Prison Reformer Elizabeth Fry: Biography & Facts

Instructor: Janell Blanco
We will discuss Elizabeth Fry and how she started the movement to reform prisons and help the less fortunate. After the lesson, there will be a quiz to test your knowledge.

Elizabeth Fry's Biography

Have you ever wondered what jails and prisons were like years ago? Do you want to know who is responsible for helping the homeless and less fortunate as well as the prisoners centuries ago? Well, wonder no-more. In this lesson, we will talk about the Victorian Period and the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. We will discuss how she helped change the prison system and how her work started movements to help the less fortunate.

Portrait of Elizabeth Fry
E. Fry

Elizabeth Fry was born in 1780 in Norwich, Norfolk to the Gurney's who were a Quaker family. When Fry was 18, she was inspired to help the less fortunate. She started by teaching children to read and spent time working with charities in London and later in East Ham. She married her husband, Joseph Fry, when she was 20, and they had eleven, yes, eleven, children - six daughters and five sons.

Fry's First Visit to a Prison

Shortly after she married, Elizabeth visited her first prison. In 1812, she visited Newgate Prison, which was a prison that held both men and women. Fry was distraught over the conditions of the prison. She saw how dirty, unsanitary, and overcrowded the prison was.

Fry just could not sit back and watch the prisoners live in such conditions so she started a movement for change. According to Fry, everyone deserved a chance to learn and reform. Fry petitioned and campaigned for cleaner and more sanitary prison systems. She also worked to reform prisoners.

Let's discuss how exactly Fry became known for her work in the prisons.

Prison Reform

After her visit to Newgate in 1812, Fry decided to stay a night in a prison in 1813. There is no specific reason that prompted Fry to stay in the prison in 1813, but she did and learned firsthand about the conditions of prison.

This actually became common for her to spend nights in different prisons. When she stayed over night at the prison in 1813, she brought in clean clothes and food. She also encouraged the prisoners to take better care of themselves.


Fry started working with the more educated prisoners and had them lead the less educated prisoners. The more educated prisoners taught the other prisoners self -respect and how to properly care for themselves. Fry felt that the more self-respect the prisoners had for themselves the more likely they would be to reform. She had all prisoners clean their cells and discussed proper hygiene with them. Her mission was to reform the prisons and to start with the prisoners by teaching them better self-care habits.

Do you think Fry was the only one involved in the reform?

Volunteer Involvement

The answer is no. Fry wanted to get others involved. She founded the Association for the Reformation of Female Prisoners in Newgate in 1817. This association later became known as the British Ladies' Society for Promoting the Reformation of Prisons. The goals of the association were to provide clothing, instruction, and prepare the female prisoners for employment. The association also wanted to give the female prisoners lessons on the bible and scriptures.

What else did the association do? They taught the female prisoners how to survive in society once they were released. Fry continued her campaign for better prisons until her death in 1845.

We will now discuss how Fry became known as a prison reformer.

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