Biography of Elizabeth Fry

Portrait of Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry was an early nineteenth century prison reformer.

When and Where was she Born?

21st May 1780, Gurney Court, Magdalen Street, Norwich, Norfolk, England.

Family Background:

Elizabeth Fry was christened Elizabeth Gurney. Daughter of a wealthy Quaker banker and merchant. Her mother, Catherine, was a member of the Barclay family the founders of Barclays Bank.


Schooled at home by family. She was expected to devote at least two hours a day in silent prayer. Looked after her other brothers and sisters from the age of 12.

Timeline of Elizabeth Fry:

1768: Her family move from Norwich to Earlham Hall which is now in the grounds of the University of East Anglia.

1792: Death of her mother.

1797: Elizabeth begins Sunday School and starts visiting the sick.

1798: She hears William Savery from America give a talk at a Quaker meeting and feels she has a religious experience.

1799: She feels guilty for enjoying the profane pleasures of the theatre in London and begins to dress in plain clothes and lead a life of prayer. She meets John Fry, a merchant and also a Quaker. She refuses his offer of marriage.

1800: She finally accepts to Marry John Fry. The couple move to London and settle at St Mildred’s Court, Poultry in the City of London.

1801: Birth of her daughter Katherine.

1802: Birth of Elizabeth Fry’s second child, also a daughter, called Rachel. Elizabeth is very ill after the childbirth.

1804: Birth of her first son, John.

1806: Elizabeth Fry is appointed as a visitor to the school and workhouse by the Friends of Gracechurch Street Meeting House. Birth of her fourth child William.

1807: Birth of her fifth child Richenda.

1808: Death of her husband’s father.

1809: The family move to Plashet House in East Ham. This is a larger home and was Joseph’s father’s house until his death. Elizabeth begins schooling for the local neighbourhood and encourages children to be vaccinated. Birth of her sixth child Joseph. Death of Elizabeth’s father.

1811: Birth of her seventh child, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Fry becomes a Quaker Minister and begins to preach and to travel further afield.

1812: Birth of her eighth child Hannah.

1813: The family have to drastically reduce their spending due to the privations of the Napoleonic War. A French Quaker Minister and former aristocrat visits Britain and is horrified by conditions in Newgate Prison. He contacts Elizabeth for help as she is a family friend. Elizabeth visits the prison with clothing and is shocked by what she sees.

1814: Birth of her ninth child Louisa. Again she is ill after the childbirth but still continues to send clothing to the prison. Death of her brother John.

1815: Death of her daughter Elizabeth aged four, affectionately known as Betsy.

1816: Birth of her tenth child Samuel. Joseph is now a banker and his business is in trouble and the family is forced to move back to St Mildred’s Court. She continues to visit Newgate Prison and the children incarcerated there and has the idea for a school.

1817: Joseph and Elizabeth convince the authorities to build a school. Elizabeth forms the “Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate”. This widely seen by historians to be the first national women’s organisation in Britain. A group of ladies visit the prison and take clothing. This is picked up by the newspapers. She also worked on efforts to improve the treatment of prisoners that were deported to Australia.

1818: Fry speaks to a Parliamentary Commission and is the first woman to do so. She recommends that women should look after women prisoners. Elizabeth and her brother appeal to the Home Secretary for clemency for the lives of the forgers Charlotte Newman, Mary Ann James and Harriet Skelton but are unsuccessful. The wife of King George the Third, Queen Charlotte asks to speak with Elizabeth at the Mansion House. Elizabeth suggests that prisoners should be taken through the streets in closed vehicles to prevent the mob throwing stones at them. She embarks on a visit to the North of England and Scotland and visits prisons on the way. Her brother in law Thomas Fowell Buxton is elected as an M.P for Weymouth and is now able to project her cause in parliament. He publishes a book called “Inquiry into Prison Discipline” which looks at Elizabeth’s work.

1819: Elizabeth goes to Kent to recover from illness. She writes a report about her experiences in Northern England and Scotland. Back in London she founds a night shelter for young people.

1821: Death of her sister Priscilla. Elizabeth founds “The British Ladies Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners”. She and her daughters visit prisons in Wakefield, Sheffield, Leeds York, Durham Newcastle, Nottingham, Lincoln, Carlisle and Lancaster and establish ladies committees in those towns.

1822: Birth of her eleventh child Daniel. Her first grandchild is also born on the same day, November 1st.

1823: The “Gaols” Act sees prisoner segregation for the first time and a reduction in the number of crimes for which people could be executed.

1824: A school for hardened criminals is set up in Chelsea. She visits Brighton for the good of her health and sets up the Brighton District Visiting Society to help poor people. This sets the pattern for similar institutions across the country.

1826: Elizabeth Fry continues her prison visiting in the Midlands and gives evidence to the Police Committee in Parliament.

1827: She visits Ireland and its asylums and prisons. She argues against capital punishment for women.

1828: Joseph Fry’s banking business goes bankrupt and Elizabeth is accused of using some of his funds for her projects. Her brother’s bank underwrites the debts thus securing her financial security.

1829: Elizabeth and Joseph go to live with their eldest son William to reduce costs and then move on to a smaller house in Upton Lane.

1831: Elizabeth meets the young Princess Victoria and several members of the Royal Family.

1832: She again appears before a House of Commons committee.

1833: Fry visits the Channel Islands and is appalled by the state of prisons there, as they are not under full British control.

1834: She visits prisons in Scotland with her family.

1835: She speaks to the House of Lords on the state of Prisons. The Prison Act makes conditions harsher not lighter favouring the United States model.

1838: She makes an official trip to France with Joseph. She holds a meeting at the Westminster Meeting House which is attended by nobility from Britain and the Continent.

1839: Again visits France.

1840: Elizabeth Fry holds a meeting with Queen Victoria. In june she attends the World Ant-Slavery convention at Exeter Hall, London. Fry opened a new school for nurses which was to inspire Florence Nightingale, who took some of Elizabeth’s nurses to the Crimean War.

1841: She travels in Holland, Denmark and Germany. On her return she holds meetings with Prince Albert and Sir Robert Peel.

1843: She makes her last visit to France.

1844: She goes to Bath to take the waters as she is increasing ill health. Her son William dies and her two daughters Juliana and Emma die of Scarlet fever.

1845: Death of her Brother in law. She attends the Friends Meeting House in Norwich. The annual meeting of the Ladies British Society is held at Plaistow Friends Meeting House to accommodate her illness.

(1849): After her death the first Elizabeth Fry Refuge was opened by the Lord Mayor of London at 195 Mare Street, Hackney and was funded by subscriptions.

When and Where did she Die?

12th October 1845, Ramsgate, Kent, England of a stroke.

Age at Death:


Written Works:

1827: “Observations, on the visiting superintendence and government of female prisoners”.


August 18th 1800: To Joseph Fry at Goats Lane Quaker Meeting House, Norwich.

Site of Grave:

Friend’s Burial Grounds, Barking, Essex, London. Over a thousand people attended her funeral.

Places of Interest:


Friend’s Burial Grounds, Barking.