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Elizabeth Fry

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Elizabeth Fry

John Howard and Elizabeth Fry were two significant prison reformers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although societal attitudes towards crime and punishments were changing rapidly during Howard and Fry's lifetime, both reformers helped to highlight the awful prison conditions to both the general public and lawmakers, at a time when many would have been unaware of prison conditions. The ideals of Howard and Fry can be directly seen in the reforms and laws that would later follow, helping to create the prison system that remains today.

Elizabeth Fry Facts

Born Elizabeth Gurney in 1780 to a prosperous Quaker family in Norwich. She married Joseph Fry, a fellow Quaker in 1800. She made her first visit to Newgate Prison in 1813 and appalled by the conditions, began to campaign for reform. Many in society at the time, particularly the wealthy, would have been completely unaware of prison conditions.

This made Fry’s activism and promotion of these issues in the public sphere all the more significant. Coupled with the ignorance of prison conditions was the fact that many people saw prisons as a temporary holding space for undesirables who would soon be executed or transported. Considering this, many people saw no need to invest in prisons or simply did not care.

John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, Elizabeth Fry English Prison and Social Reformer, Studysmarter.Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), Prison and Social Reformer, Wikimedia Commons.

Fry would create the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners in 1817. She campaigned for better conditions for prisoners through education. She also lobbied the government to introduce prison reforms and stop the need for charitable organisations to assist prisoners.

John Howard Facts

John Howard was born into a wealthy family in North London in 1726. Even though he lived slightly before Fry, many similarities can be drawn between the two. Both were raised wealthy, and they came into contact with the prison system through curiosity in Fry’s case or employment in Howard’s case.

John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, John Howard early English Prison Reformer Portrait, Studysmarter.John Howard (1726-1790), Prison Reformer and Philanthropist, Wikimedia Commons.

Howard became the High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, where his father's property was in 1773 and as a result was allowed to inspect the prisons in which Bedfordshire’s prisoners were incarcerated - a duty most in the role neglected or avoided.

Appalled at the corruption, dirt, disease and sub-standard prison conditions, Howard published a paper describing the many issues in the British Prison System. This included suggesting better hygiene conditions, separation of prisoners and a focus on rehabilitation. His report “On the State of Prisons in England and Wales” would be presented to Parliament and even resulted in new legislation regarding prisons (see below). Howard would die before any further reforms could take place, but he was one of the first figures to raise these issues. Many of his suggestions would be implemented over the years following the reforms beginning in the 1820s.

John Howard and Prison Reform

Howard had some influence throughout his lifetime. For example, upon assessing the condition of British prisons, He gave evidence to the House of Commons in 1774 to highlight the necessity for new legislation regarding prisons. This resulted in two new laws:

  • The Discharged Prisoners Act: This abolished the fee that prisoners were expected to pay before release.

  • The Health of Prisoners Act: This ensured that prisoners should be regularly cleaned and washed.

John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, John Howard Statue constructed in 1890 in Bedford, Studysmarter.The Statue of John Howard(1895) in Bedford erected 100 years after his death in 1890. Wikimedia Commons.

Howard was far ahead of his time in this regard. It must be remembered that during this era, prisons received little or no government funding, were rampant with disease and were seen as holding facilities for undesirables before execution or transportation. Although short of his overall aims, this set a precedent for future reform, which would rapidly occur in the 1820s. Elizabeth Fry would continue Howard's campaigning work, albeit in a different format, with Fry actively engaging with prisoners and lobbying simultaneously.

Elizabeth Fry and Prison Reform

Upon visiting Newgate Prison after being prompted by a family friend in 1813, Fry was appalled by the awful conditions. Despite earlier legislation, prison conditions were no better than they were during John Howard’s time. It was one achievement enacting legislation, but it was much more difficult to procure the funds needed to properly reform the prison system. In 1813, the harsh Bloody Code was still being enforced, and transportation to Australia and execution were common punishments.

Conditions inside the prison were dirty and overcrowded with men, women and children not segregated from each other. Prisoners had to pay for everything, including food, drink and blankets, but many could not afford this. Many prisoners were awaiting transportation to Australia or had not yet received a trial. Her work on prison reform primarily took place in the 1820s, visiting prisons, inspecting conditions and formulating groups to campaign for reform. In 1823 prison reform legislation was finally introduced to parliament, but Fry still maintained as conditions would take years to improve.

Elizabeth Fry Legacy

Fry is still fondly remembered and commemorated to this day. As an activist who in particular pushed for better treatment of female prisoners, she was ahead of her time. It is also particularly notable the fact that Fry came from a well-off background and engaged in activism by choice, not a personal necessity. Fry’s public presence highlighted the issues in prisons and she gained several notable admirers. These included Queen Victoria who contributed to her cause but more importantly Robert Peel, who as Home Secretary would begin the enactment of prison reforms and reforms of the justice system as a whole.

John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, Elizabeth Fry West German Postage Stamp 1952, Studysmarter.West German Postage Stamp depicting Fry in 1952, Wikimedia Commons.

Fry’s activism is largely remembered as targeting prison reform, but she also campaigned for mental asylum reform, better education for women, an improvement in nursing standards, better housing for the poor and against transportation to Australia. It is said that she visited every prison ship for 25 years before it left England for Australia. Shortly after Fry’s death, the Elizabeth Fry Refuge was opened in 1849, which gave temporary accommodation to women released from police offices or gaols. This was seen as the most fitting commemoration, as its practical role continued to assist women whom Fry had helped throughout her life.

Fry and Howard Legacy

Both Fry and Howard were driven by their religious beliefs. This was in line with many of the other prison reformers of the time, who sought to rehabilitate prisoners through hard work, Christian teachings and reflection. The Gaols Act of 1823 finally brought forward more reform, building on the legislation pushed by Howard previously:

  • Allowed prisoner visits from chaplains.

  • Allowed them not to be in chains.

  • Brought in a degree of prison segregation - female guards to watch female prisoners.

Although these reforms were a step in the right direction from Fry and Howard's point of view, they still fell short of the radical reform needed to completely transform the prison system. Due to the nature of prisons at the time, which were designed as temporary holding facilities before trial or transportation, it was almost impossible to properly implement these reforms. Prisons would gradually be constructed, enabling segregation of prisoners, more hygienic conditions and little to no overcrowding.

John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, John Howard Prison Reformer Statue Unveiling, Bedford, 1894, Studysmarter.The formal unveiling of the John Howard Statue, Bedford, 1894, Wikimedia Commons.

Fry would continue to campaign and remain active until she died in 1845. Howard and Fry would both contribute in their own way to significant prison reform and create the prison system we have today: Fry was an outsider while Howard was directly involved in the running of the prisons.

Although neither would live to see the full extent of prison reform, both would see the effect of their activism with subsequent laws in Parliament.

Elizabeth Fry - Key takeaways

  • John Howard and Elizabeth Fry were prison reformers from the late 18th and early 19th centuries who advocated for the radical reform of prison conditions.

  • Although not the only voices calling for prison reform they are perhaps the most well-known.

  • John Howard is often known as the father of prison reform, considered ahead of his time and one of the first voices to call for change.

  • Elizabeth Fry became a well-known reformer and brought prison conditions into public debate.

  • Both Howard and Fry travelled the country to visit prisons and spread their message far and wide, they also used their positions to lobby parliament to introduce legislation which would bring about change.

  • At a time when the justice system advocated punishment, both advocated an approach to rehabilitate and reform criminals.

  • Fry engaged in charity work helping educate prisoners while Howard was more of a realist and wanted to reform the entire prison system as a whole.

Frequently Asked Questions about Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry lobbied parliament for prison reform including segregation by gender, female officers for female prisoners, education and employment and religious instruction. She also set up organisations to directly assist prisoners before reforms were introduced.

Much like Fry, John Howard lobbied parliament for prison reform, travelling to prisons up and down the country. His main tool to raise awareness of prison conditions was his report “On the State of Prisons in England and Wales”. This was widely consumed.

Known as one of the fathers of modern prison reform, John Howard was of particular importance as he is one of the first active prison reformers, in an era where prisons received little or no government support and were only meant to be a temporary arrangement.

The Elizabeth Fry Charity and John Howard Society continue the legacy of Elizabeth Fry and John Howard, continuing their charitable work and advocating for better conditions. The Elizabeth Fry Charity originated as a refuge for ex-prisoners and continues as a charitable organisation today. Based in Canada, the John Howard Society works to support those who have come into contact with the law and promotes crime prevention through education and campaigns for reform in criminal justice.

Elizabeth Fry brought prison conditions to mainstream public attention. She helped educate and rehabilitate prisoners, eventually resulting in significant prison reform and helping end transportation and create hygienic prison conditions. Her legacy can be reflected through the organisations formed in her name, which continue to advocate for prison reform and assist prisoners in getting their life back on track.

Final Elizabeth Fry Quiz


John Howard held what position?

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High Sheriff of Bedfordshire

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In what year did John Howard give evidence to the House of Commons?

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What did the Discharged Prisoners Act abolish?

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The Fee prisoners were expected to pay before release.

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Where did John Howard campaign for Prison Reform?

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How is Elizabeth Fry commemorated?

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On the £5 note

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What did she visit for 25 years?

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Every convict ship bound for Australia

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What year did the Gaols Act pass?

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Which of these did Elizabeth Fry call for?

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Segregation of Male and Female prisoners

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What is one way Elizabeth Fry helped prisoners?

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She educated them

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When did Elizabeth Fry die?

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