Rebecca Wallersteiner takes a look at the 19th century’s greatest prison and nursing reformer Elizabeth Fry – the sober face on our fivers.
Only three things frightened Elizabeth Fry, writes Averil Douglas Opperman in her timely and well-researched biography: ‘the sea, darkness and death.’ Drawing on Fry’s family archive, her diaries, personal letters and an earlier biography by Janet Whitby, While It Is Yet Day celebrates Fry’s selfless life 170 years after her death. Long before feminism, Fry combined having 11 children with an extraordinary career reforming prisons, hospitals and mental asylums and reorganising education for women and soup kitchens for the destitute. She established the first systematic training for professional nurses and became a role model to Florence Nightingale who took Fry-trained nurses to the Crimea. Since 2002, Fry’s thoughtful and care-worn eyes, beneath her modest Quaker cap, have been gazing out from our £5 pound notes. From 13th September, Winston Churchill will replace her on new plastic notes, although it will take about a year for the old notes to come out of circulation.
Born in 1780, Elizabeth Fry was the third of 13 children of banker John Gurney and his wife, Catherine. As a girl, Fry loved flirting and pretty clothes – but later gave these up for a simple Quaker lifestyle and dress after she married the London banker Joseph Fry. The title of the book comes from Fry’s mantra, a quote from the Bible that reflected her zeal to spend every waking hour improving people’s lives. Nicknamed ‘the angels of prisons’, Fry walked into prison cells, packed with often violent women, blocking out the ‘gloom, bad smells and pandemonium’ and would stay overnight to raise prisoners’ morale and read to them. She taught the women needlework and how to read to enable them to earn their living and established a school for their children. Shy, yet stubborn and determined, Fry challenged anyone who blocked her path, whether they were royalty, politicians, or thieves. Few dared to stand in her way. The prisons she visited were filthy, disease-ridden and overcrowded with women and children, many of whom had not even received a trial. Supported in her efforts by Queen Victoria, Fry was a major driving force behind new legislation to improve the treatment and conditions of prisoners.
Ever practical, Fry also set up the first training system for professional nurses. With the financial backing of philanthropic wealthy friends including The Queen Dowager and the Bishop of London, she established a nurses’ training home, in London, in 1840. At first, her nurses were called the Protestant Sisters of Charity but that was changed to, simply, Nursing Sisters. Fry chose twenty young women, from respectable but poor backgrounds to be trained for a probation period in one of the larger hospitals and finally admitted as Sisters. They lived in the training home, wore a simple uniform and received an annual salary. The Sisters went out to cases, lived-in or went by the day as required. They did not charge the poor. The wealthy were charged a guinea a week which went towards the costs of running the nursing home. “To train more of these women and make them more readily available, especially to the poor, was Fry’s aim,” writes Opperman. Every nurse who worked a certain number of years was to receive a pension on retirement. Later Florence Nightingale would take skilful Fry nurses with her to assist wounded soldiers in the first group that went out to the Crimea.
Unusually at the time, Fry’s wealthy family encouraged the education and ambition of daughters and to speak freely. Her mother Catherine was a member of the Barclay family who founded Barclays Bank and her father was a partner in Gurney’s Bank. With her connections, Fry could have chosen to be a wealthy socialite, instead of a social reformer. Her sister was Louisa Gurney Hoare, a writer on education.
One of the first women to achieve fame and a hugely successful career within the confines of a nineteenth-century marriage, Fry never seems to have taken a day off. Averil Opperman’s lively biography brings this remarkable woman vividly back to life in a way that her solemn portrait on the fiver in your wallet could never do.
While it is yet Day: The Story of Elizabeth Fry, by Averil Douglas Opperman, published by Orphans Publishing, Hardback, (Price £16.99p) and also as an e-book £7.95
Orphans Publishing is running a social media campaign encouraging people to contribute their last Fry fiver to charity helping a cause that Fry would have helped if she was of our generation: The hashtag is #LastFryFiver