The Tonic Called Courage—How Elizabeth Fry (1780–1845) Transformed the Women’s Prison

Born into a happy and prosperous English family, this deeply inspired nineteenth-century Quaker woman shifted her focus from a life of privilege to the invisible lives of the unwanted and despised. With principled persistence, practicality and deep-felt convictions, she followed her heart and changed how underprivileged women were incarcerated. Elizabeth Gurney Fry (1780–1845) developed her public career at Quaker meetings during a time when society expected women to remain unnoticed behind their husbands (or fathers). Hiding in invisibility might have been the easiest route for Elizabeth’s life journey, but she overcame that obstacle and came to exemplify our sixth courage action: Showcase your talents.

Growing up in the relatively new Quaker Church (Religious Society of Friends), Elizabeth enjoyed a rare opportunity for a girl in those days. She and a boy started a Sunday school that quickly grew to eighty attendees. This early venue helped to define and cultivate her future proclivities. After an American Quaker came to Britain to lead a meeting, Elizabeth sensed a conviction to serve God but only in a very general sense.

When Joseph Fry, a Quaker merchant from London, proposed to Elizabeth, she reluctantly married in 1800, knowing that marriage would hinder her conviction to fully utilize her talents. Following the social conventions of the time, she placed her interests on hold. However, after her father’s death in 1809, Elizabeth shifted her energy from society’s “good life” to society’s discarded spirits. Courageously willing to place her personal integrity at risk and using her well-connected Quaker political associations, Elizabeth visited London’s Newgate Prison in 1813. She found women and children in the dark stench of prison wards living like neglected barnyard animals. The women were drunk, cramped, filthy and almost naked; newborn babies cried incessantly; lice infested clothes and hair; beds consisted of dirty straw; and prisoners mixed together without regard for level of offence. Death was common. The standard concept for the period was severe punishment as a deterrent to crime.

The immense obstacles required to reform this system did not threaten Elizabeth or diminish her convictions. Her desires ran deep as she seemed to “know” what was naturally needed to take on this new project. Piero Ferrucci writes In Inevitable Grace, “She looks around and, seeing a child, takes it in her arms and says, ‘What shall we do for the children?’ This question entirely transforms the atmosphere. Fry has reached at once for the hearts of women who only a moment before showed hardness and cynicism… The inmates now realize that someone cares enough to meet them in the darkest and most frightening place, and they feel grateful. Fry has seen at once what needed to be done. With her courageous bet, she had made the unhappy women realize that they counted.”[1]

This simple act was the first of many Elizabeth would take in doing what was right and, ultimately, showcasing her talents to change her world. “If the contrast between what you consider to be right and what’s happening is too large, the best thing is to go for another job. It is difficult to stay in a position where you feel guilty when you get up in the morning.”[2] Do you feel that your courage makes a difference at work, or are you invisible? If you err toward invisibility, how long would it take to step up your job-seeking efforts? Hopefully you are not caged by other obstacles featured in this book such as blame and denial. Ask yourself: “Are you done with obstacles?”

In 1816, Elizabeth took action to change how Newgate’s women prisoners were treated. Showcasing her many talents, she organized the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners the following year. “Fry’s association put the women prisoners to work sewing and knitting under the supervision of monitors. With a prisoner as the instructor, it also organized a school for women (and their children) to teach them to read the Bible. One of Fry’s rules for the Newgate women declared ‘that there will be no begging, swearing, gaming, card-playing, quarrelling, or immoral conversation.’”[3] Soon the prisoners were able to sell their work for soap and food and, like most human beings, felt a sense of self-fulfillment.

Elizabeth’s courage provided the tonic that the distressed women had desperately needed. Her goal was to assuage the women’s sufferings (including the women sentenced to exile in Australia), treat them with respect and help them develop work abilities. Even at this elementary level, Elizabeth taught the women how to showcase their talents!

Courageous leadership encourages people to learn, face their doubts, and then trust. Putting her simple courageous leadership talents to use, Elizabeth was able to diminish the prisoners’ sense of invisibility and hopelessness and open them to spiritual attentiveness. The Association’s ladies’ committees visited prisons all over the country, and they helped to improve treatment of the insane, establish shelters for the homeless and initiate hospital reforms. World leaders heard of Elizabeth’s talents and sought her out. In 1827, Elizabeth published Observations on the Visiting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners.

In 1828, Elizabeth’s husband’s business went bankrupt, impeding her work and diminishing her prestige. By the mid-1820s, her prison charities lost money, and policies that undermined her work took precedence. But her dedication continued until her health started to fail after a lifelong battle against nervous depression. At times Elizabeth offended the people she wished to influence, but she stood in her convictions and even challenged the Home Secretary to stop a woman’s execution. Controversy is a cousin to courage.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments

of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times

 of challenge and controversy.[4]

Regardless of the cost, Elizabeth stood steadfast to demonstrate her talents and stand up for what she knew to be right. For Elizabeth, her soothing voice, her accountability and her compassion showcased her talents. By 1835, professional wardens and caseworkers had taken over the field to which she had dedicated her life.

[1] Ferrucci, Piero, Inevitable Grace: Breakthroughs in the Lives of Great Men and Women: Guides to Your Self-Realization (Los Angles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc. 1990), 93.

[2] “The Business of Being Happy,” O: The Oprah Magazine, April 2003, 62.

[3] Bourgoin, Suzanne Michele and Paula Kay Byers, Encyclopedia of World Biography Second Edition (Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1998) 135.

[4] King, Martin Luther, http://www.inspirationpeak.com/cgi-bin/search.cgi?search=Martin+Luther+King%2C+Jr.&I1.x=27&I1.y=3, (accessed April 2005).

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