Saturday, August 8, 2009

Elizabeth Fry

Prison Reformer

Elizabeth was born Elizabeth Gurney (21/5/1780) in Eltham, near Norwich, England, to John Gurney a rich Quaker banker. She and her six sisters grew up to be carefree, clever girls, fond of music and dancing. But at age 17yo, Elizabeth became deeply impressed by a series of public addresses made by the American Quaker Savery - this had the effect of altering her daily life insomuch as she began to interest herself in the lot of the poor. She saw that the only true remedy for poverty and ignorance was in education. Elizabeth began a school for poor children - she not only taught in it herself but also managed the school, even when the school had over seventy scholars.

Elizabeth Gurney, aged 20yo, married a rich London merchant named Joseph Fry (1800). Joseph however, was a chilly, spiritless man who had none of her solicitude for her fellow-creatures. But awaiting in London was a great work for her. In Norwich Elizabeth had visited the local gaol/prison and had witnessed firsthand the evils which remained even after the reforming work of John Howard (d.1790). John Howard had brought about reform in the laws respecting prison wardens, he abolished the underground dungeons in which women and children were chained, and he abolished many of the dreadful conditions that made the prisons fever-pits. On Howard's death, the reforming zeal came to a halt - Elizabeth took it up.

It was only a few month's into her move to London that Elizabeth's curiosity led her the Newgate Gaol - it was here that she found prison conditions much worse than those she found in Norwich. In one small section she found 300 women and children - they were starving, ill-clothed and had no proper bedding or washing facilities. All type of female criminal were thrown together, from the most wicked and callous of villians to first-time offenders, to those imprisoned merely on the grounds of suspicion alone and those imprisoned solely because those they depended on for support were already imprisoned themselves. Elizabeth and her ladies entered parts of the prison that even the Prison Governor himself refused to enter on the grounds that it was most unsafe.

Elizabeth made her report of these dreadful conditions at Newgate to a committee of the English House of Commons. It was after this that Elizabeth embarked on a career of most ardent prison reformer. Elizabeth boldly went among the prisoners - she learned their stories of suffering and of their needs. Elizabeth immediately organized food and clothing, but realized that this was not enough. She set up a school for the children and a factory for the adults within the prison walls themselves. In this way she gave education and industry to those who had the most need. In addition to this she set about teaching the prisoners about the meaning of religion - there were many whose only knowledge of God was in the form of blasphemy.

Soon Elizabeth's fame spread. Many came to see firsthand the work that she was doing, including the American Ambassador to England and Sydeny Smith, the Scholar, who both gave her glowing testimonies.

But Elizabeth did not stop at Newgate Gaol - she devoted herself to getting rid of the whole vile system within the prisons. She travelled over much of the ground that had been previously covered by John Howard years before. Elizabeth visited all the chief prisons and detention houses. Wherever she went she found the need for reform. Elizabeth formed associations of workers who brought about amendments upon which the very foundations of prison reforms have been laid. Elizabeth determined that the conditions she had found in Newgate Gaol would never be sound again.

Some of the reforms that Elizabeth brought about included: the sepeation of male and female prisoners, the seperation of hardened criminals from first offenders, and she introduced the supervision of women prisoner by women wardens.

All over England, Ireland and Scotland Elizabeth went, advising local authorities, calling public attentions to the evils that she found, beginning reforms and forming associations everywhere to carry on the work that she had started. But she didn't stop in England - Elizabeth moved on to the European Continent, visiting France, Belgium, Holland (The Netherlands), Germany, Russia and Denmark. Her mission: the relief of suffering prisoners. And Elizabeth had success - many highly placed officials, and even the nobility acclaimed her work. Many sought her out and consulted her, many took her advice. Elizabeth even used her experience with the prisons to assist in the reform of hospitals in which methods of nursing were to be remodelled.

But her reforming work didn't stop - Elizabeth turned her attentions to outside the prisons, to the convict hulks and transportation ships. This was where prisoners were kept en route to transportation out of England to Australia - the conditions in these ships were appalling and overcrowding was the norm. Elizabeth so aroused public opinion that proper accommodations and supervision were provided for the duration of the extremely long voyage, the sexes were seperated, and homes and employment were provided on arrival.

In conjunction with her reforming work, Elizabeth combined the duties of a large household - she and eleven children. Elizabeth had wealth and she spent it ungrudgingly in the furthering of her projects. But in the midst of this important work terrible misfortune struck. Elizabeth's husband Joseph lost his fortune and became bankrupt, and Elizabeth spent the last seventeen years of her life in poverty. But this had little effect on Elizabeth - instead of giving her money, she gave wholely of herself, continuing to minister to the prisoners and help with her counsel right up until her death - shed died at Ramsgate (12/10/1845).

But her work didn't end with her death, it continued on in the form of those reforming associations that she fostered. Her memory has lived on - and so has her work.

No comments: