She was born in the late spring of 1780 to John Gurney of Gurney’s Bank (nah, never heard of it) and Catherine Barclay of Barclay’s Bank (ohhh, think I’ve heard of that one). By the age of 18 she began regularly collecting clothes for the poor and dispossessed, visiting the sick and setting up a Sunday school in a summer house she had going spare to teach children to read and write.
At 20 she married a banker (because, unlike post-boom Britain, she hadn’t had enough of them) in a ruddy lovely service in the Norwich Goat Lane Friends Meeting House which sounds… like a nice venue. They promptly had eleven children and Elizabeth taking a good look around thought: “I just don’t feel like I’ve got enough sh*t on my plate yet, you know?”
So she got herself down to Newgate Prison, had a look at the appalling overcrowding of prisoners – often held without trial – sometimes literally dying from the conditions in which they were forced to live. She came back armed with blankets and food then set up a prison school on the spot to teach the children who were held along with their mothers. Next she set up the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners, which was the first nationwide women’s organisation, and campaigned tirelessly to change the conditions of prisons. She became so well-known that she was invited to speak to a House of Commons committee on the subject and just casually in the process became the first ever woman to present evidence in parliament. Her campaigning lead directly to prison reforms across Europe.
Once she’d done this she set up a night shelter to care for the homeless and a training school for nurses, which then inspired Florence Nightingale who took a bunch of the nurses Elizabeth had trained out to the Crimea to save people’s lives and hold lamps and that. Elizabeth consistently made the problems of people she sometimes didn’t even know her own, she used her intelligence and determination to secure them better lives. She saw situations that she did not agree with and felt her responsibility to change them. It is for those reasons that when she died at the age of 65 a thousand people lined her graveside to celebrate her life.
Elizabeth Fry, our Badass Woman of the Month, we salute you.
Blog post by Jodie Major for Shoreditch Sisters WI