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Elizabeth Fry: Saint of prison reform


‘We long to burn her alive’, wrote the Reverend Sydney Smith in 1821 of Elizabeth Fry. ‘Examples of living virtue disturb our repose and give birth to distressing comparisons.’

Even in her lifetime there was a daunting purity about Elizabeth Fry, which chilled her own sisters and occasionally led bolder spirits to mock her. In her everyday life she pursued an ideal of perfection so remote from the concerns of most men and women that it seemed possible only to exalt or deride her.

Through the veil of history she appears pious, elevating, benevolent, braving the horrors of Newgate prison to tame the half-crazed women inside through her message of Christian love. She martyred herself for her cause and came gradually to believe in her own saintliness.

Her actual achievement was extraordinary. A portly matron with ten children, she had gatecrashed into public life, into an exclusively male preserve, when the very idea was unthinkable. Through her passionate crusade she succeeded in rousing the world’s conscience to the pitiable state of women in prison and in creating a glimmer of sympathy for the lunatics and the poor. She also instituted an order of nursing sisters. By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne, Elizabeth Fry had become the figurehead of much of the philanthropic endeavour in the country.

She was almost forty years older than Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale, admired by them both for her compassionate exercise of feminine influence outside the home. She would have been truly horrified at the fact that she is regarded today as one of the earliest feminists.

Throughout her life Elizabeth Fry suffered from the handicap of her sex and tried to reconcile her role of wife and mother with her work as a reformer. Although her standing as a Quaker minister gave her the authority to follow her calling, strict Quakers at that time disapproved of the involvement with worldly affairs that Elizabeth Fry’s public life demanded. Her life was a martyrdom, but not in the sense that has been popularly supposed.

After her death she was canonised by her biographers. Her own daughters contributed largely to the myth, editing forty-four volumes of her journals, correcting her curious spelling, improving her grammar and carefully removing all trace of individuality and of human weakness. The fair copy of her journals made by her daughter Katharine, now in the Manuscript Department of the British Library, forms the basis of nearly all the biographical material about her.

However, from reading through the original 516,000 words of her journals now in Friends House, London, scrawled almost illegibly in scrappy notebooks, a more realistic portrait emerges, one of a far more complex and tormented human being than has ever been allowed to appear in the past.

By June Rose

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