Spring 1990, Vol.42 No. 1, pp. 37-42.

Doris Boyko:
      Profiles in Spirituality: Angel of the Prisons

Doris Boyko, a retired elementary school teacher, holds a masters degree in education from Rutgers University. The mother of two and grandmother of seven, she lives with her husband in Cranford, New Jersey, where she pursues an active social life and writes articles with a religious emphasis and books for children.

Appalled at the conditions she found at Newgate Prison in London, 1813, Elizabeth Fry undertook prison reform. She became a leader in introducing the first principles of prison management -- female supervision for women, useful employment, and provision for religion. She accomplished more reforms than any woman who had ever lived.

Elizabeth was born in 1780 in Norwich, England, 115 miles northeast of London. She was the fourth of twelve children, one of seven daughters of Catherine and John Gurney. Her father was a banker and wool stapler from a famous old family. The Gurneys lived in a stately red brick mansion called Earlham Hall.

Doris Boyko, a retired elementary school teacher, holds a masters degree in education from Rutgers University. The mother of two and grandmother of seven, she lives with her husband in Cranford, New Jersey, where she pursues an active social life and writes articles with a religious emphasis and books for children.

Elizabeth had a happy childhood playing with her sisters and brothers on sunny lawns and the banks of a nearby brook. The eldest child was only sixteen and the youngest was two when their mother died. John Gurney continued to raise the family with a spirit of togetherness.

The Gurney family had been Quakers, or Friends, for many generations. But although they attended the Sunday meetings, the children did not adhere to the "plain Friends" ways. They didn't use the "plain speech" of thee and thou, or dress strictly. They also took part in card playing, music, dancing, and the theater.

Elizabeth, or Betsy, as her sisters called her, was the delicate one -- shy, sensitive, and easily depressed. She felt she was not as attractive as the others. But when she was feeling well and there was music and dancing at Earlham Hall, Elizabeth took part in the gaiety.


When she was eighteen, Elizabeth experienced a spiritual awakening. At a Sunday Quaker meeting she attended with her sisters, the American Quaker, William Savery, spoke. Later she heard him speak again at a public meeting. Each time she was overcome with emotion and felt spiritually refreshed.

Fearing that Elizabeth was being carried away with emotion, her father tried to divert her. He drove her and her sisters in their silk-lined chaise to visit their cousins in London. For a month there was a whirl of dances, dinners, theater, and opera. But London society didn't interest her.

The next summer, Father took them to Wales and the south of England. There Elizabeth came in touch with another witnessing Quaker. It was then that she became sure about her feelings. That night she wrote in her diary, "I felt myself under the shadow of the wing of God .... After the meeting my heart felt really light and as I walked home by starlight, I looked through nature up to nature's God .... I know now what the mountain is I have to climb. I am to be a Quaker."

From that time on, Elizabeth tried to develop the inner, not the outer, self. What should she do to show her new dedication? She would look about for someone who needed help. In Norwich there were children, undernourished and wizened, who worked all day in the factories. She taught Bible stories to one little boy on Sunday evenings. Others begged to come with him until there was a group of more than fifty.

When Elizabeth saw the poverty of those children, she compared their lives with the rich life she lived and came to believe that all she had was worth nothing without a satisfied conscience. She decided to be a "plain" Quaker. In her quiet way, she gave up music and dancing. She also gave up her fashionable clothes for Quaker garb -- a simply cut dress, a white kerchief folded across the shoulders, and a high, white linen cap.


On August 19, 1800, Elizabeth married Joseph Fry, a Quaker who shared her beliefs. He belonged to a wealthy family that imported spices, coffee, and tea from the Orient. Their home in Mildred's Court in London soon became a meeting place for other Quakers.

In 1801, their first child was born. By 1809, there were six children in the Fry family, so Elizabeth spent most of her time close to home and the children. However, she searched for those who needed care and helped them. She encouraged parents to send their children to school, to have them vaccinat- ed, and to teach them cleanliness. She supplied the needy with clothes and medicines, and introduced many to the Bible.

Through the years while she was becoming famous because of her work in the prisons, she was always the wife and mother around whom the family centered. In all, eleven children were born to the Frys.


In 1817, Elizabeth returned to Newgate Prison, not in a spirit of judgment, but to comfort the women prisoners. At the gate the turnkey shook his head. "You should not go in alone, ma'am. They'll tear off your things and scratch and claw you. And first of all they'll snatch your watch."

Elizabeth Fry stood calmly by until the gate was opened. She walked steadily past the women showing no fear and seated herself on a bench facing the prisoners. She started to read from the book of Isaiah: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth..." (53: 6-7).

Then she read Psalm 24: 3, 4: "Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul into vanity, nor sworn deceitfully."

She read Psalm 27 to urge them to sustain faith by the power of God. Then she read Psalm 69, inviting them to pray when afflicted and to give praise to God. To complete her Bible reading, she used Matthew 7, part of the Sermon on the Mount, and Matthew 20: 1-16, Christ's Parable of the Vineyard.

As a result of Elizabeth's visit, a ray of hope came into the lives of the women prisoners. The Quaker lady had treated them as of some account, and helped them feel self-respect. She spoke of aiding their children, which touched their hearts.

With ten other women, Elizabeth started the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoner in Newgate. The ladies of the committee took turns in going to the prison. They brought materials for the women prisoners to work on, taught them how to sew clothes for their children, and to make things to sell.

Rules were read to the women prisoners. They had to promise to give up drinking, foul language, and other indecencies. At nine A.M., sewing and knitting would begin. At six P.M., there would be a Bible reading. "Would you like to try?" asked Elizabeth. "Let there be a show of hands." Every hand shot up.

Elizabeth opened a classroom for the children in one of the prison cells. Young mothers as well as the children clamored to learn. And the first matron in the history of Newgate Prison was hired to supervise the women prisoners.

By applying Christian principles to the problems she faced, and because she was willing to work and persevere patiently year after year, a transformation took place. The prison began to look like a well-regulated family. Elizabeth's work was so successful that the city authorities adopted her ideas.


In 1818, Elizabeth Fry was asked to speak to the Committee on Prisons in the House of Commons. Her counsel was also in demand in many other English cities. In the interest of better prison conditions, she traveled to Scotland, Ireland, and five times to the Continent.

Six years after her work in Newgate began, John Randolph, a great congressman from Virginia, came to England to visit. He said, "I have seen Elizabeth Fry in Newgate, and have witnessed there miraculous effects of true Christianity upon the most depraved of human beings. And yet the wretched outcasts have been tamed and subdued by the Christian eloquence of Mrs. Fry. Nothing but religion can effect this miracle."

When women convicts were sent to the penal colony in Australia, Elizabeth read and prayed with them. She insisted that the women be transported to the ship in closed protective coaches. One of the departing prisoners called out to Elizabeth, "Our prayers will follow you, and a convict's prayers will be heard." At her instigation, better treatment for the prisoners was also arranged in Australia.

Many kings and princes heard of prison reform from Elizabeth Fry. To the king of France she said, "When thee builds a prison thee had better build with the thought ever in mind that thee and thy children may occupy the cells." When the King of Prussia, Frederick William IV, came to England, he asked to visit Newgate with Elizabeth Fry.

This "Angel of the Prisons" worked until a few months of her death on October 12,1845, when she was sixty-five. Among her last words were these: "Since my heart was touched at seventeen years old, I believe I never have awakened from sleep, in sickness or in health, by day or by night, without my first waking thought being how best I might serve my Lord."

Christ's words indeed spoke to Elizabeth Fry: "I was in prison, and you came to me" (Matt. 25:36).