I’ve been told it's rude to discuss money with people, but I feel like we should maybe take a closer look at one of the things we encounter practically daily. So looking in my wallet - to be honest, there wasn’t a great deal of money there - but there was a nice crisp £5.00 note with a portrait of Elizabeth Fry. But how many of us actually know who she is and why she was honoured on our banknote?
Born on 21 May 1780, Elizabeth Betsy Gurney (later Fry once she married Joseph Fry) lived a varied life - a Quaker, humanitarian and philanthropist who is most commonly remembered for her humanitarian efforts and campaigning for the reform of English prisons. She is depicted on the £5 note reading to prisoners in Newgate Prison.
From a young age, Fry was concerned with the welfare of others; at the age of 18, after feeling moved by the preaching of William Savery, she started to take action and began collecting clothes to distribute to the sick and poor. She also setup a Sunday school with the purpose of teaching children to read. But it was a visit to Newgate Prison in London which really triggered Fry to campaign for change. She was shocked by the conditions in which the prisoners were living, sleeping on straw and having to cook and do their washing in the cramped, dark cells in which they were kept.
After witnessing these horrible conditions, Fry returned the next day with food and clothes for some of the prisoners. From then she worked hard for a better quality of life prisoners. Not only did she set up a school to educate children who were imprisoned with their mothers, but she helped found the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. From this, the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners was formed, which is considered by some to be the first ever nationwide women’s organisation. None of this happened overnight. Fry had to take a break from some of her humanitarian efforts due to family commitments, financial struggles and other external factors. But whenever she was able Fry returned to working tirelessly to improve the lives of others.
Thomas Fowell Buxton, MP for Weymouth at the time, was Elizabeth Fry’s brother in law and he spoke very highly of her to his fellow MP’s. Word of Fry’s work began to spread around the country and culminated in her giving evidence to the House of Commons committee on the conditions faced by British Prisoners. She was the first woman ever to do so.
Elizabeth Fry also wrote a book titled Prisons in Scotland and the North of England. In the book, she states that she had spent nights sleeping in the prisons and also invited nobility and other notable members of society to stay in the prisons and experience the conditions themselves.
So as I mentioned, I began looking into the life of Elizabeth Fry somewhat by accident, but what led me to write this is that we can see how she truly is an inspiration. Not only was she incredibly selfless but she demonstrates how it really is possible for change to happen. What started as a fairly local focus, the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate grew into something national which had an impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
Another important message which I think we should pay attention to is that no matter how strongly you feel about a cause, it is okay to take time for yourself and self-care. Fry managed all of this during the 19th century, a time where she would have been shunned for not fulfilling her marital duties, but she persevered and made a truly great impact on the lives of British prisoners.