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Ep 161: Podcast Topic Pick: Elizabeth Fry: The Angel of Newgate

Detail from the £5 note 2002-2017

For our first listene'rs choice episode Fiona is doing a Fry up! (see what I did there!!)

It's Elizabeth Fry the prison reformer, quaker and respectable big bonnet lady from the old five pound note.

Earlham Hall Elizabeth's childhood home near Norwich
Norwich plaque Sleepymyf CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

She grew up in Norwich, looking after her younger siblings after her mother died. Her father was a banker, and the family were quakers, but not especially devout. Until she heard a visiting American preacher at the age of 18, which prompted her to start working with local charities, teaching children to read and write.

Marriage took her to London, and eventually 11 children of her own. A visit to Newgate inspired her into action to improve the conditions for the women of the jail.

Orignal of Fry reading circa 1810 Original Artwork After J Barnett. (Photo by Hulton Archive)

As well as bringing clothes for the prisoners, and starting a school for children, she would read once a week. This is the original image used on the banknote. Compare the two and you'll they took out the standing figures to the right. The bare shoulder of the lady helps balance the composition above, making a focal triangle with Elizabeth's white blouse and hat, and the light on the wall behind. She also makes sense of Elizabeth's gaze. But would have drawn focus from Elizabeth on the banknote.

A more sensationalist version of her visits can be seen here:

Fry visiting Newgate - Welcome collection

I'm not sure where this was originally used. The shackles and whip of Newgate, along with the chaotic bodies beyond the railings and the anxiety of Fry and her companion is a far cry from the picture the quakers published:

Elizabeth Fry is seated at a table in a large room surrounded by men and women prisoners listening to her. Etching and aquatint. httpswellcomecollection.orgworksr8tn4e6v CC-BY-4.0

In all three versions we see something important. It wasn't just Elizabeth on her own, she invited others to accompany her to the prison, to see for themselves the appalling conditions. Listen to the pod to hear part of her description from her first visit.

She was a quaker minister, and clearly a convincing persuasive speaker. She gave evidence, the first woman to do so, to a House of Commons committee in 1818. Two sets of acts reforming prisons followed in the next 15 years.

By then Newgate had grown from original City gate on to a purpose built, deliberately intimidating fortress:

Old Newgate and the version as Fry would have known it in 1810 by George Shepherd

Elizabeth has a statue inside the Old Bailey - which now stands on the site of Newgate. And a bust on the main gates of Wormwood Scrubs prison. Alongside fellow prison reformer John Howard.

Wormwood Scrubs photo by Chmee2 CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED

Staircase window of Liverpool Anglican cathedral. Granpic CC BY 2.0 DEED

She is also remembered with a window in Liverpool Cathedral - a gift of the local Girls Friendly Society, with an image very like the one used on the banknote.

Fry's banknote portrait, based on an engraving by Martha Mary Pearson, and designed by Emma Cook

Foundation plaque for Elizabeth Fry Retreat, South Yarra Philip Mallis CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

She also started homeless shelters, soup kitchens and campaigned for better housing and education for women. The Elizabeth Fry retreat in South Yarra, Melbourne reminds us of the work she did for women being transported to Australia. By giving them material and sewing equipment she gave them something to do on the journey, and a skill to learn, and something to sell when they arrived.

Closer to home a women's refuge was set up in memory of her after her death:

Main picture Maggie Jones 2009, insert Spudgun67 CC by SA 4.0

The Shelter moved out to Reading in 1962 - and is still going strong. This is a former premise in Hackney, pictured in 2009 when it was being used by squatters. The artist Stik has added one of his trademark figures to the boarded up window. As Hackney's 2nd oldest house it is Grade II* listed and currently in the process of being restored and becoming a home/ arts venue (albeit with 21 flats built behind it, to pay for the restoration of the original house.)

Reading seems to be central to Elizabeth's work. From teaching kids as an 19 year old in Norwich, and reading to prisoners in Newgate. She wrote two books about prisons as part of her campaigning. And in 1839 she published this devotional book for female prisoners in France.

The pencil is for scale. It's not less than the width of the pencil, that would be crazy! but it is still tiny.

The first reading is from Psalm 90, verse 9: “We spend our years as a tale that is told.”

She made her story a tale worth telling.

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PS. Her husband Joseph was a banker, and the nephew of another Joseph Fry, who started a chocolate business in Bristol in the 1700s. So she is related, by marriage, to Fry's Turkish Delight and therefore Stephen Fry as well.

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