The nineteenth century was filled with injustices caused by industrialization. People flooded cities looking for work, and crime became rampant. Prison systems focused on punishing criminals, not on reforming their lives. Innocent children followed their parents to the prisons, and lived in squalor. The conditions of one facility in particular—Newgate Prison—inspired a visionary woman named Elizabeth Fry to devote her life to improving the plight of incarcerated women and children.
Elizabeth Fry was born to a wealthy Quaker family, the Gurneys, in Norwich, England. As a teen, she heard the preaching of William Saveny, which inspired her to rededicate her life to the Lord and to serve the poor. In 1800, she married Joseph Fry and together they had eleven children. After hearing reports about the prison conditions, she and her friend, Anna Buxton, made their first visit to Newgate Prison in 1813—a visit that changed Elizabeth’s life forever.
What she saw at Newgate Prison was horrendous. It was overcrowded, and women accused of petty crimes were placed in cells with hardened criminals. Women spent most of their time in crammed quarters where they had to cook, eat, defecate, and sleep in the same place. The lack of hygiene caused disease to spread, and no medical care was provided. If the women had children, mother and child lived in the same cell. Thus, the children would be punished for the crimes of their mothers, and because there was no system in place to educate them, they had no way to prepare for a future beyond incarceration.
Elizabeth returned to the prison three years later, bringing clothes and food. She taught the women skills such as sewing and quilting so they could make an honest living once they were released. She read the Bible to inmates and taught Sunday School to the children in the prison. Through Elizabeth Fry’s work, conditions began to improve for female prisoners. At Newgate, she addressed the prisoners directly, and asked them to make suggestions and to vote on new rules. She set up schools and provided inmates opportunities to work for wages. Female guards were assigned to female prisoners and inmates were treated in accordance with the severity of their crimes. The results of these changes shocked the world; by treating these women with kindness she had reformed many of them.
To further her reform efforts, she created the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners of Newgate. This later turned into the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners, which was the first national women’s organization in Great Britain. In 1818, Elizabeth Fry testified to Parliament about the prison conditions, making her the first woman to ever give evidence in Parliament. Her ideas greatly contributed to the Prison Reform Act of 1823, which improved the lives of prisoners all over Great Britain.
Once these reforms were in place, she expanded her work. She created a halfway house for women, which eased their transition into society by providing housing, education, and job placement. When Australia was turned into a penal colony, Elizabeth also visited women before they left to ensure they had the means to support themselves when they arrived. Because of her efforts, the lives of prisoners in England improved greatly. She passed away in 1845. Today, her life is commemorated on the English five pound note.