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Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Fry’

Betsy gasped at the revolting scene before her. Yes, she’d been warned by Stephen Grellet, a family friend, but even his graphic descriptions could not have prepared her for this.

In a space meant for sixty women, three hundred women and children[1] swarmed over every square foot, some barely clothed. Screaming and shouting assaulted the ears.

But the worst offense was the stench of unwashed bodies, vomit, human waste and more which saturated the meager straw on the floor. Small barred windows offered little fresh air for relief.

The place: Newgate Prison in London England. The time: 1813.

Newgate prison. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In that first moment inside Newgate, Betsy knew that “God wanted her to minister hope to these women who were being treated like animals and had lost their desire to live.”[2]

The jailers told Betsy and her companion, sister-in-law Anna Bruxton, not to enter the cells, that the women were bound to attack her.

But Betsy insisted, and they marveled when her quiet presence actually calmed the women. Betsy read the Bible and then prayed for the prisoners. Many dropped to their knees.

After that first visit, Betsy began to dream of better ways to deal with prisoners—especially those guilty of nothing more than stealing apples to feed their starving children. She wondered, Instead of severe punishment as the only purpose of confinement, what if rehabilitation was provided?  

Betsy went to work immediately.  She organized her Quaker friends (a group which quickly expanded) who made clothing for the inmates and their children.

Betsy recruited volunteers to visit the prisoners, read the Bible and tell them about Jesus, then pray with them, just as she did. No doubt many chose to believe in Jesus as a result.

Mrs. Fry reading the Bible to prisoners.

Betsy arranged for clean straw to be brought in regularly. A prison school was established, paving the way for children and mothers alike to escape destitution. Betsy also convinced prison authorities to hire a matron and female monitors for the women.

It’s no wonder people began to call her the Angel of Newgate. But financial backing proved difficult. None of the male-dominated organizations were interested. Nevertheless, Betsy was able to raise support through friends.

As she worked, Betsy prayed:

“Lord, may I be directed what to do and what to leave undone, and then may I humbly trust that a blessing will be with me in my various engagements—enable me, O Lord, to feel tenderly and charitably toward all my beloved fellow mortals.”[3]

News of Betsy’s reforms began to spread. In 1818 Betsy was invited to speak before a House of Commons committee concerning prison conditions. She was the first woman ever brought before such a body as a witness.

Her experience as a Quaker minister helped Betsy deliver a clear and powerful speech. And members of Parliament responded affirmatively. But when she spoke against capital punishment, any action toward prison reform stagnated.

Disappointed but not discouraged, Betsy continued her efforts toward further reforms. At the time many prisoners were shipped to Australia. Women were chained, then transported to the docks in open carts. Crowds gathered to mock and throw all kinds of filth at them.

Betsy initiated change by offering to escort each convoy and keep order if prison officials used covered carriages. They agreed.

She also supplied each woman with a bag of useful items including materials for a patchwork quilt, giving them something to do on the long voyage. Better yet, when the women arrived they could sell the finished quilts.

Inside the hull of the Edwin Fox, the last surviving convict ship. Just 157 feet long, she transported at least 180 prisoners each voyage.

Also in 1818, an American emissary John Randolph visited England to see Betsy’s work firsthand. He wrote, “I have witnessed there miraculous effects of true Christianity upon the most depraved of human beings. Bad women, sir, who are worse, if possible, than the devil himself: and yet the wretched outcasts have been tamed and subdued by the Christian eloquence of Mrs. Fry.”[4]   

Five years later sympathies in Parliament had changed and the Gaols Act of 1823 was passed. It included many of Betsy’s recommendations from three years before.

The new reforms didn’t apply to local jails or debtors’ prisons. Betsy and her brother Joseph traveled the British Isles to gather evidence of the conditions and then presented additional reform legislation.

And yet Betsy accomplished still more. “She established night shelters for the homeless, libraries for coast guards, societies to help the poor, and the Institution for Nursing Sisters to modernize British nursing. She also influenced Florence Nightingale’s training program.”[5]

For more than thirty years Elizabeth Fry championed these causes in the name of Christ. And to think, one year before that first visit at Newgate, she wrote in her diary, “I fear that my life is slipping away to little purpose.”[6]

But of course God would never let that happen to someone who trusts in him.

Addendum: Elizabeth Gurney (1780-1845), married Joseph Fry in 1800; they had eleven children.


Notes:

[1] The youngsters had no one else to care for them

[2] https://setapartgirl.com/story-elizabeth-fry/

[3] From Great Women of the Christian Faith by Edith Deen, quoted at https://setapartgirl.com/story-elizabeth-fry/

[4] https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/to-act-in-the-spirit-not-of-judgment-but-of-mercy

[5] https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/to-act-in-the-spirit-not-of-judgment-but-of-mercy

[6] (https://christiansforsocialaction.org/resource/heroes-of-the-faith-elizabeth-fry/ ).

Sources:

https://christianfocus.org/elizabethfry

https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/to-act-in-the-spirit-not-of-judgment-but-of-mercy

https://christiansforsocialaction.og/elizabethfry

https://setapartgirl.com/elizabethfry

https://encrustedwords.ca/elizabethfry

Art & photo credits: http://www.wikimedia.com; http://www.lookandlearn.com; http://www.wikimedia.com; http://www.lookandlearn.com; http://www.wikimedia.com; http://www.picryl.com; http://www.dailyverses.net.

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