she received an offer of marriage from a wealthy London
merchant, Mr. Joseph Fry. She hesitated for some time, lest her active
duties in the church should conflict with the cares of a home of her
own. She said, "My most anxious wish is, that I may not hinder my
spiritual welfare, which I have so much feared as to make me often
doubt if marriage were a desirable thing for me at this time, or even
the thoughts of it."
However, she was soon married, and a happy life resulted. For most
women this marriage, which made her the mother of eleven children,
would have made all public work impossible; but to a woman of
Elizabeth Fry's strong character nothing seemed impossible. Whether
she would have accomplished more for the world had she remained
unmarried, no one can tell.
Her husband's parents were "plain, consistent friends," and his sister
became especially congenial to the young bride. A large and airy house
was taken in London, St. Mildred's Court, which became a centre for
"Friends" in both Great Britain and America.
With all her wealth and her fondness for her family, she wrote in her
journal, "I have been married eight years yesterday; various trials
of faith and patience have been permitted me; my course has been very
different to what I had expected; instead of being, as I had hoped,
a useful instrument in the Church Militant, here I am a careworn
wife and mother outwardly, nearly devoted to the things of this life;
though at times this difference in my destination has been trying
to me, yet I believe those trials (which have certainly been very
pinching) that I have had to go through have been very useful, and
have brought me to a feeling sense of what I am; and at the same time
have taught me where power is, and in what we are to glory; not in
ourselves nor in anything we can be or do, but we are alone to desire
that He may be glorified, either through us or others, in our being
something or nothing, as He may see best for us."
After eleven years the Fry family moved to a beautiful home in the
country at Plashet. Changes had come in those eleven years. The father
had died; one sister had married Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, and she
herself had been made a "minister" by the Society of Friends. While
her hands were very full with the care of her seven children, she had
yet found time to do much outside Christian work.
Naturally shrinking, she says, "I find it an awful thing to rise
amongst a large assembly, and, unless much covered with love and
power, hardly know how to venture." But she seemed always to be
"covered with love and power," for she prayed much and studied her
Bible closely, and her preaching seemed to melt alike crowned heads
and criminals in chains.
Opposite the Plashet House, with its great trees and flowers, was a
dilapidated building occupied by an aged man and his sister. They had
once been well-to-do, but were now very poor, earning a pittance by
selling rabbits. The sister, shy and sorrowful from their reduced
circumstances, was nearly inaccessible, but Mrs. Fry won her way to
her heart. Then she asked how they would like to have a girls' school
in a big room attached to the building. They consented, and soon
seventy poor girls were in attendance.
"She had," says a friend, "the gentlest touch with children. She would
win their hearts, if they had never seen her before, almost at the
first glance, and by the first sound of her musical voice."
Then the young wife, now thirty-one, established a depot of calicoes
and flannels for the poor, with a room full of drugs, and another
department where good soup was prepared all through the hard winters.
She would go into the "Irish Colony," taking her two older daughters
with her, that they might learn the sweetness of benevolence,
"threading her way through children and pigs, up broken staircases,
and by narrow passages; then she would listen to their tales of want
Now she would find a young mother dead, with a paper cross pinned upon
her breast; now she visited a Gypsy camp to care for a sick child, and
give them Bibles. Each year when the camp returned to Plashet, their
chief pleasure was the visits of the lovely Quaker. Blessings on thee,
beautiful Elizabeth Fry!
She now began to assist in the public meetings near London, but with
some hesitation, as it took her from home; but after an absence of two
weeks, she found her household "in very comfortable order; and so far
from having suffered in my absence, it appears as if a better blessing
had attended them than common."
She did not forget her home interests. One of her servants being ill,
she watched by his bedside till he died. When she talked with him of
the world to come, he said, "God bless you, ma'am." She said, "There
is no set of people I feel so much about as servants, as I do not
think they have generally justice done to them; they are too much
considered as another race of beings, and we are apt to forget that
the holy injunction holds good with them, 'Do as thou wouldst be done
She who could dine with kings and queens, felt as regards servants,
"that in the best sense we are all one, and though our paths here may
be different, we have all souls equally valuable, and have all the
same work to do; which, if properly considered, should lead us
to great sympathy and love, and also to a constant care for their
welfare, both here and hereafter."
When she was thirty-three, having moved to London for the winter,
she began her remarkable work in Newgate prison. The condition of
prisoners was pitiable in the extreme. She found three hundred women,
with their numerous children, huddled together, with no classification
between the most and least depraved, without employment, in rags and
dirt, and sleeping on the floor with no bedding, the boards simply
being raised for a sort of pillow. Liquors were purchased openly at a
bar in the prison; and swearing, gambling, obscenity, and pulling each
other's hair were common. The walls, both in the men's and women's
departments, were hung with chains and fetters.
When Mrs. Fry and two or three friends first visited the prison,
the superintendent advised that they lay aside their watches before
entering, which they declined to do. Mrs. Fry did not fear, nor need
she, with her benign presence.
On her second visit she asked to be left alone with the women, and
read to them the tenth chapter of Matthew, making a few observations
on Christ's having come to save sinners. Some of the women asked who
Christ was. Who shall forgive us for such ignorance in our very midst?
The children were almost naked, and ill from want of food, air, and
exercise. Mrs. Fry told them that she would start a school for their
children, which announcement was received with tears of joy. She
asked that they select one from their own number for a governess. Mary
Conner was chosen, a girl who had been put in prison for stealing a
watch. So changed did the girl become under this new responsibility,
that she was never known to infringe a rule of the prison. After
fifteen months she was released, but died soon after of consumption.
When the school was opened for all under twenty-five, "the railing
was crowded with half-naked women, struggling together for the front
situations, with the most boisterous violence, and begging with the
Mrs. Fry saw at once the need of these women being occupied, but the
idea that these people could be induced to work was laughed at, as
visionary, by the officials. They said the work would be destroyed or
stolen at once. But the good woman did not rest till an association of
twelve persons was formed for the "Improvement of the Female Prisoners
of Newgate"; "to provide for the clothing, the instruction, and the
employment of the women; to introduce them to a knowledge of the Holy
Scriptures; and to form in them, as much as possible, those habits
of order, sobriety, and industry, which may render them docile and
peaceable whilst in prison, and respectable when they leave it."
It was decided that Botany Bay could be supplied with stockings, and
indeed with all the articles needed by convicts, through the work
of these women. A room was at once made ready, and matrons were
appointed. A portion of the earnings was to be given the women for
themselves and their children. In ten months they made twenty thousand
articles of wearing apparel, and knit from sixty to one hundred pairs
of stockings every month. The Bible was read to them twice each day.
They received marks for good behavior, and were as pleased as children
with the small prizes given them.
One of the girls who received a prize of clothing came to Mrs. Fry,
and "hoped she would excuse her for being so forward, but if she
might say it, she felt exceedingly disappointed; she little thought of
having clothing given to her, but she had hoped I would have given her
a Bible, that she might read the Scriptures herself."
No woman was ever punished under Mrs. Fry's management. They said,
"it would be more terrible to be brought up before her than before the
judge." When she told them she hoped they would not play cards, five
packs were at once brought to her and burned.
The place was now so orderly and quiet, that "Newgate had become
almost a show; the statesman and the noble, the city functionary and
the foreign traveller, the high-bred gentlewoman, the clergyman and
the dissenting minister, flocked to witness the extraordinary change,"
and to listen to Mrs. Fry's beautiful Bible readings.
Letters poured in from all parts of the country, asking her to come
to their prisons for a similar work, or to teach others how to work.
A committee of the House of Commons summoned her before them to learn
her suggestions, and to hear of her methods; and later the House of
Of course the name of Elizabeth Fry became known everywhere. Queen
Victoria gave her audience, and when she appeared in public, everybody
was eager to look at her. The newspapers spoke of her in the highest
praise. Yet with a beautiful spirit she writes in her journal, "I
am ready to say in the fulness of my heart, surely 'it is the Lord's
doing, and marvellous in our eyes'; so many are the providential
openings of various kinds. Oh! if good should result, may the praise
and glory of the whole be entirely given where it is due by us, and by
all, in deep humiliation and prostration of spirit."
Mrs. Fry's heart was constantly burdened with the scenes she
witnessed. The penal laws were a caricature on justice. Men and women
were hanged for theft, forgery, passing counterfeit money, and for
almost every kind of fraud. One young woman, with a babe in her
arms, was hanged for stealing a piece of cloth worth one dollar and
twenty-five cents! Another was hanged for taking food to keep herself
and little child from starving. It was no uncommon thing to see women
hanging from the gibbet at Newgate, because they had passed a forged
one-pound note (five dollars).
George Cruikshank in 1818 was so moved at one of these executions that
he made a picture which represented eight men and three women hanging
from the gallows, and a rope coiled around the faces of twelve others.
Across the picture were the words, "I promise to perform during the
issue of Bank-notes easily imitated ... for the Governors and Company
of the Bank of England."
He called the picture a "Bank-note, not to be imitated." It at once
created a great sensation. Crowds blocked the street in front of
the shop where it was hung. The pictures were in such demand that
Cruikshank sat up all night to etch another plate. The Gurneys,
Wilberforce, Sir Samuel Romilly, Sir James Mackintosh, all worked
vigorously against capital punishment, save, possibly, for murder.
Among those who were to be executed was Harriet Skelton, who, for the
man she loved, had passed forged notes. She was singularly open in
face and manner, confiding, and well-behaved. When she was condemned
to death, it was a surprise and horror to all who knew her. Mrs. Fry
was deeply interested. Noblemen went to see her in her damp, dark
cell, which was guarded by a heavy iron door. The Duke of Gloucester
went with Mrs. Fry to the Directors of the Bank of England, and to
Lord Sidmouth, to plead for her, but their hearts were not to be
moved, and the poor young girl was hanged. The public was enthusiastic
in its applause for Mrs. Fry, and unsparing in its denunciation of
Sidmouth. At last the obnoxious laws were changed.
Mrs. Fry was heartily opposed to capital punishment. She said, "It
hardens the hearts of men, and makes the loss of life appear light
to them"; it does not lead to reformation, and "does not deter others
from crime, because the crimes subject to capital punishment are
When the world is more civilized than it is to-day, when we have
closed the open saloon, that is the direct cause of nearly all the
murders, then we shall probably do away with hanging; or, if men and
women must be killed for the safety of society, a thing not easily
proven, it will be done in the most humane manner, by chloroform.
Mrs. Fry was likewise strongly opposed to solitary confinement,
which usually makes the subject a mental wreck, and, as regards moral
action, an imbecile. How wonderfully in advance of her age was this
Mrs. Fry's thoughts now turned to another evil. When the women
prisoners were transported to New South Wales, they were carried
to the ships in open carts, the crowd jeering. She prevailed upon
government to have them carried in coaches, and promised that she
would go with them. When on board the ship, she knelt on the deck and
prayed with them as they were going into banishment, and then bade
them a tender good by. Truly woman can be an angel of light.
Says Captain Martin, "Who could resist this beautiful, persuasive, and
heavenly-minded woman? To see her was to love her; to hear her was
to feel as if a guardian angel had bid you follow that teaching which
could alone subdue the temptations and evils of this life, and secure
a Redeemer's love in eternity."
At this time Mrs. Fry and her brother Joseph visited Scotland and the
north of England to ascertain the condition of the prisons. They found
much that was inhuman; insane persons in prison, eighteen months in
dungeons! Debtors confined night and day in dark, filthy cells, and
never leaving them; men chained to the walls of their cells, or to
rings in the floor, or with their limbs stretched apart till they
fainted in agony; women with chains on hands, and feet, and body,
while they slept on bundles of straw. On their return a book was
published, which did much to arouse England.
Mrs. Fry was not yet forty, but her work was known round the world.
The authorities of Russia, at the desire of the Empress, wrote Mrs.
Fry as to the best plans for the St. Petersburg lunatic asylum and
treatment of the inmates, and her suggestions were carried out to the
Letters came from Amsterdam, Denmark, Paris, and elsewhere, asking
counsel. The correspondence became so great that two of her daughters
were obliged to attend to it.
Again she travelled all over England, forming "Ladies' Prison
Associations," which should not only look after the inmates of
prisons, but aid them to obtain work when they were discharged, or "so
provide for them that stealing should not seem a necessity."
About this time, 1828, one of the houses in which her husband was
a partner failed, "which involved Elizabeth Fry and her family in a
train of sorrows and perplexities which tinged the remaining years of
They sold the house at Plashet, and moved again to Mildred Court, now
the home of one of their sons. Her wealthy brothers and her children
soon re-established the parents in comfort.
She now became deeply interested in the five hundred Coast-Guard
stations in the United Kingdom, where the men and their families led
a lonely life. Partly by private contributions and partly through
the aid of government, she obtained enough money to buy more than
twenty-five thousand volumes for libraries at these stations. The
letters of gratitude were a sufficient reward for the hard work. She
also obtained small libraries for all the packets that sailed from
In 1837, with some friends, she visited Paris, making a detailed
examination of its prisons. Guizot entertained her, the Duchess de
Broglie, M. de Pressense, and others paid her much attention. The
King and Queen sent for her, and had an earnest talk. At Nismes, where
there were twelve hundred prisoners, she visited the cells, and
when five armed soldiers wished to protect her and her friends, she
requested that they be allowed to go without guard. In one dungeon she
found two men, chained hand and foot. She told them she would plead
for their liberation if they would promise good behavior. They
promised, and kept it, praying every night for their benefactor
thereafter. When she held a meeting in the prison, hundreds shed
tears, and the good effects of her work were visible long after.
The next journey was made to Germany. At Brussels, the King held out
both hands to receive her. In Denmark, the King and Queen invited her
to dine, and she sat between them. At Berlin, the royal family treated
her like a sister, and all stood about her while she knelt and prayed
The new penitentiaries were built after her suggestions, so perfect
was thought to be her system. The royal family never forget her. When
the King of Prussia visited England, to stand sponsor for the infant
Prince of Wales, in 1842, he dined with her at her home. She presented
to him her eight daughters and daughters-in-law, her seven sons and
eldest grandson, and then their twenty-five grandchildren.
Finally, the great meetings, and the earnest plans, with their
wonderful execution, were coming to an end for Elizabeth Fry.
There had been many breaks in the home circle. Her beloved son
William, and his two children, had just died. Some years before she
had buried a very precious child, Elizabeth, at the age of five, who
shortly before her death said, "Mamma, I love everybody better than
myself, and I love thee better than everybody, and I love Almighty
much better than thee, and I hope thee loves Almighty much better than
me." This was a severe stroke, Mrs. Fry saying, "My much-loved husband
and I have drank this cup together, in close sympathy and unity of
feeling. It has at times been very bitter to us both, but we have been
in measure each other's joy and helpers in the Lord."
During her last sickness she said, "I believe this is not death,
but it is as passing through the valley of the shadow of death, and
perhaps with more suffering, from more sensitiveness; but the 'rock is
here'; the distress is awful, but He has been with me."
The last morning came, Oct. 13, 1845. About nine o'clock, one of her
daughters, sitting by her bedside, read from Isaiah: "I, the Lord thy
God, will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee, Fear not, thou worm
of Jacob, and ye men of Israel, I will help thee, saith the Lord, and
thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel." The mother said slowly, "Oh! my
dear Lord, help and keep thy servant!" and never spoke afterward.
She was buried in the Friends' burying-ground at Barking, by the
side of her little Elizabeth, a deep silence prevailing among the
multitudes gathered there, broken only by the solemn prayer of her
brother, Joseph John Gurney.
Thus closed one of the most beautiful lives among women. To the last
she was doing good deeds. When she was wheeled along the beach in her
chair, she gave books and counsel to the passers-by. When she stayed
at hotels, she usually arranged a meeting for the servants. She was
sent for, from far and near, to pray with the sick, and comfort the
dying, who often begged to kiss her hand; no home was too desolate for
her lovely and cheerful presence. No wonder Alexander of Russia called
her "one of the wonders of the age."
Her only surviving son gives this interesting testimony of her home
life: "I never recollect seeing her out of temper or hearing her speak
a harsh word, yet still her word was law, but always the law of love."
Naturally timid, always in frail health, sometimes misunderstood, even
with the highest motives, she lived a heroic life in the best sense,
and died the death of a Christian. What grander sphere for woman than
such philanthropy as this! And the needs of humanity are as great as
ever, waiting for the ministration of such noble souls.