Who was Elizabeth Fry?

Portrait of Elizabeth Fry Nearly 200 years ago, Elizabeth Gurney Fry, a Quaker, entered Newgate Prison in England. She found women prisoners and their children being held in degrading conditions. For the next 30 years, she devoted her life to changing those conditions. Before her death in 1845, she had inspired the formation of groups of women visitors in every major prison housing women in Britain, and forced the recognition of the need to house women prisoners in separate institutions staffed by women. In her capacity as an expert on the need to change conditions for women in prison, she was consulted by governments and prison authorities in places as distant and disparate as Russia and Australia .

Elizabeth Fry was born in 1780 in England. Her grandfather, the Scottish theologian, Robert Barclay, played an important role in defining early Quaker beliefs. It was fortunate for all concerned that Quakers believed in the equality of women (250 years before women won the vote); otherwise, Elizabeth Fry's unusual talents in the area of prison reform might never have been realized.

Her insight, persistence and organizational ability, and her willingness to see a "divine light" in every person, resulted in striking reforms to the manner in which women and children were imprisoned in London's Newgate Prison. She was soon regarded by many as a leading expert in prison reform and a strong proponent of humane treatment for prisoners.

Inspired by the efforts of Elizabeth Fry and her friends, women in Canada come together in her name to ensure the dignity of each woman and to effect reforms in the correctional system. The first Elizabeth Fry Society was established in Vancouver in 1939. Today, there are 21 Elizabeth Fry Societies across Canada. Volunteerism is an essential part of Elizabeth Fry work and both volunteers and professional staff are involved in program and service delivery.