Born Elizabeth Gurney in Norwich, England in 1780 into a Quaker family, the young Elizabeth quickly earned a reputation throughout the church community. While they wore simple clothes with hardly any adornments, she liked to attend church wearing bright silk gowns and purple boots with scarlet laces.
A bright girl, she learned history, geography, French and Latin, and she was determined to be more than a dutiful wife and mother as was expected, so she visited London as soon as she was old enough. The social life there failed to hold her interest and before long, at the tender age of 18 years, she decided to devote her life to helping others and set up a Sunday school in Norwich, teaching young working children to read and write.
When she was 20, Elizabeth married Joseph Fry, a tea merchant and banker. Through her marriage she became related to the Fry family of Bristol, who founded the famous chocolate business. The couple had 12 children over the next 20 years.
A Pioneer for Social Reform
In 1810 Elizabeth became a Quaker minister, and as part of her duties she visited Newgate Prison in London. Shocked and appalled at the conditions she found, she organised the distribution of warm clothing and clean straw to the inmates. Upon finding a naked newborn child, she picked it up and asked:
Is there not something we can do for these innocent little children?
After her visits to Newgate Prison, a school was set up for the inmates' children and the prisoners were provided with the necessary materials to make, sew or knit items that they could sell. This would provide them with an income, enabling them to provide their own clothing, food and fresh bedding.
News of her pioneering work spread and in 1818 she was asked to give evidence to a House of Commons committee on prisons. She was the first woman ever to do this.
Elizabeth also campaigned for the abolition for the death penalty. Her compassion led to important changes in the transportation of prisoners to Australia. The journey was perilous and she arranged for them to be provided with a 'useful bag' of items to help them survive the trip.
Apart from her work with prisoners, Elizabeth set up 'Ladies Committees'; charitable organisations that helped the poor, provided a training school for nurses, and libraries for coastguards. Appalled when the frozen body of a homeless child was found close to her home, she set about forming another organisation providing soup and a bed for homeless women and children.
Elizabeth's dedication brought her fame and Ladies Committees started up as far away as Germany, Russia and Canada. She travelled a great deal abroad, often dining with royal families. Along with other reformers, she inspected other institutions such as lunatic asylums, schools and hospitals.
In 1845 Elizabeth suffered a stroke and died. She was 65 years old.
In 2002, Elizabeth Fry is to be immortalised as having made an 'indisputable contribution to British history', according to the governors of the Bank of England. She will appear on the reverse of the new issue of the £5 note, replacing George Stephenson.