Thanet Writers Spotlight Elizabeth Fry

David Chitty highlights the life, works and legacy of writer Elizabeth Fry, and spotlights her connection to Thanet.

Elizabeth Fry is perhaps best known for her philanthropic work. She pushed for better treatment of prisoners, she worked with the homeless and opened a nightly shelter in London, she set up a training school for nurses that led to Florence Nightingale becoming the woman we all know and, because of all this, she was honoured by being put on the five pound note between 2001 and 2016.

Elizabeth Fry devoted a large portion of her life towards the betterment of the treatment of prisoners. She would visit women’s prisons to highlight the atrocities that would occur. Fry highlighted issues that we all take for granted today, such as women being under the care of their own sex, or the prisoners’ physical and mental health being monitored and their treatment adjusted if their health declines because of it.

Charles Robert Leslie / Public Domain

She was not without her detractors, however. Despite the fantastic work that she was doing to improve the lives of countless people, this was during a period where women were viewed as second class citizens. People believed that her humanitarian work took away from the time that she should have been spending as a mother and a wife. This didn’t slow her down. Queen Victoria and the then Prime Minister, Robert Peel, were avid supporters of her ideas. Queen Victoria granted her numerous audiences, as well as funding her endeavours, while Peel passed a couple of acts into law that started the improvement of the prison system.

Fry didn’t solve the problems of her day. While reforms where put into place with the idea of making improvements, they were not monitored very well and they didn’t apply to local prisons. But Fry was instrumental in the start of the movement that granted prisoners the same rights and dignities that they needed. She also piloted a voluntary scheme that sent people into the homes of the poor to offer the support and assistance that they needed. This, the Brighton District Visiting Society, proved such a success that it was replicated across the rest of Britain.

Elizabeth also penned multiple books in her time. The first, Observations on the Visiting, Superintendence, and Government of Female Prisoners written in 1827, highlighted her concerns about the treatment of female prisoners, but also set out her beliefs on how these women should be treated. Her second book, Texts for Every Day in the Year, Principally Practical and Devotional, was more of a personal endeavour than her previous work on prison reform. She collected Biblical quotations into one tome; her ‘text book’ as she referred to it. She was a devout Quaker, often carrying her own annotated Bible as well as multiple Bibles to pass out to those she crossed paths with. Her ‘text book’ contained the prayers and scripture that she felt were appropriate for whatever situation may occur. She printed this book and distributed it personally.

Her final book written in 1841, An Address of Christian Counsel and Caution to Emigrants to Newly-settled Colonies, was a sort of how-to guide for people moving away into the newly settled colonies. People were emigrating to America and Australia, amongst other places, and living alongside the indigenous population, and Elizabeth Fry encouraged those emigrating to remember the Christian teachings, to treat everyone they meet as a brother of creation, regardless of their beliefs, culture or colour. She preached to live alongside each other under God, essentially, and to remember that:

God hath made of one blood of all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.

Elizabeth Fry was also an avid journal writer. She did this through most of her life and, after her passing, two of her daughters compiled her many journals and letters into a two volume memoir in 1846.

Elizabeth Fry’s health was always something that was an issue for her. She was routinely unwell during her eleven pregnancies and was often taken to places such as Brighton, Kent or Sussex for recuperation and a ‘change in the air.’ During 1844 and already suffering from ill heath due to age, her son and his two children died from Scarlet Fever. In August of 1845 Elizabeth moved to Ramsgate in Thanet to recover from her health issues, as it was well regarded as a place of pure sea air at the time. She passed away that October. More than a thousand people observed a moment of silence in Ramsgate during her burial, and the Ramsgate Coast Guard flew their flag at half mast, a practice that was normally reserved for the passing of a monarch.

There is no denying that Elizabeth Fry had a massive impact on society during her time, as well as opening the doors for others to make the improvements still needed. Her works and legacy live on, and in Thanet, along with the rest of the country and world, she is remembered.

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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