ELIZABETH FRY (1780-1845)
Quaker Minister and Reformer
Elizabeth (Betsy) Fry was part of one of the most amazing families England has ever known, the Gurneys. She was born at Gurney Court, off Magdalen Street in Norwich, on the 21st May 1780. Like his ancestors, her father, John, was a wool merchant and spinner of worsted yarn. In 1803 John and his two brothers were invited by their cousin to become partners of Gurney’s Bank in Norwich, which had been established in 1770. John was therefore very prosperous, and though he was a Quaker, as were many Gurneys, he was quite liberal.
Betsy’s great-great grandfather was a disciple of George Fox and imprisoned in Norwich jail for three years for his faith in 1683, along with fifteen others. While he was in prison his wool business flourished under the watchful eye of his wife, and he left his four sons a considerable fortune when he died. Her grandfather, another John, was a very strict Quaker who also prospered in business, leaving a fortune of £100,000.
Her mother, Catherine, was part of the Barclay banking family (the Gurney and Barclay banks merged in 1896 to form Barclays Bank), who were also Quakers. However, her family had no fortune, so her marriage to John was opposed for some time.
John and Catherine were a very handsome couple and their looks were passed down to most of their eleven children. Catherine had a rule of life which was, “First, to promote my duty to my Maker; secondly, my duty to my husband and children, relations, servants and poor neighbours.” She was not a strong Quaker, but she loved the Lord. She wrote of her daughter Betsy, “But my dove-like Betsy scarcely ever offends, and is, in every sense of the word, truly engaging.”
In 1786 the family rented Earlham Hall (now part of the University of East Anglia), from the Bacon family, a beautiful property just outside Norwich. The family remained there for five generations. Earlham Hall was built in 1580 and extensively renovated in 1682 and 1761.
Catherine enjoyed society, and as a liberal Quaker, she was not averse to dancing, drawing and music. She was also not averse to mixing with Unitarians and Roman Catholics. She taught her children from the New Testament, but she allowed them to find their own Christian path. She encouraged them to pray, but advised them never to attempt to pray unless they felt they could give their undivided mind to Him; they should be able to raise to Him their undivided heart and soul in loving adoration.
The house was continually teaming with relatives. The Gurneys had large families and many lived near Earlham Hall. However, the happiness of the household was shaken by the death of Catherine in 1792, 15 months after the youngest child was born. Betsy was only 12 years old at the time. Betsy’s oldest sister, Catherine, became surrogate mother to her ten siblings at 16 years old.
Betsy’s character as a child is described by her sister Catherine in her later years. “Betsy had more genius than anyone, from her retiring disposition, gave her credit for in her early days. She had tender feelings, especially towards her parents, to whom she was the most loving and obedient of any of their children. She was gentle in look and manner, and pleasing in person; though she had not Rachel's glowing beauty, yet some thought her quite as attractive. She disliked learning languages, and was somewhat obstinate in her temper, except towards her mother. After we were left alone, her aversion to learning was a serious disadvantage to her, and though she was quick in natural talent, her education was very imperfect and defective. Enterprise and benevolence were the two predominant features of her character, and wonderfully did these dispositions afterwards unfold under the influence of religion. In contemplating her remarkable and peculiar gifts, I am struck with the development of her character, and the manner in which the qualities, considered faults when she was a child, became virtues, and proved in her case of the most important efficacy in her career of active service. Her natural timidity was, I think, in itself the means of her acquiring the opposite virtue of courage, through the transforming power of Divine grace, which stamped this endowment in her with a holy moderation and nice discretion that never failed to direct it aright. Her natural obstinacy, the only failing in her temper as a child, became that finely tempered decision and firmness which enabled her to execute her projects for the good of others. What in childhood was something like cunning, ripened into the most uncommon penetration, long-sightedness, and skill in influencing the mind of others. Her disinclination to the common methods of learning appeared to be connected with much original thought and a mind acting on its own resources. There had always been much more of genius and ready, quick comprehension, than application or argument. The process by which all her natural qualities became molded into their present form was a striking and instructive instance of the gradual but certain and efficacious progress of religion.”
Earlham Hall was a wonderful place to grow up in, both regarding the physical aspect and the atmosphere. Betsy’s father and sister helped create a most extraordinary family. It was a custom of the times to keep a journal, and all but brother John of the Gurney family kept one daily, which gives a fascinating insight into this family. It appears that Catherine encouraged her siblings to self-education. Their journals are full of comments about their characters which need improvement. They were always endeavouring to improve themselves and the atmosphere at home was conducive to the growth of their personalities and their minds. Their journals, and in later years their letters, were full of their love for one another and for others. This must have been very noticeable to visitors; it must have been a lovely thing to have been the focus of the abundant love that came from the family. Thomas Fowell Buxton, the future reformer, spent a few months at Earlham when he was 15, and the experience changed his life. He went from being a boy with no interest at all in learning, to being a man who was always first in his class at university, and who became so single minded that he achieved great things. Earlham Hall was a nursery for great men and women.
To give an idea of the desire for self-improvement shown in their journals, Betsy wrote, “I am seventeen today. Am I happier or a better creature than I was this time twelve-months? I know I am happier, I think I am better, I hope I shall be much better this day year than I am now. I hope to be quite an altered person, to have more knowledge, to have my mind in greater order; and my heart too, that wants to be put in order as much, if not more, than any part of me, it is such a fly-away state.”
None of the children were in any way more than nominal Christians. They went to the Quaker chapel in Norwich each Sunday, but they were all grateful when the service was over, and they even enjoyed being sick as they then did not have to go to the meeting. By all accounts the services were fairly boring, even to Christians. Betsy was the gayest of the sisters, enjoying dancing and the admiration she received. At seventeen she reveals in her journal something of what she thought of religion, she wrote, “I do not know if I shall not soon be rather religious, because I have thought lately, what a support it is through life…I think anybody who had real faith could never be unhappy…” Five months later she wrote, “…What a comfort must a real faith in religion be, in the hour of death; to have a firm belief of entering into everlasting joy. I have a notion of such a thing, but I am sorry to say I have no real faith in any sort of religion…” Betsy was not happy, “I am a bubble, without reason, without beauty of mind or person; I am a fool. I daily fall lower in my own estimation. What an infinite advantage it would be to me to occupy my time and thoughts well. I am now seventeen, and if some kind and great circumstance does not happen to me, I shall have my talents devoured by moth and rust.” She need not have worried, help was at hand.
Betsy had not been going to church recently because of ill health, but on the 3rd February 1797 her Uncle, who was a dedicated Quaker, put pressure on his brother to get her to attend. The reason was that the speaker was the popular William Savery, a visiting Quaker from America. Betsy wore a new pair of “purple boots laced with scarlet.” Her sister, Richenda, wrote, “At last, he began to preach. His voice and manner were arresting, and we all liked the sound, but Betsy's attention became fixed, and at last I saw her begin to weep, and she became a good deal agitated. As soon as Meeting was over, she made her way to the men's side of the Meeting, and having found my father, she asked him if she might dine at the Grove, our Uncle Joseph's, where William Savery was staying. He consented, though rather surprised by the request. We others went home as usual, and, for a wonder, we wished to go again in the afternoon. As we returned in the carriage, Betsy sat in the middle, and astonished us all by weeping most of the way home…”
Betsy wrote in her journal, “Today much has passed of a very serious nature. I have had a faint light spread over my mind…It has caused me to feel a little religion…I have felt there is a GOD.I have been devotional and my mind has been led away from the follies that it is mostly wrapped up in. I loved the man as if almost he were sent from heaven.”
Savery’s own journal describes his thoughts on the family, “JG is a widower. His children seem very kind and attentive to him, and he is very indulgent to them; has provided them with an extensive library and every indulgence that nature within the bounds of mere mortality can desire…They are a family very capable of distinguishing the grace, what the truth is and leads to, but whether, with all the alluring things of this world about them, they will any of them choose to walk in it, time only must determine.”
One immediate result of what had happened to her was that her regular, terrifying dream, of being washed out to sea and drowned, stopped. “I dreamed the sea as usual was coming to wash me away, but I was beyond its reach; beyond its power to wash me away.” She never had the nightmare again.
It was thought a good idea to send Betsy to London for a while to experience ‘society’. She went to dances, theatre and opera. The first two she really did not like, but she loved the opera. She also was able to spend time with Savery, asking him questions to try and understand more about what was happening to her. After a few months she returned home, and her sisters noticed that she was a better person for the trip. Richenda wrote that she had changed from being a complete sceptic to having an entire faith in a Supreme Being. She started to dress more plainly and she took up some of the Quaker principles.
At the beginning of July one of Betsy’s new friends from London came to visit. He was a shy man who had a hearty laugh. He was a committed Quaker from a banking family called Fry. The banking business came out of their trade in tea and spices. He was a good potential match for Betsy. Betsy had an understanding of marriage when she was 15, with James Lloyd, the son of the Quaker who founded the bank, but it was broken off. It was an episode which must have left its mark on her.
That same month Betsy’s father took the family on a tour of the South and West of England. In September they came to Coalbrookdale where she became close friends with her cousin Priscilla Gurney (not to be confused with her sister of the same name) and Deborah Darby. The next day she went to a meeting where she was prophesied over, “…after sitting a time in awful silence, Rebecca Young did speak most beautifully. She did reach my heart. Deborah Darby then spoke. I only fear she says too much of what I am to be – a light to the blind, speech to the dumb and feet to the lame. Can it be?” Then she wrote, “After the meeting my heart felt really light and as I walked home by starlight I looked through nature up to nature’s God. Here I am now in Cousin Prissy’s little room – never to forget this day while life is in my body. I know now what the mountain is I have to climb. I am to be a Quaker.”
Betsy was not happy with the way she wrote English, so she set about educating herself. She had never been one who took her lessons seriously, and her weak health made her lackadaisical, however she was now determined to learn, and she did. What she really needed though was something to do. She found this initially in helping to educate some of the local children. She brought around seventy of them to the laundry twice a week to teach them – her sisters called them ‘Betsy’s Imps’. This was the beginning of the Sunday school that took place at Earlham for many years. She then began a small school in Norwich which trained local girls to become servants.
By October 1798 Betsy was worrying about dancing and singing. She loved them both, but was concerned with how they brought out characteristics in her, such as vanity, which she did not like. In December she resolved to give up dancing. She was already speaking in the Quaker way by using ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, “It makes me think before I speak, and avoid the spirit of gaiety and flirting.” She also gave up singing and as her wardrobe needed replacing she replaced them with Quaker style clothing. These changes brought sadness to her father and sisters which she was aware of, and which pained her, but she felt she needed to do everything she could to be virtuous.
The ‘plain’ dress meant that her life was simplified; no more decisions on what to wear; no invitations to balls, theatre or the opera and she would not be expected to dance or sing. Betsy was very aware of the hurt she was causing to her family. They had all been so close, sharing everything, but now one of them was different. So she made a particular effort to love her sisters to reduce the pain she had caused.
Betsy was sent to London by her father. He was probably hoping that being so close the parties, theatre etc that she would give up her changed life. While there she met Joseph Fry again. Joseph was himself a plain Quaker and was much taken with Betsy’s new clothing and manner. It was agreed by the respective fathers that Joseph should ask Betsy for her hand in marriage. To this end he came to visit Earlham Hall in July. He made a proposal, but Betsy refused him, even though she realised that she may never get a better offer. Joseph was not inclined to give up though. He was at Earlham again in December, but Betsy was still not willing. Although she found that some feelings were being stirred, she felt that marriage would take her away from the calling on her life, so Joseph had to go away again.
Betsy noticed that the family had changed their mind about Joseph, as now they supported an engagement. Her father sent her to London again, hoping that Joseph would take the opportunity of pursuing Betsy. He had already been refused two visits to Earlham, but he was very persistent. He took all the opportunities available to him while Betsy was in London. Her feelings about him were decidedly mixed, at one moment she really liked him and the next she didn’t. On her return to Earlham she received a letter from Joseph, which she answered kindly, and that brought him hot foot to Earlham to give an ultimatum.
Joseph bought a gold watch and gave it to Betsy on the evening of the 24th May 1800. “I went down to breakfast, my heart was full. I could hardly keep from crying before them all. I was so oppressed with the weight of the subject before me, natural inclination seemed to long to put the hour of decision afar off, but he gave me the watch last night with this engagement. If I give it back to him by nine o’clock this morning he never more would renew the affair. If I kept it after that hour he never would receive it back…I did not feel at liberty to return the watch. I cried heartily. Joseph felt much for me,” So the decision was made, and from that time Joseph became her confidant Four days later she wrote, “My feelings towards Joseph are so calm and pleasant, and I can look forward with so much cheerfulness to a connection with him.”
Betsy made a tearful goodbye to her 86 children and was married at the Quaker chapel in Goats Lane, Norwich on the 19th August 1800. She must have had mixed emotions in leaving her much loved Earlham Hall and the family she adored, however, she had a new life ahead of her, Joseph had promised to help her in fulfilling God’s call on her life and he had promised to allow her to make long annual visits to Earlham. Furthermore, her brother Samuel was to live with her at St Mildred’s Court in the City of London as he was articled in business to Joseph. Her brother being with her, and the many visits of her sisters ensured that her separation from her family was as painless as possible.
Settling into her new home was not easy for Mrs Fry as she had a lot of interference from her husband’s family. Her father-in-law had no qualms in saying to her that he would not have agreed to the marriage had he realised how gay she was. The family she had married into were very serious Quakers and looked on their new daughter-in-law as being far too frivolous. When compared with the Friends (Quakers) that were constantly visiting her house, that was probably true, but that was not a bad thing. Betsy’s new found faith was under attack due to the lack of people like Savery and Darby in her society. She found the church meetings terribly dull,, because they were generally all form and no substance. The same was true amongst her husband’s family and friends; they thought that the way to God was through plain dress and severe character. Little of the Holy Spirit could be found in these people or in the meetings, and Betsy needed the Holy Spirit.
In May 1801 she was taken to see Joseph Lancaster’s school for poor children. He had a novel way of teaching by teaching the older children and then getting them to teach the younger ones. Betsy was very interested in this form of education.
Later that year she gave birth to her first child, Katherine. Over the next few years Betsy was taken up with looking after her home, her husband, her family and regularly giving birth to children. However, she still wanted to serve the Lord and found opportunities to do so. She and her husband would seek out poor people to help, although sometimes they would prove to be con artists; she would also visit the workhouse to read and talk to the children.
By 1808 Betsy had five children, her mother and father-in-law were dead and her husband had inherited the substantial home of ‘Plashet’, in East Ham. Her time was now taken up in managing this large home. Family life was rewarding, with Betsy and Joseph very content together and very much in love. She had got over the early problems with the Fry family, and both of Joseph’s parents asked her to nurse them when they were dying. She was also called to nurse several relatives who became sick. However, she was disappointed that she was not doing more for the Lord. In August of that year she wrote, “I have been married eight years yesterday. Various trials of faith and patience have been permitted me; my course has been very different from what I expected, and instead of being, as I had hoped, a useful instrument in the Church militant, here I am a careworn wife and mother, outwardly nearly devoted to the things of this life. Though at times this difference in my destination has been trying to me, yet I believe those trials that I have had to go through have been very useful, and brought me to a feeling sense of what I am; and at the same time have taught me where power is, and in what we are to glory — not in ourselves, nor in anything we can be or do, but only to desire that He may be glorified, either through us or others, in our being something or nothing, just as He may see best for us.”
In October 1809 Betsy was at the bedside of her dying father, “who has been so inexpressibly dear to me through life, since I knew what love was.” The whole family was at the funeral. During the time of silence during the Quaker service Betsy felt an inrush of the Holy Spirit (although she would not have expressed it this way) and she spoke for the first time in such a setting, “Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are all thy ways, thou King of saints: be pleased to receive our thanksgiving!” This was a landmark in her life; she felt, “a quiet, calm and invigorated state, mental and bodily, as my portion afterwards.” Her husband and most of her family were very supportive of her speaking.
During the winter food was short so Betsy began a soup kitchen in one of her barns to try to relieve the suffering of the poor. Throughout the year she would often visit the poor in the village with her children. Unlike her strict Quaker in-laws, she spent considerable energy helping the parish priest look after his parishioners. She enlisted the vicar’s help in starting a school in a room not far from the house. Some seventy children were enrolled and a school mistress employed; one who employed the Lancastrian method which Betsy had come across years earlier. Her school outlived her and was eventually absorbed into a national education scheme. She also looked after the health of the villagers; vaccinating them against smallpox and ensuring that they were attended to when ill.
In 1811, after the birth of her seventh child, Betsy was recorded in the books of the Meeting as an approved minister. Clearly, the members of her church recognised her gifting by approving of her as a Quaker minister. She was criticised by some (even some of her sisters) for leaving her children while out ministering (nothing changes). It is interesting that there is no record of anyone commenting on her leaving her children on the numerous occasions she went to nurse the sick. This criticism hurt Betsy. She was well aware that her leaving the children was not ideal, but her call from God could not be ignored.
In 1812/13 an American Friend, Stephen Grellet, who was also a Frenchman, visited England. It was a strange place for him to visit at this time as England was at war with both America and France. During his visit to London he called a meeting for thieves, pick-pockets and prostitutes at the Meeting House in St Martin’s Lane,. This unusual meeting brought about much brokenness amongst the motley crowd. The Chief Police Magistrate was impressed, offering to help bring in some more ruffians, but Grellet just wanted permission to visit the prisons. He spent several days in Newgate, being allowed to visit all areas of the prison. He was particularly shocked by the condition of the women inmates, “On going up, I was astonished beyond description at the mass of woe and misery I beheld. I found many were sick, lying on the bare floor or on some old straw, having very scanty covering over them, though it was quite cold; and there were several children born in the prison among them, almost naked.” He went directly from the prison to Mildred’s Court to visit the Fry’s. On hearing of the condition of the women and children, Betsy immediately got in some flannel and some young women Friends came in to make clothes for the children. This was the beginning of the work Elizabeth Fry was called by God to do.
The ways of God are always remarkable. Grellet was the son of a wealthy French nobleman, who escaped the French Revolution by going to America. He and his brother were befriended by a family, where he learned some English. While staying with the family he picked up a book by the Quaker William Penn, although he did not read much of it. A few weeks later he was walking in some fields when he heard a voice say ‘Eternity, Eternity, Eternity’ which shook him. He returned home and took up Penn’s book again, struggling through it with a dictionary. He did the same with the Bible. He then heard that there was going to be a Quaker meeting nearby, so he went, and afterwards the two speakers were invited to dine at Grellet’s friend’s house. One of the speakers was Deborah Darby, who had given Betsy the prophetic word. Although he could hardly understand anything that Darby said, the words went deep within him. Darby prophesied over him and the Lord opened his ears and understanding, and he became ‘born again’. Grellet had a powerful prophetic gifting which the Lord used to show the door to Betsy to fulfil the prophecy given to her years before by Darby.
Accounts of Newgate prison are full of the dreadful condition of the prisoners. There were no windows in the prison so the smell of the place was overwhelming. If you did not have money to buy food you had to rely on the inadequate food the prison supplied. Hangings were a frequent occurrence. At that time there were approximately 230 crimes for which the penalty was death; these included forgery from an 1807 law. Cruel punishments were meant to be a deterrent, but the conditions people lived in forced many into crime to stay alive. Gambling, fighting and drunkenness were prevalent among the inmates. One former prisoner wrote, “The prisoner from the moment he enters his dungeon seems to have severed the last link connecting with human nature. His preconceived horror of a prison falls far short of that which overwhelms him when he has been a few days a prisoner.” The condition amongst the women was even worse than amongst the men. “We looked over (the partition), and the scene was even more disgusting than in the other yards. Their manners, gestures, language were alike indicative of vice and ignorance.”
Betsy went to the women’s infirmary with Anna Buxton, the sister of Thomas Fowell Buxton, to take clothes for the children. They bought straw for the sick to lie on. She visited Newgate three times and then returned to her normal life of looking after her homes, her family and travelling as a Quaker minister. However, things were not going well at the bank, so Betsy had to make economies. This hurt her because she could not help the poor as much as she would have liked to. The long war with France brought about great economic uncertainty; the ending of it in 1815 meant the ending of the manufacturing of munitions and the return of a great number of soldiers who would need to find jobs. Joseph Fry’s bank was in trouble, but Betsy’s brother’s bank (Gurney Bank) was very sound and her brother’s discount house was extraordinarily prosperous. There was talk of having to give up Plashet, but it did not come to that at this time.
Later that year the Frys’ four year old daughter died. They watched together as their little Elizabeth slowly succumbed to her illness. Five months later their tenth child was born. Two months after that there was a family meeting to try to work out the financial difficulties. Much to Betsy’s grief it was decided that to save the cost of running such a large household by sending her two eldest girls to live at Northrepps in Norfolk, where her beloved sister Rachel was keeping house for their brother Daniel, and the two older boys were sent to Earlham, until they went to boarding school, which was to be paid for by her brother. The next two children were to live with her clever brother Samuel at nearby Ham House. That left just her four year old, two year old and baby.
Betsy’s reforming brothers-in-law, Thomas Fowell Buxton and Samuel Hoare took her from time to time to visit different prisons. In January 1817 Buxton visited Newgate and as a result decided that visiting was not enough, “I felt no further inclination to examine the prison, it had made me long much that my life may not pass quite uselessly, but that in some shape or other I may assist in checking and diminishing crime and its consequent misery.” That same month Betsy went to Newgate with a view of changing conditions in the prison, rather than just visit as she had been doing.
She arrived at the prison with a pass from the Governor and told the warders that she wanted to visit the women on her own. The warders tried to persuade her from doing this as they themselves only went amongst the women in pairs, but Betsy would not be swayed. When amongst the women she told them that she was there for their children. This softened them and they brought their children to her. She spoke on the parable of the Lord of the vineyard. She told the women that she wanted to start a school for the children and the young juveniles.
On her next visit she was welcomed by the women. This godly, humble, serene woman had already touched the hearts of some of these women. Her eldest daughter later wrote of her mother’s main gifts, “her dignified and stately presence, her exquisite voice and her constant and unruffled sweetness of expression,” The prisoners had chosen a young woman called Mary Connor to be the first mistress of the school. Betsy went to the prison authorities to ask permission for the school, but they were clearly not favourable towards the project, saying that it just would not work. She pressed her point, asking for a trial and they promised to look into it. At the next meeting the authorities said that it just could not be done because there were no rooms available. Betsy elicited from them that the lack of a room was the only objection and she left. She went to tell the women of the problem, but thanks to a committee set up by Buxton they now had more space and were able to find a room which was not being used. The authorities reluctantly gave her permission for her experiment. Betsy’s obstinate nature had proved to be a huge benefit.
The following day Betsy returned with a friend, Mary Sanderson, to begin the school. Though the room could only hold 30 young children, she was besieged by people of all ages who wanted to learn. Betsy wanted to teach the women to sew in order to sell the products of their labours, however she needed money to buy the initial materials. To this end she approached Buxton and Hoare, but they rejected her appeal, believing that the plan would not work as the women would lose interest after a short time. She therefore formed her own committee, the ‘Ladies’ Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate’. This was initially made up of nine Quaker friends and her vicar’s wife. They took it in turns going daily to the prison to supervise and instruct the women. They also undertook to provide the money needed to buy the materials, to arrange the sale of the work and pay the salary of a matron.
Having produced a plan of action, it was necessary to tackle the prison authorities again, something Betsy dreaded. She was full of fears when dealing with such people, but her husband came to her aid. He arranged for the meeting to be held at Plashet, a property which spoke of wealth and success. By showing his favour of his wife’s plans, he gave Betsy powerful backing and the authorities were put on the back foot. By agreeing to the school in the first place, they allowed in the thin end of the wedge, which would make it difficult to refuse other requests.
On the following Sunday the authorities met with seventy women prisoners. Betsy put the rules that needed to be agreed upon to them one by one and they were voted on. This was very much a scheme to work with the women and not to impose anything on them. They voted for all the rules unanimously and the trial was approved. Amongst the rules was one that begging, drinking and other bad habits be given up. There was to be Bible reading twice a day and the matron was to monitor the work done and the conduct of the women. Later there would be rewards for good behaviour and punishment would be the removal of those rewards.
Within a month the Lord Mayor of London, the Sheriffs and several Aldermen were invited to see what progress was being made. Betsy wrote little about her work in the prisons in her journals, so we have to rely on others to tell the story. Buxton wrote that, “…They now saw what, without exaggeration, may be called a transformation,,, This ‘hell on earth’ exhibited the appearance of an industrious manufactory or a well regulated family. The magistrates immediately adopted the whole plan as a part of the system of Newgate…”
On the 21st February 1818 there was a memo from the Grand Jury of the City of London. “They cannot conclude their report without expressing in an especial manner the peculiar gratification they experience in the important service rendered by Mrs Fry and her friends, and the habits of religion, order, industry and cleanliness which her humane, benevolent and praiseworthy exertions have introduced among the female prisoners; and that if the principles which govern her regulations were adopted towards the males, as well as the females, it would be the means of converting a prison into a school of reform; and instead of sending criminals back into the world hardened in vice and depravity, they would be restored to it repentant and probably become useful members of society.”
With the immediate success of the plan, money was not hard to get hold of. Her family gave the most generously; her cousin, Hudson Gurney, her uncle Robert Barclay and her wealthy brothers. Everything was running smoothly, so she was able to leave London for Plashet and the joy of having all her children back at home, even though there was fewer staff to help look after them.
In February 1819 Betsy had the honour of being the first woman, other than the queen, to be asked to advise Government on a matter of public concern, when she was asked to give evidence to a House of Commons committee. At the meeting she suggested the need for women warders, the classification of prisoners so that minor offenders were not put with murderers etc, for their working and eating together during the day, but separation at night, and for women’s prisons.
Betsy’s next job was the convict ships. The warders dreaded the day when the convicts had to be taken to the ships that would take them to New South Wales. Usually, there were riots the night before they left and the only way to keep them under control was to put them in irons, which was a difficult task because they were so violent. They were transported in open wagons with the mob running beside them, throwing mud and verbally abusing the unfortunate women. Betsy went to see the Governor, who was by this time one of her biggest admirers, to ask that he put her in charge of the transfer. She suggested that the prisoners be transported in closed carriages, without chains and he agreed.
She stayed with the women until late, reading to them and comforting them. She went with them to the ships the following day. There were no riots; all was peaceful as farewells were said. The ones remaining even took up a collection for those being transported, which was previously unheard of. The convict ship did not sail for six weeks, so Betsy organised the women, including those from other prisons, into the same classes and provided materials for them to make patchworks quilts on the way to New South Wales. By the time they left, around one hundred women were working as they had in the prison, and a small school had been organised for the children who travelled with their mothers. After reading to them for the last time on deck, she and a friend left the ship by boat and a prisoner called out, “Our prayers will follow you, and a convict’s prayers will be heard.” She organised every convict ship in the same way until she died. 106 ships and 12,000 convicts went through her hands.
The pain the women experienced through being shackled was put to people in high places by Betsy and the practice soon stopped. Also, women were allowed to take with them all their children under seven. Each convict was given a gift on going on board the ship. The gift consisted of a Bible, some clothing, cottons, needles, patchwork pieces etc. They could often sell their patchwork quilts in Rio or else immediately when they landed at Sidney. In addition a library was provided for them. With the improvement in the state of mind of the convicts, the captains of the ships reported back very favourably on the condition of their ‘cargo’.
Betsy was extremely upset by the execution of men and women for minor crimes. She spent time with a couple of women before their execution and these experiences really disturbed her. There was a strange system in place whereby only 4-5% of the people condemned to death were actually executed, and you often never knew who was going to be chosen to die. As time went on Betsy was able to use her influence to get reprieves for people brought to her notice. She had Buxton on her side and he was able to speak out in Parliament on the subject of punishment not fitting the crime.
In April 1818 Betsy was asked to go to the Mansion House to meet the royal family. Her daughter described how her mother came into the carpeted room on the arm of the bishop of Gloucester, and then was seated on a bench with seven bishops. She heard people pointing her out to one another. Then people began clapping vigorously, and on asking the cause of the excitement, she was told that the queen was speaking to Mrs Fry. This episode shows how popular Betsy was with the public after just a short period of work in the prisons. Mrs Fry was now the fashion; high society would go and see her at Newgate. The American ambassador wrote that he had seen the two greatest sights of London – St Paul’s Cathedral and Mrs Fry reading to the prisoners at Newgate.
Having lords, ladies, famous people, diplomats etc coming to watch her reading to the prisoners took away the intimacy of those moments and changed the character of the assembly. However, she realised that these visitors could influence public opinion, which would then turn into changes in the law. She handled everything with a commanding authority, a huge change from her early married days when she was fearful of reading to just two or three of the family.
Betsy went on trips around England with her husband and her brother. A woman described a visit to a prison in Glasgow, “Would you like to turn from that which is wrong; would you like it,’ she said, ‘if ladies were to visit and speak comfort to you, and try to help you to be better? You could tell them your griefs, for they who have done wrong have many sorrows.' As she read them the rules, asking them if they approved, she asked them to hold up their hands if they acceded. From the first many hands were raised, and as she spoke tears began to fall. One very beautiful girl near me had her eyes swimming in tears, and her lips moved as if following Mrs. Fry's words. An old woman who held a Bible we saw pressing upon it, as she became more and more impressed. The hands were now almost all ready to rise at every pause, and these callous and obdurate offenders were with one consent bowed before her. In this moment she took the Bible, and read the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Piece of Silver, and of the Prodigal Son. It is not in my power to express to you the effect of her saintly voice. In speaking such blessed words, she often paused and looked at the ‘poor women’ (as she named them) with such sweetness as won all their confidence, and she applied different parts of the story with a delicacy and beauty such as I never heard before.”
Everywhere she went she would visit the prison and encourage the local ladies to form a Ladies Prison Committee. In 1827 she wrote a booklet aimed at ladies who wanted to organise committees for prison reform. However, there was only one Elizabeth Fry. Whatever her secret was; it may have been the power of the Holy Spirit or it may have been her kind and caring nature or in part her organizational skill; whatever it was, she got results that nobody else did. In a way this is not surprising as she was fulfilling God’s call on her life, whereas others were probably trying to do good works.
In 1819 Betsy became ill and had to go to Brighton with her husband and two of her girls to recuperate. It was a good time for her as she was able to rest from her responsibilities and enjoy her family. She had not been back long when her dear sister Priscilla became seriously ill and she went to nurse her. Priscilla was also a Quaker minister and a godly woman who was widely loved and respected. She died two years later at only 36 years of age.
That winter was very severe and a boy was found frozen to death on the streets of London. On Betsy hearing about it she got Joseph, Buxton and her Ladies’ Newgate Committee into action. Within six hours she had borrowed a warehouse, raised money and had opened a ‘nightly shelter for the homeless’ in London. The average number admitted nightly were 205, the largest number at any one time was 799. They were given a place to sleep and bread and soup. Hundreds of others received food and clothing. Classes were organised for women and children and many of the men were found work.
Betsy was unique in her time as she had to run a large family and household and at the same time was involved in public affairs. She found that her private life sucked her energies and the shortage of family money added to the pressure. However, in the public realm she was more high profile than ever, having meetings with members of the royal family, crown heads form Europe, lords and ladies etc. She was quite upset by the way her children often behaved. As they were growing up they were rebelling against the plain dress and speech required of a Quaker. Unlike their mother, who had plenty of opportunity to be gay and frivolous as a child, the children had no such opportunity, being brought up as plain Quakers.
In 1821 there was the first marriage in the family; Rachel married Francis Cresswell who was not a Quaker, but both of the bride’s parents were happy with the match. They were married by Rachel’s uncle, but because of Quaker rules, her mother was not allowed to attend, although she was at the reception. A year later when Rachel gave birth to a boy, her mother gave birth on the same day her eleventh and final child. All but one of the Fry’s children grew to maturity and most to a good age, breaking the standard of high mortality rates that existed at the time. The Buxtons sadly lost four of their children in just five weeks.
In 1824 she became ill and went back to Brighton to recover. While there many poor asked her for help, so when she recovered she formed, with the help of the local clergy and gentry, a District Charity Society for the care of the poor. Its success resulted in many similar Societies being formed elsewhere. Sadly the people running these organisations were not Elizabeth Fry, so some of them did not work.
While Betsy spent time at her window getting air, she saw a lonely man walking along the cliffs. She was told this was the coastguard, there to prevent smuggling. On learning that these men were not allowed to speak to anyone, she spoke to the officer in command about the loneliness of the men and decided they needed books to relieve their boredom. Although it took time, eventually all 500 coastguard stations had a library, financed one third by the Government and the rest through a committee.
In 1825 her eldest son married a Barclay and moved in to Mildred’s Court. In December there was financial panic, “Several large banking houses in London and many in the country have stopped payment. A great many are in danger, strong as well as weak ones.” Her brothers Joseph and Samuel, who had been supporting the Fry’s bank for a while, decided that if the bank survived through the next two days on its own, they would then step in with some more help. This time the bank survived. Speculation had brought the country to its knees. Samuel was one of the Cabinet’s advisers who helped put the country back on its feet.
Though the Fry’s finances remained precarious, they were sustained by gifts from various members of the family. For most Christians it is a real blessing to give, but many find it really hard to receive. It must have been difficult for one who gave so much as Betsy to be dependent on others.
February to May 1827 was spent with her brother Joseph in Ireland, visiting Friends and the prisons. They prepared a ‘Report of the Prisons of Ireland’ which was useful to many. In August she was back at Earlham because Rachel, probably her closest sister, was dying. Towards the end of the year she writes again about financial problems. Her brother Joseph and Buxton were her main supporters, but Samuel was not really helping. She believed that Samuel felt that the bank should go down because it was not run well. The country was still in financial trouble. Businesses were still going bankrupt and bringing others down with them. Finally, Fry’s bank had to face reality and it closed its doors. Betsy wrote in her journal, “December 3, 1828. Here I am in my own room expecting an officer in, who is going round the house to take an inventory of all that we possess for our creditors. Another about the grounds taking account of all that we have there—another in another part of the house watching over the rest of our property.” About a year later they were able to clear all their private debts.
The Gurneys quickly rallied round their sister with money coming in from all sides. Letters of sympathy came from everywhere. The final blow, though, came from the Quakers. Joseph was ‘disowned’, thrown out of the church because of his business failure. What a humiliation that must have been for Betsy, a Quaker minister. The fact that only one of her ten children remained a Quaker probably stems from this treatment of their father. Joseph applied for re-admission in 1837 and was accepted.
Joseph’s brother, William, criticised Samuel for not helping the bank out of its trouble. He certainly had the money to do so, but probably felt that he would be throwing good money after bad by supporting a badly run business. Samuel was extraordinarily rich and extremely well thought of. The Prussian ambassador called him a prince. On one occasion, when a friend was put on trial for forgery, he was so sure of his friend’s innocence that he went and stood in the dock with him. This show of his support resulted in the man’s acquittal. Samuel believed that his money belonged to the Lord, and he gave freely of it. He is said to have given the equivalent of £13 million a year for thirty years. With his sister in financial difficulty, he gave them a house in Upton Lane, the garden of which backed on to the grounds of his home, Ham House. Their eldest daughter undertook the housekeeping, and Joseph and his sons worked in the tea business which did not go down with the bank. The house was not large and she had to travel on public transport, but Betsy was content.
In her reduced circumstances, Betsy was freer than at any time since her marriage. She no longer had the responsibility of Mildred’s Court or Plashet, and several of her children were now married or grown up. Despite what happened to her husband with the church, she remained a Quaker. She was pleased to see an improvement in the church, but she wanted to see less love of money, less judging others, less gossip and less dependence on external appearances – nothing changes!
Prisons remained the centre of her work. She paid close attention to the bills going through Parliament and her advice was still sought by Government. Lord Byron, in his book, ‘Don Juan’, takes her to task for spending so much time with the poor and not trying to change those with influence. However, he was completely wrong, as she spent a lot of time, secretly, as an unofficial spiritual adviser to many of the nobility. Lord Shaftesbury later wrote, her “courtly politeness knew no change in the palace of a prince or in the cell of a convict. She respected human nature,”
In 1838 Betsy went with her husband to France, which was her first trip to the continent. Despite getting ill she was still able to visit different prisons and wrote a report to the king on their state. She met the king and queen and other dignitaries. At a dinner given for her by the British ambassador the conversation became so moving that many of the guests were in tears. In the autumn she went to visit the Scottish prisons. The Duke of Argyll gives an interesting description of her. “She was the only very great human being I have ever met with whom it was impossible to be disappointed. She was, in the fullest sense of the word, a majestic woman. She was already advanced in years, and had a very tall and stately figure. But it was her countenance that was so striking… But over the whole countenance there was an ineffable expression of sweetness, dignity and power…It is a rare thing indeed in this poor world of ours to see any man or woman whose personality responds perfectly to the ideal conception of an heroic character and an heroic life.” The Prussian ambassador called her, “my favourite saint.”
In March 1839 she returned to France with her husband and two of their children. At Boulogne she was mobbed in her hotel, and not allowed to leave until she had visited the prison. When in Paris she was given permission to visit all the prisons in France. For the six months they were in France, Joseph protected and helped her in her work. Although sometimes Joseph objected to his wife being away from the home so much, Betsy was indeed fortunate that she had a husband who was so understanding. He, of course had promised to allow her to minister as she thought fit before they were married, but he was still an unusual man for those times.
The following year Betsy returned to the continent, this time with her brother Samuel and some others. They visited Ostend, Brussels, Antwerp, Amsterdam and Berlin. She was received very enthusiastically in Germany. She had to speak through interpreters, but her voice, empowered by the Holy Spirit, had an incredible effect on those she met. In one prison a German prince was amazed when he saw prisoners’ crying before the interpreter was able to explain what she had said. He exclaimed that it was “the gift of God!” Samuel was very extravagant on his sister’s behalf. On one occasion he hired a room in a hotel which would hold 200 people so that his sister could hold suitable receptions.
The party went to visit Kaiserswerth on the Rhine. In 1823 the town was made destitute by the failure of the silk mill, but they had a pastor called Theodore Fliedner who would not stand still and see his people suffer, so he went to Holland and England to raise funds. The Gurneys, Buxton, Fry etc contributed. Hearing about the work of Mrs Fry, Fliedner researched it thoroughly, having several conversations with her. On returning home, he established a prison association on the lines of Betsy’s and he pressured for reforms. In 1834 he returned to England to raise more funds and to speak to Betsy again. He then added an infant school, a hospital in which to train volunteer nurses and a training department for teachers. He provided a place for young women to learn theology and nursing so that they could go out to look after the sick. Fliedner was absolutely thrilled to have Betsy inspect his organisation, and she must have been very pleased to see something which was inspired by her work. Fliedner wrote, “Truly, God was in the midst of us.” In years to come there would be thirty such institutions in Germany and others in Jerusalem, Alexandria, Cairo, Beirut, Smyrna and Bucharest. In 1850 Florence Nightingale went to Kaiserswerth and was inspired to begin her own work. By the middle of the 20th century, there were over 35,000 deaconesses serving in parishes, schools, hospitals and prisons throughout the world.
This visit prompted Betsy to resurrect an old idea to provide nurses training. She formed a committee and the funds were raised. Betsy’s immense reputation meant that money was never difficult to find for her projects. Twenty young women were trained at one of the larger hospitals, to qualify as Nursing Sisters. They lived in a Home, wore a uniform and received a salary. They looked after the sick in their homes, free of charge for the poor, but there was a charge for the well-to-do. Florence Nightingale took some of these nurses to the Crimea.
Betsy was sixty now and getting weary. She wanted to live quietly with her husband, her children and her 26 grandchildren, but this was not possible as there was so much pressure on her time. Times were becoming more prosperous for her family. Her eldest son had re-opened Plashet and another child had built a fine new house. In 1841 her brother, Joseph John, urged her to go with him to the continent and letters from all over Europe eventually inclined her to go. They were away for two months, but her health was not good. The highlight of this trip was the friendship that sprang up between her and the King of Prussia.Joseph met his wife at Dover but was shocked at her appearance, rushing her off to Ramsgate to recuperate. When back in Upton, people came from all over to visit and her daughter Katherine acted as her secretary, writing letters on all sorts of subjects.
Her work was not in vain. In Russia, Germany, Denmark, Holland, France and the United Kingdom; chains were taken off prisoners, excessive cruelty ceased, women warders looked after women prisoners and lunatics were treated more humanely. In January 1842 she was the guest of honour of the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House. She took advantage of the occasion to make requests of all the government ministers who could help her plans, home and abroad. At the dinner she sat between Prince Albert and the Prime Minister.That same month the King of Prussia arrived in England and made sure of meeting Betsy by getting the Lord Mayor to invite her to another meal at the Mansion House. After this he went to Newgate to see her at work and then went to have lunch at her home. At Upton she presented to him all but one of her children and their spouses, her eldest grandson, 25 grandchildren, the Buxtons and five or six others. When the king left and he realised that they might never meet again, he wept aloud.
Extraordinarily, she received “a strong and painful judging letter” from the Friends concerning her going to the banquet and having the king to lunch. This letter confirmed to her that the Quakers were becoming more to do with outward form than inward substance. She recognised that she had perhaps been too conscious about dress, speech etc during her lifetime.
Again, despite wanting to rest, she agreed to go to Paris in 1843 with her brother, Joseph John, and his new American wife. It seems strange that she had not learned her lesson from the last trip. She was not well, and on her return to England it became clear that she was seriously ill. It was a long difficult illness, with many ups and downs, through which her dear husband was often at her side, comforting her. During her illness her favourite son, William, died of scarlet fever, together with one of his children. From time to time she was strong enough to go to Meeting or write letters, but her decline was inevitable. She went to a meeting of the Ladies’ British Society where she expressed a longing to see a refuge for repentant prostitutes. She did not see it, but the ‘Elizabeth Fry Refuge’ was established in her memory.
She was able to make one last journey to her beloved Earlham, where she stayed several weeks in the spring. Her sister Hannah wrote, “I am struck by my sister's heavenly, patient, forbearing spirit. She has spoken of many as being in constant prayer for them. I asked her how this could be — how had she time to pray so much? ‘Why, it is always on my heart; I think even in sleep the heart is lifted up;’ putting it to me as the common experience ‘Is it not so?’ Her state, if I may venture to say so, is one of living in communion with Christ, in Him.”
In June she went to several meetings and was able to attend the wedding of her youngest son, who, to her great joy, married a Quaker. In August she was in Ramsgate, giving out tracts as she went around in her wheelchair. Her sister Hannah went to visit her there, “She said that she believed she lived ever in the sense of His presence; that she was never separated from Him in spirit; ever looking to Him, ever in communion, ever seeking to be preserved, taught, and strengthened. ‘What should I be without this’ she said. ‘I could not live. I must die, or go out of my mind.’ She spoke of entire confidence in Christ for preservation unto the end; she knew His power, His compassion, His faithfulness. He was her hope — her assurance of hope.” Betsy had always had a fear of death, but she had confidence in where she was going. She became weaker and weaker, having a seizure and then dying the following day, the 12th October 1845. She was buried at the Quaker cemetery in Barking. The Ramsgate Coast Guard flew their flag at half mast in respect, a practice reserved officially for the death of a ruling monarch. Over a thousand people stood in silence during the burial.
Her brother Joseph John said of her, “The law of love, which might be said to be ever on her lips, was deeply engraved on the heart of Elizabeth Fry; and her charity, in the best and most comprehensive sense of the term, flowed freely forth towards her fellow-men of every class, of every condition. Thus with a peculiar grace she won her way, and almost always obtained her object…With this spirit of perseverance she combined a peculiar versatility and readiness for seizing every passing occasion, and converting it into an opportunity of usefulness. She was not only always willing, but always prepared, always ready (by a kind of mental sleight of hand) to do good, be it ever so little, to a child, a servant, a waiter at an inn, a friend, a neighbour, a stranger!”
James Sherman, Minister of Surrey Chapel, writes of “the silver tones of Elizabeth Fry's voice, and the majestic mien with which she delivered the message of God,” which could never be forgotten. Mrs. T. Geldart wrote, “I have seen Elizabeth Fry in my childhood, have felt her soft touch, and heard the sweet tones of her melodious voice, sweet always, but doubly so to the little ones, and I have been conscious of breathing an atmosphere of love. I have seen and heard her in large assemblies, soothing, in a manner so peculiarly her own, all that was adverse, and smoothing all that was ruffled, until her own spirit seemed to rest on those to whom she spoke. I have seen her in the house of sorrow and of mourning, when hearts were ready to break from sore bereavement, and the loving look was a balm, the tones were as delicious music; so soft, so compassionate, so thrilling, that one could scarcely tell whether it was the words she spoke or the manner of those words that entered the heart, and there spread peace and calmness.”
This extraordinary woman had the most incredible effect on people who met her. It was not so much what she did that is so amazing, it is who she was. Betsy was so full of the love of Jesus that nobody who knew her could forget her. The Holy Spirit flowed through her with such power that she was able to achieve most of what she set her mind to do. She never stopped loving, whether it was her very large family, royalty or the poor; she gave the same love and was loved in return.
This essay came largely from ‘Elizabeth Fry, Quaker Heroine’ by Janet Whitney, published in 1937 and ‘The Gurneys of Earlham, Volume 1 and 2’ by Augustus J C Hare, published in 1895. (These two volumes can be read on www.archive.org.)