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Elizabeth Fry (née Gurney) (21 May 1780 – 12 October 1845) was an English prison reformer, social reformer and, as a Quaker, a Christian philanthropist.
Prompted by a family friend, Elizabeth Fry visited Newgate Prison in 1813. The conditions she saw there horrified her. The women’s section was overcrowded with women and children, some of whom had not even received a trial. They did their own cooking and washing in the small cells, where they slept on straw. She returned the following day with food and clothing for some of the prisoners.
She did not return to Newgate until 1816, however upon her return she was able to found a prison school for the children who were imprisoned with their parents. She began a system of supervision and focused on various reforms, including those that became themes for her: segregation of the sexes, female matrons for female prisoners, education, employment (often knitting and sewing), and religious instruction.
In 1817 she helped found the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. In 1819, she wrote a report on prison reform. In the 1820s, she inspected prison conditions, advocated reforms and established more reform groups, including many with female membership. By 1821, with direct support and advocacy from Elizabeth Fry, a number of women’s reform groups came together as the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners.
It was fortunate for all concerned that Quakers believed in the equality of women (250 years before they won the vote), otherwise Elizabeth Fry’s skills and efforts in the area of prison reform might never have been realized. Her insight, persistence, organizational ability and her willingness to see a “divine light” in every person resulted in striking reforms taking place in the manner in which women and children were treated in Newgate Prison.
Most of her life was spent in England, although she did visit Ireland and continental Europe. She also offered advice to the Americas, Russia and Australia. She died in 1845 at the age of 66 years.