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October 12 – Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), renewer of society

The year was 1813. As Elizabeth entered the Women’s Cell of the Newgate Prison in England she saw a child, dead. Beside him were two women stripping the corpse of the clothing. The clothes were then placed on another child, who might have been five years of age.

This experience prompted Elizabeth to speak to the prisoners from her own perspective of motherhood and in so doing gradually brought about radical prison reform. And radical reform was needed. In Newgate there were three hundred women prisoners with their children. The prison was indescribably filthy. Prisoners were unclassified and unemployed. Favours, and what money was available, brought ample quantities of liquor into the women’s prison. In those days prisoners were treated as if they were less than human.     Hundreds died of starvation, and of disease caused by foul air and cramped quarters. And once when a fire broke out in an Irish gaol, fifty-four prisoners were left to perish. Men and women, murderers, those suffering severe psychiatric disorders, debtors, pickpockets and children were thrown together in stinking underground cellars without light or bedding.

Elizabeth Fry grew up in a Quaker home which was not ready for her determination, commitment and passion for the wellbeing of the prisoners of Newgate. Her father actively tried to dissuade her. But aided by her husband Joseph she kept an open and frugal house from which she fulfilled her ministry. She arranged schools for the poor and the distribution of garments, medicine and food to the destitute. And all this in addition to the work of prison reform for which she is justly revered.

In 1817 Elizabeth founded the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisons. The beneficial work that the Association did soon became known right around the world. She travelled to many European countries in the cause of prison reform. And this reform included the prison ships that brought convicts to Australia. At her urging the colony of New South Wales had to organize appropriate housing and work for the new arrivals.

Her work did not stop with prison reform. In the notably severe winter of 1819/20 Elizabeth organized shelter and soup kitchens for the homeless in London and in Brighton. Aware that some occupations, like the Coastguard Service, could at times create idleness and boredom, she started a library service to relieve that problem.

Some of Elizabeth’s convictions are worthy of note even now, especially now. She protested against solitary confinement and the darkness of prison cells. “Solitary confinement”, she said, “was too cruel even for the greatest crimes, and sufficient to unhinge the mind.”

Elizabeth Fry died on 12 October 1845. In the words of one biographer “Elizabeth lit, in the black hell of women’s prisons in Europe, a spark that was to grow into the floodlight of reform.”

Grahame Ellis