Gateway to the Classics: Great Englishwomen by M. B. Synge
Great Englishwomen by  M. B. Synge

Elizabeth Fry


E lizabeth Fry was one of those rare women whose "life was work." Once having recognized the path of duty, she never left it; through illness and suffering, trouble and sorrow, she held fast to it, and the result was grand. For she was our first great prison reformer, the first to open the eyes of the nation to the alarming state of the prisons, the first to take active steps for their improvement.

She was born in Norwich on May 21, 1780. Her father, John Gurney, belonged to the Society of Friends; he was a popular, warm-hearted man, fond of his children, devoted to his wife. Elizabeth was the third of eleven children; when she was two years old, her father and mother moved to Earlham Hall, an old house standing in a well-wooded park, about two miles from Norwich. She was a nervous, delicate little child; every night, on going to bed, she would quake with fear at the prospect of being left alone in the dark, when the moment should come for the candle to be blown out. Sea-bathing, too, had its horrors for her. She was forced to bathe when they went to the sea-side, but at the sight of the sea she would begin to cry and tremble till she turned her back on it again.

The child's devotion to her mother was intense; she would often lie awake at night and cry at the thought that her mother might some day die and leave her, and her childish wish was that two big walls might fall and crush them both together. But the two big walls never did  fall; when Elizabeth was but twelve, her mother died, leaving eleven children, the eldest barely seventeen, the youngest only two. Elizabeth was tall and thin; she had quantities of soft flaxen hair and a sweet face, but she was so reserved and quiet, that people thought her quite stupid. She was very fond of dancing and riding and any kind of amusement, and when she was a little older we hear of her as a "beautiful lady on horseback in a scarlet riding-habit."

When she was eighteen a great Quaker preacher came to Norwich, and Elizabeth went with her six sisters to hear him. Hitherto she had cared little for Quaker meetings, but this time, as soon as the preacher began, her attention was fixed. Tears rolled down her cheeks, and "Betsy wept most of the way home," says one of her sisters. From that day all love of amusement and pleasure seemed gone. New feelings had been stirred within her; she felt there was something more to live for than mere pleasure; a nobler spirit was moving within her, that showed her there lay work around her to be done, and work specially for her to do. And she soon found the work; an old man, who was dying, wanted comfort and care; a little boy called Billy from the village needed teaching. Slowly other little boys came to be taught, and in a few months she had a school of seventy. She taught them in an empty laundry, no other room being large enough.

Life went on thus till she was twenty. The more she saw of Quakers, the more firmly she believed they were right; she now wore their dress,—a plain slate-coloured skirt with a close handkerchief and cap, with no ornaments of any kind. In the summer of this year she married Joseph Fry, also a Quaker, engaged in business in London, where they accordingly went to live. Leaving her old home was a great trial to her, for the "very stones of the Norwich streets seemed dear to her."

A new sphere of work now opened before her; she was surrounded by the poor, workhouses claimed her attention, the sick and dying begged for a sight of the simple Quaker woman, whom "to see was to love," and whose gentle words always comforted them.

In 1809, Mr. and Mrs. Fry and their five children moved into the country for a time, for rest after the smoke and din of the crowded city life. Here Elizabeth Fry was very happy; she loved to live out of doors with her little children, to explain to them the growth of a flower, the structure of a bee's wing or caterpillar; they would all go long rambles together with baskets and trowels to get ferns and wild flowers to plant in their garden at home. Then, refreshed and strengthened, she was again ready to take up her London work.

It was in 1813 that she first entered the prison at Newgate, and the special work of her life began. She found the prison and prisoners in a disgraceful state, and her womanly heart was touched with pity for the poor creatures who were compelled to live in these unhealthy wards and cells. Many had not sufficient clothing, but lived in rags, sleeping on the floor with raised boards for pillows. Little children cried for food and clothes, which their unhappy mothers could not give them. In the same room they slept, ate, cooked, and washed; in the bad air they fell ill, and no one came to nurse them or comfort them, no one came to show them how to live an honest, upright life, when their prison-life was over. Sick at heart, Elizabeth Fry went home, determined to help these miserable people in some way or other. Then trouble came to her. Her little Betsy, a lovely child of five, died, and long and bitter was her grief.

"Mama," said the child, soon before her death, "I love everybody better than myself, and I love thee better than everybody, and I love Almighty better than thee."

Sorrow was making Elizabeth Fry more and more sympathetic and able to enter into the sufferings of those around her. At last she was able to work again, and with her whole heart she set herself to improve the prisons.

She got the prison authorities to let the poor women have mats to sleep on, especially those who were ill, and she begged to be alone with the convicts for a few hours. The idleness, ignorance, and dirt of these women shocked her. How could the poor little children, pining for food and fresh air, ever grow up to be good women in the world, into which they might be turned out any time? How could those wretched women ever learn to be better and happier by being thrown into those unhealthy cells with others as bad or worse than themselves, if no one ever tried to teach them how to live better lives, and start afresh in the world? She proposed to start a school for the children, and the prisoners thanked her with tears of joy. They had not known such kindness before; they had never been spoken to so gently; the noise and fighting ceased, and they listened to the simple Quaker's words.

So an empty cell was made into a school room, and one of the prisoners was made school-mistress. Mrs. Fry and a few other ladies helped to teach, and the children soon got on, and learnt to like their lessons. Still the terrible sounds of swearing, fighting, and screaming went on; Mrs. Fry met with failure and discouragement on every side; the utter misery and suffering sickened her, and she would sometimes wonder if she should have strength to go on. But she found she had.

Soon others came forward to help, and not long after we find a very different scene. Instead of the inhuman noises that reached the ear before, comparative stillness reigned; most of the women wore clean blue aprons, and were sitting round a long table engaged in different kinds of work, while a lady at the head of the table read aloud to them.

The news of this reformation soon spread. News papers were full of it; pamphlets were sent round; the public awoke to the evils of prison-life, and the voice of the people made itself heard; and Queen Charlotte herself sought an interview with Elizabeth Fry, the leader of this important work.

To improve the state of convict ships was the next work for Mrs. Fry. Up to this time the vessels were terribly over-crowded; the women had nothing to do all day during the voyage; their children were separated from them, and all were marked with hot irons, so that if by any chance they escaped, they might be found again. Part of the vessel was made into a school for the children; pieces of print were collected for the women to make into patchwork, and a matron was chosen to nurse those who were ill.

Mrs. Fry herself went to bid the emigrants farewell. She stood in her plain Quaker dress at the door of the cabin with the captain; the women stood facing her, while sailors climbed up to the rigging to hear her speak. The silence was profound for a few moments. Then she spoke to them a few hopeful, encouraging words, and prayed for them; many of the convict women wept bitterly, and when she left, every eye followed her till she was out of sight. From this time she visited every convict ship with women on board leaving England till 1841, when she was prevented by illness.

Elizabeth Fry had a wonderful power of winning hearts by her gentle and earnest way of speaking. One day she went over a large Home for young women; as she was going away the matron pointed out two as being very troublesome and hard to manage. Mrs. Fry went up to them, and holding out a hand to each, she said, looking at them with one of her beautiful smiles: "I trust I shall hear better things of thee."

The girls had been proof against words of reproach and command, but at these few heartfelt words of hope and kindness, they both burst into tears of sorrow and shame.

In 1839 Elizabeth Fry went to Paris, in order to visit the workhouses, prisons, and homes on the continent, and to stir up the people to enquire into their arrangements.

A few days after her arrival she went to a little children's hospital. As she entered the long ward, the only sound audible was a faint and pitiful bleating like a flock of little lambs. A long row of clean white cots was placed all round the room; on a sloping mattress before the fire a row of babies were lying waiting their turn to be fed by the nurse with a spoon. The poor little things were swathed up, according to the foreign custom, so tightly that they could not move their limbs. For some time Mrs. Fry pleaded with the Sister of the ward to undo their swathings, and let their arms free, and, as she did so at last, one of the babies, who had been crying piteously, ceased, and stretched out its arms to its deliverer.

Everywhere, abroad and at home, among old and young, she was welcomed as a friend; from the head of the land to the poorest prisoner, she was loved, for it was an honour to know her in this world." Through illness and intense suffering she struggled on with duty and work, until she was no longer able to walk. She was still wheeled to the meetings in a chair, but the work of her life was ended. Then sorrow upon sorrow came to her; her son, sister, and a little grandchild all died within a short time of one another.

"Can our mother hear this and live?" cried her children. A long year of intense pain and suffering followed, and then, one autumn evening, Elizabeth Fry died. Universal was the mourning for her; vast crowds assembled in the Friend's burying ground, near her old country home at Plashet, silently and reverently to attend the simple Quaker funeral, and to do honour to Elizabeth Fry, now laid at rest beside her little child.

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