Friend to Outcasts
by Jewell Johnson
Crime was rampant in England in the early 1800s. Prisons were overcrowded.
Men and women guilty of minor crimes such as stealing huddled in cells with vicious murderers. Concerned government officials were unsure how to fix the problems. In a desperate move, Thomas Fowell Buxton, a member of Parliament, asked Elizabeth Fry, his sister-in-law, to visit the women’s section of Newgate prison in London.
As a young girl, Elizabeth often went with her mother to visit the poor and sick in Norwich, England. Her mother died when Elizabeth was twelve, and the grieving child took on much of the care of her 11 younger siblings.
While Elizabeth was familiar with responsibility at a young age, she was not a serious girl. Her behavior was unusual for a girl of the time. Elizabeth wore colorful dresses and looked for excuses so she wouldn’t have to attend church.
However, that changed in 1798 when an American preacher, William Savery, came to Norwich. His preaching touched young Elizabeth, and later she wrote in her diary, “Today I have felt there is a God.” Her dress became more subdued and she began a Sunday school for children of factory workers left alone while their parents worked. She also became an exhorter in her church.
After marriage to Joseph Fry in 1799, and later the responsibility of raising their 11 children, Elizabeth continued to find time to help the destitute.
Then hard times struck the Fry family. Elizabeth’s outreach to the needy was curtailed when her five-year-old daughter became sick and eventually died. At the same time, her husband experienced financial losses. But again in 1817, her brother-in-law prodded her to visit the women’s prison. Elizabeth’s friends warned her, “It’s too dangerous.” Even prison officials discouraged the visit, saying the prisoners were “savage.” Nevertheless, Elizabeth went to Newgate, and what she observed that day shocked her. Three hundred lice-ridden women and their children crowded into four small rooms. They slept on dirty straw. Prisoners received one small loaf of bread a day. Fights and riots were common, and bullies ruled the women with cruel treatment.
With no medical care, the prisoners became sick and died from typhus and other diseases. Babies were left to die when their mothers were hanged or shipped to Australia.
Upon entering the prison that day, Elizabeth opened her Bible and began to read to the prisoners. She prayed with them, and gave attention to the children. A few days later, Elizabeth returned with her friends carrying warm clothes, food, and fresh straw for the women and children to sleep on. They also brought needles, thread, and cloth so the prisoners could sew and knit. Eventually Elizabeth convinced the authorities that the children needed a school and classes were begun, taught by literate prisoners.
The evening before an execution was an especially difficult time for the Newgate prisoners. Riots broke out. As the women ranted and screamed, officials had a difficult time keeping order. Elizabeth met the crisis by sharing scripture verses with the accused and praying for them.
To reduce England’s overcrowded prisons of that time, scores of women convicts were shipped to Australia. For 20 years, Elizabeth and her friends visited ships before they left England’s shores. They gave the prisoners bags of supplies so the women could sew during the voyage. Elizabeth hoped by making and selling items, the women would not have to resort to prostitution to survive once they reached their destination. Later, England outlawed the practice of transporting criminals to Australia.
Elizabeth’s work for prison reform came to the attention of Queen Victoria. In 1818, Parliament invited Elizabeth to testify before the House of Commons on prison conditions, the first woman to address the body. This led to the Prison Reform Act of 1823, which greatly improved England’s prison system.
For 45 years Elizabeth was a voice for those unable to speak for themselves. She brought comfort and hope to thousands of neglected prisoners, and many went on to become responsible citizens.
Elizabeth Fry did indeed minister to Jesus: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40).
Jewell Johnson lives in Arizona.