Elizabeth Fry – A Life Lived Through Faith in Action

Elizabeth Fry might be one of most recognisable faces of 1800s due to the years that her image spent gracing the £5 banknote, something I am not sure she’d be completely comfortable with given she was a ‘plain Friend’ and followed her Quaker religion very strictly - dressing plainly, avoiding a lavish lifestyle, and foregoing dancing and singing. Yet, the fact she was chosen to be the face of the £5 note between 2002 and 2016 is a testament to the way she put her faith into action and the incredible social changes she helped to achieve.

Elizabeth Fry is most well known for her work in the field of prison reform. In 1813 she was persuaded by Quaker missionary Stephen Grellet to visit Newgate Prison and witness the dire situation experienced by those who were incarcerated within – particularly the women and children. When she managed to gain entry, after stubbornly refusing to be turned away by the guard, she was horrified by what she witnessed – by the squalor in which women and children were living, the closeness of the rooms, and the manner in which women engaged with each other. Following this visit, Fry felt called to begin campaigning for change. As part of this work, Fry called for segregation of the sexes; the introduction of female matrons for women; education for female prisoners in areas such as sewing and knitting so that they had employable skills upon release; and the introduction of religious instruction. She also avoided imposing discipline on the female prisoners, instead she suggested rules and had them vote on them – making them part of the decision-making process.  

To support her work, Fry set out to encourage other middle-class women ‘to visit prisons and set up classes to teach the prisoners skills’[i]. In 1817, she founded the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners and, alongside other women, she began lobbying Parliament to introduce prison reform. This work grew over the years, with Fry touring prisons in England and Scotland, writing books and reports on her findings, establishing other Ladies Associations and gaining further support for the reform movement. Her efforts seemed to be experiencing some success when, in 1823, prison reform legislation was introduced to Parliament. However, despite being instrumental in the implementation of several changes, ‘many of her most far-reaching recommendations for the reformation of convicts have never been fully implemented'[ii]. Yet, Fry never gave up, working tirelessly for the reform movement right up to her death in 1845. This work went beyond the UK and Ireland, spreading across Europe, with Fry visiting and helping to influence prison reform in places such as France, Demark, Prussia and the Netherlands.

Alongside her work improving the conditions for female convicts, Fry also supported those who were transported to New South Wales on convict ships. This was after she discovered that many were sent without ‘any arrangements for proper care during the journey or employment on arrival in Australia’[iii], in some cases parents were even separated from their children. To address these concerns, Fry and the women supporting her ensured those who were set to depart were given resources so they could make items they could sell once they reached Australia. They also petitioned the Government to ensure mothers would not be separated from their children and that proper care would be provided during the voyage, along with proper shelter upon their arrival in Australia. For over 25 years Fry and her associates demonstrated how to put faith into action, by visiting every convict ship set to leave – building a personal relationship with those on board, ensuring their needs were taken care of and their voices represented to those in positions of power.

Despite being most well-known for this work with prisoners and convicts, Fry didn’t stop there. Driven by a passion for social justice, which was inspired and rooted in her strong Quaker faith, she outspokenly championed several other issues close to her heart. She was ‘involved in investigating and proposing reforms in mental asylums…She worked to improve nursing standards and established a nursing school…She worked for the education of working women, for better housing for the poor and was responsible for the establishment of soup kitchens’[iv]. She also helped to found night shelters for the homeless, was an avid campaigner against the slave trade and helped to establish several seafarers libraries.

In spite of the outright disapproval from some members of her family, particularly some of her siblings, Fry was also a respected and well-regarded Quaker preacher during her lifetime. She spoke frequently at Quaker meetings and delivered speeches and prayers to crowds as diverse as the prisoners she championed, to the European royalty whose support she sought to gain. As her biographer Hatton explains ‘as an evangelist and preacher Elizabeth Fry’s role has never been fully recognised. Yet she preached and spoke in public to audiences of thousands: women and men; poor and rich; Quaker and non-Quaker; British, Irish, French, Dutch, Belgian and German. Surely here is an inspiration for those women today who continue to challenge discrimination and who struggle to achieve recognition and true equality of opportunity not only in the Christian church, but also in the world’s other major faith traditions – and in its secular institutions too’[v].  

While Elizabeth Fry’s commitment to both her faith and social justice is evident, this did not always come easy. Throughout much of her life she struggled with her own mental health, which perhaps explains why she felt so passionate about reforming mental asylums. It also wasn’t easy living in a patriarchal society, in which women were not necessarily expected to speak up on social issues, or preach about their faith, and she struggled with the demands of her work and her family life. In total she had 10 children and continued to work throughout all her pregnancies – and was often quick to return to work once she had given birth. I truly believe it is a testament to her husband, Joseph Fry, almost as much as it is to Elizabeth herself, that she was given the freedom to carry out the work she did while he stayed home and did much of the child rearing. A progressive reversal of gender roles in the 1800s.

Throughout her ministry and social justice work she also had to contend with the death of several people she loved, including her father, some of her siblings, one of her own children, and even some of her grandchildren. In many cases Fry helped to nurse them through their final days, before going straight back to focus on her work. In 1828 her husband went bankrupt and, as bankruptcy was not tolerated by the Religious Society of Friends, Joseph was disowned by them. This caused tension in the family, with many of Fry’s own children questioning how their mother could remain loyal to a religious institution that would blacklist their father. Indeed, despite working in quite a progressive ecumenical manner with those of different denominations to achieve social reforms, the fact that many of Fry’s children and siblings chose to belong to other Christian denominations was a source of pain for Fry through much of her adult life.

Overall, Elizabeth Fry was a force of nature. Someone who cared deeply about the world around her, who championed the social issues of her day, and who was able to build relationships with people from all walks of life. At the same time, she struggled with issues that many of us can still relate to today – particularly when it comes to balancing the conflicting demands of striving for social change while still trying to fulfil our personal and family obligations and take care of our own mental wellbeing.   

I find it remarkable that 177 years after her death, when I think about putting our own faith into action, I can still draw so much inspiration from her own attempts to do just this. As Hatton explains, ‘as a Quaker, she was convinced that the light of God was within each individual. Influenced by her Evangelical colleagues she also believed in the power of conversion to transform. She also recognised the critical importance of environment, education and attitude in bringing about and maintaining positive change. Increasingly, she accepted the necessity of influencing others, the powerful and the less powerful alike, through her own example, through ceaseless lobbying, and through what we today call networking’[vi].

It wasn’t easy, she didn’t necessarily always get it right, she often struggled to balance her personal obligations with those to her faith and her deep desire to achieve social justice – but she constantly strove to do what she felt God called her to do – to put her faith into action, to work with people for positive change and to put the needs of others before her own.




[ii] Hatton, Jean (2005)  Betsy the dramatic biography of prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. Monarch Books: Oxford. p328-329

[v] Hatton, Jean (2005)  Betsy the dramatic biography of prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. Monarch Books: Oxford. p329

[vi] Hatton, Jean (2005)  Betsy the dramatic biography of prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. Monarch Books: Oxford. p328