Newgate Prison - Elizabeth Fry (1188-1904)

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.”

Additional Information

It was knocked down in 1904 and the Central Criminal Court was built.