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Elizabeth Fry - Prison Reformer and Helping the Homeless

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Elizabeth Fry reading to prisoners

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1848) - Prison Reformer

Elizabeth Fry, born Elizabeth Gurney to a Quaker family in 1780, first became concerned about prison conditions when she was a young teenager living in Norwich and listened to a sermon by the American Quaker called William Savery. He explained that conditions in most prisons in the 18th century were often unduly harsh and overcrowded, and also about the treatment of the poor and the sick. Elizabeth was married to a London merchant called Joseph Fry, a London banker, when she was 20 years of age and had 11 children. Joseph and Elizabeth soon moved from Norwich to London's east end.

In 1813 she learned of the terrible conditions prisoners were suffering in London's Newgate prison. She was horrified to learn that women and girls were regularly imprisoned without trial. She decided to go to Newgate prison and see for herself. When she arrived at the prison in 1815 she discovered that all that she had heard was true, and even the children were allowed to mix with hardened criminals. She saw that all the female prisoners had to do their own cooking and washing in the tiny cells.

Elizabeth Fry arranged for a committee of Quakers to visit the women and girls regularly, and she gave them old clothes she had managed to collect and then set up a school for the children. She encouraged the prisoners to read the Bible, became popular with the prisoners and had their full respect. She continually worked hard to improve the conditions and to help the homeless and the beggars by setting up a shelter in London. She also visited some prisons in Europe particularly in Holland and Denmark where she gave advice and encouragement for improved conditions.

Elizabeth Fry died on 12 October 1848 from a stroke and is buried in the 'Friends' burial ground at Barking. Her tombstone was moved to Wanstead Quaker Burial Ground in 1980 after the Barking site became a park and gardens.

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