Elizabeth Fry was born in 1780 at Earlham in Norfolk, the third daughter of John Gurney, a banker in Norwich and member of an old Quaker family. At the age of 20 she married and subsequently had a family of many children; her husband Joseph Fry was the nephew of the founder of the chocolate and confectionery company known as J.S.Fry.
Some of her earliest philanthropic work had begun before her marriage when, impressed by the gospel, she had begun to visit the poor of Earlham, relieving the sick, and forming a class for the education of children. At the age of fifteen she had begun to visit the house of correction at Norwich, and she went on to develop a practical interest in the conditions that women were held under at Newgate Prison. In 1817 she was a key member of an association focused on improving conditions for female prisoners and their children.
Her success attracted the attention of society as a whole, including royalty. At the time, many criminals were transported to New South Wales without any arrangements in place for proper care during the journey or employment on arrival in Australia. Elizabeth Fry made great efforts to induce the government to correct matters and ensure the prisoners were properly cared for during the voyage and that suitable shelter and employment were available to them on arrival.
Fry took an active interest in prisons other than Newgate, sometimes combining her work as a minister of the Society of Friends with her prison work. She travelled extensively assessing the condition of prisons, taking up issues with local authorities, making suggestions, and forming associations to support the practical implementation of reform.
Her influence spread wide. In Russia a royal residence was converted into a palace prison and in France and Prussia her visits helped to underpin certain areas of social reform; for example, the importance of having trained nurses to attend to the sick of all social classes.
Although prison reform was her main work, she was deeply interested in helping relieve other aspects of human suffering. The homeless in London received her attention when she was instrumental in establishing a 'night shelter' having seen the body of a young boy who had frozen to death in the winter of 1819/20. The scheme prospered as, a committee of ladies headed by Elizabeth Fry, lent their support by trying to find employment for those without a job. This work was extended beyond the boundaries of London to places such as Brighton.
In 1828 Fry suffered herself from economic downfall when her husband became bankrupt. Although able to carry on with her work as a minister she was forced to curtail her work with the needy. She died at Ramsgate on 12 October 1845 and was buried in the Friends’ burial ground at Barking.