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Elizabeth Fry

1780-1845. Quaker prison reformer. Born in Norwich, daughter of John Gurney, a Quaker banker, she married a London merchant in 1800 and had a large family. Her religious upbringing created in her a deep concern over social issues, and in 1808 she was in a position to found a Girls' School at Plashet, East Ham. In 1811 she was admitted as a Quaker “minister.” It was not until 1813 that she became interested in prison work and began her welfare work at Newgate Prison among the women prisoners, visiting them daily, teaching them to sew, and reading the Bible to them. In 1817 she began her campaign for the separation of the sexes in prisons, classification of criminals, women warders to supervise women prisoners, and provision of both secular and religious instruction. In 1818 she gave evidence before a select committee of the House of Commons on the subject of prisons, and her views played a significant part in the design of subsequent legislation.

Later, in 1839, realizing the necessity for the care and rehabilitation of discharged criminals, she formed a society with this as its prime concern. She did much to foster prison reform on the Continent by frequent visits. Other philanthropic causes also occupied her time and attention. In an attempt to deal with mendicancy she sponsored the “Nightly Shelter for the Homeless in London” (1820), as well as visiting societies in Brighton and other places. In 1827, with her brother, she produced a report on social conditions in Ireland, and in 1836 she secured the provision of libraries at coastguard stations and certain naval hospitals. Her husband went bankrupt in 1828, however, and this curtailed her work. Throughout her life she combined an evangelistic zeal with her social work, and her Texts for Every Day in the Year (1831) had a very wide circulation. Her maxim was “Charity to the soul is the soul of charity.”

Her two daughters published a two-volume Memoir in 1847; her numerous biographers include G.K. Lewis (1910) and J.P. Witney (1937).