She was born in Norwich in 1780 to the Gurneys, a wealthy Quaker family. Elizabeth Gurney became a member of Plain Friends, a strict religious group who dressed modestly and refrained from singing and dancing. She devoted her life to helping the needy. In 1799 Elizabeth met Joseph Fry, a tea dealer (and unsuccessful banker). They married the following year and moved to his family home in Plashed, now East Ham. They had 11 children!
When Elizabeth visited Newgate Prison she found women and children crammed thirty to a cell, sleeping on the floor in rows without nightclothes or bedding. They cooked and washed in the same space. Some women were still waiting to be tried. Elizabeth felt she had to do something. She supplied clothing, established a prison school, chapel and matrons to supervise.
In 1817, Fry and eleven other Quakers established the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. Her brother-in-law was an MP and raised the issue in the House of Commons. Elizabeth was invited to give evidence to a Commons Committee on prisons. She advocated treating prisoners like human beings and opposed capital punishment. In the early 19th century people could be executed for hundreds of minor offences.
Some MPs saw Fry as a dangerous radical. However, the new Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel (the father of modern British policing, owing to his founding of the Metropolitan Police Service) was supportive. By the 1820s Elizabeth was a well-known, respected figure, consulted by important men for her professional opinion. This was very unusual for women, but she couldn’t escape rigid gender expectations. The press attacked her, claiming she was neglecting her family duties.
Elizabeth Fry created further lasting improvements for Britain and changed the status of women in society. Queen Victoria was a great admirer and helped fund her charitable work. Like Fry, Victoria successfully balanced her duties as a mother and public figure. Elizabeth died on 12th October 1945. While Quakers do not hold funeral services, over a thousand people attended her burial in Barking.