FRY, ELIZABETH (1780-1845), English philanthropist, and, after Howard, the chief promoter of prison reform in Europe, was born in Norwich on the 21st of May 1780. Her father, John Gurney, afterwards of Earlham Hall, a wealthy merchant and banker, represented an old family which for some generations had belonged to the Society of Friends. While still a girl she gave many indications of the benevolence of disposition, clearness and independence of judgment, and strength of purpose, for which she was afterwards so distinguished; but it was not until after she had entered her eighteenth year that her religion assumed a decided character, and that she was induced, under the preaching of the American Quaker, William Savery, to become an earnest and enthusiastic though never fanatical "Friend." In August 1800 she became the wife of Joseph Fry, a London merchant.
Amid increasing family cares she was unwearied in her attention to the poor and the neglected of her neighbourhood; and in 1811 she was acknowledged by her co-religionists as a "minister," an honour and responsibility for which she was undoubtedly qualified, not only by vigour of intelligence and warmth of heart, but also by an altogether unusual faculty of clear, fluent and persuasive speech. Although she had made several visits to Newgate prison as early as February 1813, it was not until nearly four years afterwards that the great public work of her life may be said to have begun. The association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate was formed in April 1817. Its aim was the much-needed establishment of some of what are now regarded as the first principles of prison discipline, such as entire separation of the sexes, classification of criminals, female supervision for the women, and adequate provision for their religious and secular instruction, as also for their useful employment. The ameliorations effected by this association, and largely by the personal exertions of Mrs Fry, soon became obvious, and led to a rapid extension of similar methods to other places. In 1818 she, along with her brother, visited the prisons of Scotland and the north of England; and the publication (1819) of the notes of this tour, as also the cordial recognition of the value of her work by the House of Commons committee on the prisons of the metropolis, led to a great increase of her correspondence, which now extended to Italy, Denmark and Russia, as well as to all parts of the United Kingdom. Through a visit to Ireland, which she made in 1827, she was led to direct her attention to other houses of detention besides prisons; and her observations resulted in many important improvements in the British hospital system, and in the treatment of the insane. In 1838 she visited France, and besides conferring with many of the leading prison officials, she personally visited most of the houses of detention in Paris, as well as in Rouen, Caen and some other places. In the following year she obtained an official permission to visit all the prisons in that country; and her tour, which extended from Boulogne and Abbeville to Toulouse and Marseilles, resulted in a report which was presented to the minister of the interior and the prefect of police. Before returning to England she had included Geneva, Zürich, Stuttgart and Frankfort-on-Main in her inspection. The summer of 1840 found her travelling through Belgium, Holland and Prussia on the same mission; and in 1841 she also visited Copenhagen. In 1842, through failing health, Mrs Fry was compelled to forgo her plans for a still more widely extended activity, but had the satisfaction of hearing from almost every quarter of Europe that the authorities were giving increased practical effect to her suggestions. In 1844 she was seized with a lingering illness, of which she died on the 12th of October 1845. She was survived by a numerous family, the youngest of whom was born in 1822.
Two interesting volumes of Memoirs, with Extracts from her Journals and Letters, edited by two of her daughters, were published in 1847. See also Elizabeth Fry, by G. King Lewis (1910).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)