English Quaker Elizabeth Fry (1780 -1845) is well known for her great work in helping prisoners and encouraging prison reform.
She was one of seven daughters born to John Gurney of Earlham, (near Norwich), and one of her brothers was prominent evangelical Quaker Joseph John Gurney. Elizabeth was known to her sisters as 'Betsy.' While living in London in 1813, she became aware of the needs of women prisoners and their children at Newgate prison. She immediately purchased cloth and secured the help of several other women to make warm garments for the new-born babies of the prisoners. When these were ready, she took them personally to the prison and asked permission to enter the women's quarters.
Elizabeth Fry encountered strong objection from the jailer who was concerned for her personal safety. She was finally able to convince him that with God's help she was not afraid and would be safe. After a period of time in which she became acquainted with the mothers, she suggested to them that they start a school in the prison for the children. The mothers agreed, and they chose one of the women prisoners to be the teacher. Elizabeth Fry visited the prison frequently to supervise the classes and it was soon evident that the school was a great success.
Soon the women requested a school for themselves so that they could learn to read, write and sew. This project was begun and was also successful. By this time she had secured the cooperation of several other Quaker women against much opposition from English Quakers. A Bible reading was given each morning and evening with all of the women invited to attend. Many of them did so. Elizabeth Fry, who was a recorded Gospel minister, often brought a scripture message at these meetings.
Soon prison authorities noticed a great improvement in the morale and behaviour of the prisoners. Word spread to other parts of England and to European countries of the changes which had taken place at Newgate. Elizabeth Fry was invited to visit many of the capitals on the continent and explain her procedures to prison authorities. She was accepted in Europe and to a degree in Britain as a great human benefactor, and as a result prison reform followed in many countries.
Through her ministry, especially the many times she waited with women prisoners soon to be hanged, trying to console them in their last hours, she became known as the "Angel of the Prisons."