Read ELIZABETH FRY. of Lives of Girls Who Became Famous, free online book, by Sarah Knowles Bolton, on

When a woman of beauty, great wealth, and the highest social position, devotes her life to the lifting of the lowly and the criminal, and preaches the Gospel from the north of Scotland to the south of France, it is not strange that the world admires, and that books are written in praise of her. Unselfishness makes a rare and radiant life, and this was the crowning beauty of the life of Elizabeth Fry.

Born in Norwich, England, May 21, 1780, Elizabeth was the third daughter of Mr. John Gurney, a wealthy London merchant. Mrs. Gurney, the mother, a descendant of the Barclays of Ury, was a woman of much personal beauty, singularly intellectual for those times, making her home a place where literary and scientific people loved to gather.

Elizabeth wellnigh idolized her mother, and used often to cry after going to bed, lest death should take away the precious parent. In the daytime, when the mother, not very robust, would sometimes lie down to rest, the child would creep to the bedside and watch tenderly and anxiously, to see if she were breathing. Well might Mrs. Gurney say,

“My dove-like Betsy scarcely ever offends, and is, in every
sense of the word, truly engaging.”

Mrs. Fry wrote years afterward: “My mother was most dear to me, and the walks she took with me in the old-fashioned garden are as fresh with me as if only just passed, and her telling me about Adam and Eve being driven out of Paradise. I always considered it must be just like our garden.... I remember with pleasure my mother’s beds of wild flowers, which, with delight, I used as a child to attend with her; it gave me that pleasure in observing their beauties and varieties that, though I never have had time to become a botanist, few can imagine, in my many journeys, how I have been pleased and refreshed by observing and enjoying the wild flowers on my way.”

The home, Earlham Hall, was one of much beauty and elegance, a seat of the Bacon family. The large house stood in the centre of a well-wooded park, the river Wensum flowing through it. On the south front of the house was a large lawn, flanked by great trees, underneath which wild flowers grew in profusion. The views about the house were so artistic that artists often came there to sketch.

In this restful and happy home, after a brief illness, Mrs. Gurney died in early womanhood, leaving eleven children, all young, the smallest but two years old. Elizabeth was twelve, old enough to feel the irreparable loss. To the day of her death the memory of this time was extremely sad.

She was a nervous and sensitive child, afraid of the dark, begging that a light be left in her room, and equally afraid to bathe in the sea. Her feelings were regarded as the whims of a child, and her nervous system was injured in consequence. She always felt the lack of wisdom in “hardening” children, and said, “I am now of opinion that my fear would have been much more subdued, and great suffering spared, by its having been still more yielded to: by having a light left in my room, not being long left alone, and never forced to bathe.”

After her marriage she guided her children rather than attempt “to break their wills,” and lived to see happy results from the good sense and Christian principle involved in such guiding. In her prison work she used the least possible governing, winning control by kindness and gentleness.

Elizabeth grew to young womanhood, with pleasing manners, slight and graceful in body, with a profusion of soft flaxen hair, and a bright, intelligent face. Her mind was quick, penetrating, and original. She was a skilful rider on horseback, and made a fine impression in her scarlet riding-habit, for, while her family were Quakers, they did not adopt the gray dress.

She was attractive in society and much admired. She writes in her journal: “Company at dinner; I must beware of not being a flirt, it is an abominable character; I hope I shall never be one, and yet I fear I am one now a little.... I think I am by degrees losing many excellent qualities. I lay it to my great love of gayety, and the world.... 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. They will lose their brightness, and one day they will prove a curse instead of a blessing.”

Before she was eighteen, William Savery, an American friend, came to England to spend two years in the British Isles, preaching. The seven beautiful Gurney sisters went to hear him, and sat on the front seat, Elizabeth, “with her smart boots, purple, laced with scarlet.”

As the preacher proceeded, she was greatly moved, weeping during the service, and nearly all the way home. She had been thrown much among those who were Deists in thought, and this gospel-message seemed a revelation to her.

The next morning Mr. Savery came to Earlham Hall to breakfast. “From this day,” say her daughters, in their interesting memoir of their mother, “her love of pleasure and the world seemed gone.” She, herself, said, in her last illness, “Since my heart was touched, at the age of seventeen, I believe I never have awakened from sleep, in sickness or in health, by day or by night, without my first waking thought being, how best I might serve my Lord.”

Soon after she visited London, that she might, as she said, “try all things” and choose for herself what appeared to her “to be good.” She wrote:

“I went to Drury Lane in the evening. I must own I was extremely disappointed; to be sure, the house is grand and dazzling; but I had no other feeling whilst there than that of wishing it over.... I called on Mrs. Siddons, who was not at home; then on Mrs. Twiss, who gave me some paint for the evening. I was painted a little, I had my hair dressed, and did look pretty for me.”

On her return to Earlham Hall she found that the London pleasure had not been satisfying. She says, “I wholly gave up on my own ground, attending all places of public amusement; I saw they tended to promote evil; therefore, if I could attend them without being hurt myself, I felt in entering them I lent my aid to promote that which I was sure from what I saw hurt others.”

She was also much exercised about dancing, thinking, while “in a family, it may be of use by the bodily exercise,” that “the more the pleasures of life are given up, the less we love the world, and our hearts will be set upon better things.”

The heretofore fashionable young girl began to visit the poor and the sick in the neighborhood, and at last decided to open a school for poor children. Only one boy came at first; but soon she had seventy. She lost none of her good cheer and charming manner, but rather grew more charming. She cultivated her mind as well, reading logic, Watts on Judgment, Lavater, etc.

The rules of life which she wrote for herself at eighteen are worth copying: “First, Never lose any time; I do not think that lost which is spent in amusement or recreation some time every day; but always be in the habit of being employed. Second, Never err the least in truth. Third, Never say an ill thing of a person when I can say a good thing of him; not only speak charitably, but feel so. Fourth, Never be irritable or unkind to anybody. Fifth, Never indulge myself in luxuries that are not necessary. Sixth, Do all things with consideration, and when my path to act right is most difficult, put confidence in that Power alone which is able to assist me, and exert my own powers as far as they go.”

Gradually she laid aside all jewelry, then began to dress in quiet colors, and finally adopted the Quaker garb, feeling that she could do more good in it. At first her course did not altogether please her family, but they lived to idolize and bless her for her doings, and to thankfully enjoy her worldwide fame.

At twenty she received an offer of marriage from a wealthy London merchant, Mr. Joseph Fry. She hesitated for some time, lest her active duties in the church should conflict with the cares of a home of her own. She said, “My most anxious wish is, that I may not hinder my spiritual welfare, which I have so much feared as to make me often doubt if marriage were a desirable thing for me at this time, or even the thoughts of it.”

However, she was soon married, and a happy life resulted. For most women this marriage, which made her the mother of eleven children, would have made all public work impossible; but to a woman of Elizabeth Fry’s strong character nothing seemed impossible. Whether she would have accomplished more for the world had she remained unmarried, no one can tell.

Her husband’s parents were “plain, consistent friends,” and his sister became especially congenial to the young bride. A large and airy house was taken in London, St. Mildred’s Court, which became a centre for “Friends” in both Great Britain and America.

With all her wealth and her fondness for her family, she wrote in her journal, “I have been married eight years yesterday; various trials of faith and patience have been permitted me; my course has been very different to what I had expected; 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 (which have certainly been very pinching) that I have had to go through have been very useful, and have 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 we are alone to desire that He may be glorified, either through us or others, in our being something or nothing, as He may see best for us.”

After eleven years the Fry family moved to a beautiful home in the country at Plashet. Changes had come in those eleven years. The father had died; one sister had married Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, and she herself had been made a “minister” by the Society of Friends. While her hands were very full with the care of her seven children, she had yet found time to do much outside Christian work.

Naturally shrinking, she says, “I find it an awful thing to rise amongst a large assembly, and, unless much covered with love and power, hardly know how to venture.” But she seemed always to be “covered with love and power,” for she prayed much and studied her Bible closely, and her preaching seemed to melt alike crowned heads and criminals in chains.

Opposite the Plashet House, with its great trees and flowers, was a dilapidated building occupied by an aged man and his sister. They had once been well-to-do, but were now very poor, earning a pittance by selling rabbits. The sister, shy and sorrowful from their reduced circumstances, was nearly inaccessible, but Mrs. Fry won her way to her heart. Then she asked how they would like to have a girls’ school in a big room attached to the building. They consented, and soon seventy poor girls were in attendance.

“She had,” says a friend, “the gentlest touch with children. She would win their hearts, if they had never seen her before, almost at the first glance, and by the first sound of her musical voice.”

Then the young wife, now thirty-one, established a depot of calicoes and flannels for the poor, with a room full of drugs, and another department where good soup was prepared all through the hard winters. She would go into the “Irish Colony,” taking her two older daughters with her, that they might learn the sweetness of benevolence, “threading her way through children and pigs, up broken staircases, and by narrow passages; then she would listen to their tales of want and woe.”

Now she would find a young mother dead, with a paper cross pinned upon her breast; now she visited a Gypsy camp to care for a sick child, and give them Bibles. Each year when the camp returned to Plashet, their chief pleasure was the visits of the lovely Quaker. Blessings on thee, beautiful Elizabeth Fry!

She now began to assist in the public meetings near London, but with some hesitation, as it took her from home; but after an absence of two weeks, she found her household “in very comfortable order; and so far from having suffered in my absence, it appears as if a better blessing had attended them than common.”

She did not forget her home interests. One of her servants being ill, she watched by his bedside till he died. When she talked with him of the world to come, he said, “God bless you, ma’am.” She said, “There is no set of people I feel so much about as servants, as I do not think they have generally justice done to them; they are too much considered as another race of beings, and we are apt to forget that the holy injunction holds good with them, ’Do as thou wouldst be done unto.’”

She who could dine with kings and queens, felt as regards servants, “that in the best sense we are all one, and though our paths here may be different, we have all souls equally valuable, and have all the same work to do; which, if properly considered, should lead us to great sympathy and love, and also to a constant care for their welfare, both here and hereafter.”

When she was thirty-three, having moved to London for the winter, she began her remarkable work in Newgate prison. The condition of prisoners was pitiable in the extreme. She found three hundred women, with their numerous children, huddled together, with no classification between the most and least depraved, without employment, in rags and dirt, and sleeping on the floor with no bedding, the boards simply being raised for a sort of pillow. Liquors were purchased openly at a bar in the prison; and swearing, gambling, obscenity, and pulling each other’s hair were common. The walls, both in the men’s and women’s departments, were hung with chains and fetters.

When Mrs. Fry and two or three friends first visited the prison, the superintendent advised that they lay aside their watches before entering, which they declined to do. Mrs. Fry did not fear, nor need she, with her benign presence.

On her second visit she asked to be left alone with the women, and read to them the tenth chapter of Matthew, making a few observations on Christ’s having come to save sinners. Some of the women asked who Christ was. Who shall forgive us for such ignorance in our very midst?

The children were almost naked, and ill from want of food, air, and exercise. Mrs. Fry told them that she would start a school for their children, which announcement was received with tears of joy. She asked that they select one from their own number for a governess. Mary Conner was chosen, a girl who had been put in prison for stealing a watch. So changed did the girl become under this new responsibility, that she was never known to infringe a rule of the prison. After fifteen months she was released, but died soon after of consumption.

When the school was opened for all under twenty-five, “the railing was crowded with half-naked women, struggling together for the front situations, with the most boisterous violence, and begging with the utmost vociferation.”

Mrs. Fry saw at once the need of these women being occupied, but the idea that these people could be induced to work was laughed at, as visionary, by the officials. They said the work would be destroyed or stolen at once. But the good woman did not rest till an association of twelve persons was formed for the “Improvement of the Female Prisoners of Newgate”; “to provide for the clothing, the instruction, and the employment of the women; to introduce them to a knowledge of the Holy Scriptures; and to form in them, as much as possible, those habits of order, sobriety, and industry, which may render them docile and peaceable whilst in prison, and respectable when they leave it.”

It was decided that Botany Bay could be supplied with stockings, and indeed with all the articles needed by convicts, through the work of these women. A room was at once made ready, and matrons were appointed. A portion of the earnings was to be given the women for themselves and their children. In ten months they made twenty thousand articles of wearing apparel, and knit from sixty to one hundred pairs of stockings every month. The Bible was read to them twice each day. They received marks for good behavior, and were as pleased as children with the small prizes given them.

One of the girls who received a prize of clothing came to Mrs. Fry, and “hoped she would excuse her for being so forward, but if she might say it, she felt exceedingly disappointed; she little thought of having clothing given to her, but she had hoped I would have given her a Bible, that she might read the Scriptures herself.”

No woman was ever punished under Mrs. Fry’s management. They said, “it would be more terrible to be brought up before her than before the judge.” When she told them she hoped they would not play cards, five packs were at once brought to her and burned.

The place was now so orderly and quiet, that “Newgate had become almost a show; the statesman and the noble, the city functionary and the foreign traveller, the high-bred gentlewoman, the clergyman and the dissenting minister, flocked to witness the extraordinary change,” and to listen to Mrs. Fry’s beautiful Bible readings.

Letters poured in from all parts of the country, asking her to come to their prisons for a similar work, or to teach others how to work. A committee of the House of Commons summoned her before them to learn her suggestions, and to hear of her methods; and later the House of Lords.

Of course the name of Elizabeth Fry became known everywhere. Queen Victoria gave her audience, and when she appeared in public, everybody was eager to look at her. The newspapers spoke of her in the highest praise. Yet with a beautiful spirit she writes in her journal, “I am ready to say in the fulness of my heart, surely ’it is the Lord’s doing, and marvellous in our eyes’; so many are the providential openings of various kinds. Oh! if good should result, may the praise and glory of the whole be entirely given where it is due by us, and by all, in deep humiliation and prostration of spirit.”

Mrs. Fry’s heart was constantly burdened with the scenes she witnessed. The penal laws were a caricature on justice. Men and women were hanged for theft, forgery, passing counterfeit money, and for almost every kind of fraud. One young woman, with a babe in her arms, was hanged for stealing a piece of cloth worth one dollar and twenty-five cents! Another was hanged for taking food to keep herself and little child from starving. It was no uncommon thing to see women hanging from the gibbet at Newgate, because they had passed a forged one-pound note (five dollars).

George Cruikshank in 1818 was so moved at one of these executions that he made a picture which represented eight men and three women hanging from the gallows, and a rope coiled around the faces of twelve others. Across the picture were the words, “I promise to perform during the issue of Bank-notes easily imitated ... for the Governors and Company of the Bank of England.”

He called the picture a “Bank-note, not to be imitated.” It at once created a great sensation. Crowds blocked the street in front of the shop where it was hung. The pictures were in such demand that Cruikshank sat up all night to etch another plate. The Gurneys, Wilberforce, Sir Samuel Romilly, Sir James Mackintosh, all worked vigorously against capital punishment, save, possibly, for murder.

Among those who were to be executed was Harriet Skelton, who, for the man she loved, had passed forged notes. She was singularly open in face and manner, confiding, and well-behaved. When she was condemned to death, it was a surprise and horror to all who knew her. Mrs. Fry was deeply interested. Noblemen went to see her in her damp, dark cell, which was guarded by a heavy iron door. The Duke of Gloucester went with Mrs. Fry to the Directors of the Bank of England, and to Lord Sidmouth, to plead for her, but their hearts were not to be moved, and the poor young girl was hanged. The public was enthusiastic in its applause for Mrs. Fry, and unsparing in its denunciation of Sidmouth. At last the obnoxious laws were changed.

Mrs. Fry was heartily opposed to capital punishment. She said, “It hardens the hearts of men, and makes the loss of life appear light to them”; it does not lead to reformation, and “does not deter others from crime, because the crimes subject to capital punishment are gradually increasing.”

When the world is more civilized than it is to-day, when we have closed the open saloon, that is the direct cause of nearly all the murders, then we shall probably do away with hanging; or, if men and women must be killed for the safety of society, a thing not easily proven, it will be done in the most humane manner, by chloroform.

Mrs. Fry was likewise strongly opposed to solitary confinement, which usually makes the subject a mental wreck, and, as regards moral action, an imbecile. How wonderfully in advance of her age was this gifted woman!

Mrs. Fry’s thoughts now turned to another evil. When the women prisoners were transported to New South Wales, they were carried to the ships in open carts, the crowd jeering. She prevailed upon government to have them carried in coaches, and promised that she would go with them. When on board the ship, she knelt on the deck and prayed with them as they were going into banishment, and then bade them a tender good by. Truly woman can be an angel of light.

Says Captain Martin, “Who could resist this beautiful, persuasive, and heavenly-minded woman? To see her was to love her; to hear her was to feel as if a guardian angel had bid you follow that teaching which could alone subdue the temptations and evils of this life, and secure a Redeemer’s love in eternity.”

At this time Mrs. Fry and her brother Joseph visited Scotland and the north of England to ascertain the condition of the prisons. They found much that was inhuman; insane persons in prison, eighteen months in dungeons! Debtors confined night and day in dark, filthy cells, and never leaving them; men chained to the walls of their cells, or to rings in the floor, or with their limbs stretched apart till they fainted in agony; women with chains on hands, and feet, and body, while they slept on bundles of straw. On their return a book was published, which did much to arouse England.

Mrs. Fry was not yet forty, but her work was known round the world. The authorities of Russia, at the desire of the Empress, wrote Mrs. Fry as to the best plans for the St. Petersburg lunatic asylum and treatment of the inmates, and her suggestions were carried out to the letter.

Letters came from Amsterdam, Denmark, Paris, and elsewhere, asking counsel. The correspondence became so great that two of her daughters were obliged to attend to it.

Again she travelled all over England, forming “Ladies’ Prison Associations,” which should not only look after the inmates of prisons, but aid them to obtain work when they were discharged, or “so provide for them that stealing should not seem a necessity.”

About this time, 1828, one of the houses in which her husband was a partner failed, “which involved Elizabeth Fry and her family in a train of sorrows and perplexities which tinged the remaining years of her life.”

They sold the house at Plashet, and moved again to Mildred Court, now the home of one of their sons. Her wealthy brothers and her children soon re-established the parents in comfort.

She now became deeply interested in the five hundred Coast-Guard stations in the United Kingdom, where the men and their families led a lonely life. Partly by private contributions and partly through the aid of government, she obtained enough money to buy more than twenty-five thousand volumes for libraries at these stations. The letters of gratitude were a sufficient reward for the hard work. She also obtained small libraries for all the packets that sailed from Falmouth.

In 1837, with some friends, she visited Paris, making a detailed examination of its prisons. Guizot entertained her, the Duchess de Broglie, M. de Pressense, and others paid her much attention. The King and Queen sent for her, and had an earnest talk. At Nismes, where there were twelve hundred prisoners, she visited the cells, and when five armed soldiers wished to protect her and her friends, she requested that they be allowed to go without guard. In one dungeon she found two men, chained hand and foot. She told them she would plead for their liberation if they would promise good behavior. They promised, and kept it, praying every night for their benefactor thereafter. When she held a meeting in the prison, hundreds shed tears, and the good effects of her work were visible long after.

The next journey was made to Germany. At Brussels, the King held out both hands to receive her. In Denmark, the King and Queen invited her to dine, and she sat between them. At Berlin, the royal family treated her like a sister, and all stood about her while she knelt and prayed for them.

The new penitentiaries were built after her suggestions, so perfect was thought to be her system. The royal family never forget her. When the King of Prussia visited England, to stand sponsor for the infant Prince of Wales, in 1842, he dined with her at her home. She presented to him her eight daughters and daughters-in-law, her seven sons and eldest grandson, and then their twenty-five grandchildren.

Finally, the great meetings, and the earnest plans, with their wonderful execution, were coming to an end for Elizabeth Fry.

There had been many breaks in the home circle. Her beloved son William, and his two children, had just died. Some years before she had buried a very precious child, Elizabeth, at the age of five, who shortly before her death said, “Mamma, I love everybody better than myself, and I love thee better than everybody, and I love Almighty much better than thee, and I hope thee loves Almighty much better than me.” This was a severe stroke, Mrs. Fry saying, “My much-loved husband and I have drank this cup together, in close sympathy and unity of feeling. It has at times been very bitter to us both, but we have been in measure each other’s joy and helpers in the Lord.”

During her last sickness she said, “I believe this is not death, but it is as passing through the valley of the shadow of death, and perhaps with more suffering, from more sensitiveness; but the ’rock is here’; the distress is awful, but He has been with me.”

The last morning came, Oc, 1845. About nine o’clock, one of her daughters, sitting by her bedside, read from Isaiah: “I, the Lord thy God, will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee, Fear not, thou worm of Jacob, and ye men of Israel, I will help thee, saith the Lord, and thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.” The mother said slowly, “Oh! my dear Lord, help and keep thy servant!” and never spoke afterward.

She was buried in the Friends’ burying-ground at Barking, by the side of her little Elizabeth, a deep silence prevailing among the multitudes gathered there, broken only by the solemn prayer of her brother, Joseph John Gurney.

Thus closed one of the most beautiful lives among women. To the last she was doing good deeds. When she was wheeled along the beach in her chair, she gave books and counsel to the passers-by. When she stayed at hotels, she usually arranged a meeting for the servants. She was sent for, from far and near, to pray with the sick, and comfort the dying, who often begged to kiss her hand; no home was too desolate for her lovely and cheerful presence. No wonder Alexander of Russia called her “one of the wonders of the age.”

Her only surviving son gives this interesting testimony of her home life: “I never recollect seeing her out of temper or hearing her speak a harsh word, yet still her word was law, but always the law of love.”

Naturally timid, always in frail health, sometimes misunderstood, even with the highest motives, she lived a heroic life in the best sense, and died the death of a Christian. What grander sphere for woman than such philanthropy as this! And the needs of humanity are as great as ever, waiting for the ministration of such noble souls.