• Why is Elizabeth Fry famous?

    What she did
    Elizabeth Fry helped people in prison. She visited prisons that were dark, dirty and dangerous. She believed even prisoners should be treated with kindness. She was a brave reformer.

    When did she live?
    Elizabeth Fry was born in 1780. Britain was changing. The Industrial Revolution was bringing new machines and factories. Elizabeth met Queen Victoria when the queen was a young woman. Elizabeth Fry died in 1845.

    How she changed things
    John Howard (1726-90) was England's first prison reformer, but Elizabeth was the first woman to campaign for better prisons. It was unusual for a woman to lead a campaign.

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  • Growing up

    Elizabeth's parents
    Elizabeth was born on 21st May 1780. Her father John Gurney was a banker in Norwich. He also owned a factory.

    Her mother Catherine Bell came from a family of bankers. Catherine was a Quaker. Elizabeth was brought up as a Quaker too.

    The family home
    The Gurney family lived in a fine house, Earlham Hall. Built in 1642, it was already old when Elizabeth lived there as a child.

    Helping others
    Elizabeth's mother believed rich people should help others, through charity work. She took her children to visit poor families, bringing food and clothes.

    Looking after the family
    When Elizabeth was 12, her mother died. Now she helped bring up her brothers and sisters.

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  • Out in the world

    Teaching others
    Elizabeth's father paid for a teacher, and Elizabeth studied history, geography and French. Many poor children never went to school. Elizabeth started a Sunday School for poor children.

    New ideas
    Elizabeth had a friend, Amelia Alderson. Amelia's father talked to the girls about politics and new ideas. Elizabeth was excited by new ideas. She wore a French hat to celebrate the French Revolution. She was not afraid to shock people. She loved bright clothes, especially purple boots!

    Inspired by a preacher
    When she was 18, an American preacher, William Savery, spoke at a meeting. He came to dinner with the Gurney family. Meeting him inspired Elizabeth to do something important.

    In 1800, Elizabeth married Joseph Fry. He was a Quaker too. They set up home in London.

    A busy mother
    Over the next few years Elizabeth had 11 children. One daughter, Betsy, died when only 5. Children at this time caught diseases that doctors could not cure.

    Elizabeth went on helping others, while running her home. In 1811, she started preaching herself.

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  • The prison visitor

    Visiting Newgate Gaol
    In 1813, Elizabeth visited Newgate Gaol, the most horrible prison in London.

    Old Newgate Gaol, 600 years old, burned down in 1780. The new prison was already overcrowded and dirty.

    Public executions
    Outside Newgate, people were hanged. Crowds came to watch, and rich people paid for seats with the best view. Inside Newgate, Elizabeth met Harriet Skelton. This poor woman had been caught using forged (fake) money. Harriet was hanged.

    Women and children in prison
    Elizabeth wanted to help the 300 women and children in Newgate. Small children were shut up with murderers. Children were locked up just because their mothers were in prison.

    Life for prisoners
    Prisoners slept on the floor, on straw. There was only one tap for water. The toilet was a bucket. Many prisoners were ill. Some were so violent that the governor was scared to go into his own prison!

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  • Reforms

    Working in prison
    Elizabeth brought in clean clothes for prisoners. She started a school and read from the Bible. She got women prisoners to knit and sew, to earn money.

    Reform groups
    In 1817 Elizabeth and her friends set up a society to make prisons better. She visited other prisons, and helped other women set up groups to help prisoners.

    What was transportation?
    Some prisoners were sent in ships to Australia. This was 'transportation'. Elizabeth persuaded the government to make prison ships better, and to make sure that women prisoners found homes and jobs in Australia.

    Helping the homeless
    Elizabeth was shocked to hear about a poor boy who froze to death on a doorstep. She set up shelters where homeless children could get soup and bread, and a place to sleep.

    Beggars in Brighton
    In 1824, Elizabeth went on holiday in Brighton. Again she was shocked. So many beggars! She and her friends went out to give poor people food and clothes.

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  • Life and times

    Help in Parliament
    Elizabeth's sister's husband, Thomas Buxton, was a Member of Parliament (MP). He told Parliament about her prison work, and she told MPs what she had seen in Newgate.

    New laws
    From the 1820s, new laws improved prisons. Women warders were put in charge of women prisoners. Warders were paid properly, instead of taking money from prisoners.

    Hard times
    In 1828, Mr Fry's business failed. Elizabeth was not rich any more. She went on preaching, but did less charity work. She still believed poor people deserved good things, such as clean homes, medicines and libraries.

    A school for nurses
    In 1840 Elizabeth started a school for nurses at Guy's Hospital, in London. In 1854, Florence Nightingale took 'Fry nurses' with her to the Crimean War.

    A famous woman
    Elizabeth met Queen Victoria. She visited the king of France and the king of Prussia, to talk about better prisons.

    She was now a famous woman. Some people said she should spend more time with her family, but Elizabeth knew her reform work mattered.

    What Elizabeth Fry did
    Elizabeth Fry inspired others by her example. She was a model for other women. She wrote a book about prison reform. Thanks to her, prisons became less awful places.

    Elizabeth Fry died at Ramsgate in Kent, on 12 October 1845.

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Henry VIII Game

Elizabeth Fry

Take part in the Fantastic Mrs Fry game show.

Fun Facts
  • You can see a picture of Elizabeth Fry on the back of every £5 note.

  • There is a statue of Elizabeth Fry in the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) in London.

  • Joseph Fry's relatives in Bristol were famous for making chocolate.

  • Elizabeth's childhood home Earlham Hall is now part of the University of East Anglia.

  • In Elizabeth's day people could be hanged for stealing clothes from a washing line!

  • Canada celebrates a National Elizabeth Fry Week in May.

Other famous politicians and reformers

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

A person who asks for money in the street.
A plan of action, to make changes.
Helping people in need.
Crimean War
War of 1854-56. Britain, France and Turkey fought Russia.

E to G

A building where things are made using machines.
French Revolution
Uprising of 1789 which removed the king of France and set up a republic.
An old name for a prison.
Person in charge of a prison.

H to L

Industrial Revolution
Changes in work and science that started in the 1700s.

M to O

Member of Parliament
A person elected to make laws.

P to S

Someone who speaks to others about religion.
A member of the Society of Friends, a Christian group.
Someone who works for changes, to make things better.
A group of people with shared interests.
sunday school
Religious school teaching children about Christianity.

T to Z

Someone who guards prisoners.