All roads for the desperate poor eventually led to Newgate Prison. Righteous reformer Elizabeth Gurney Fry, in an act of selfless determination, shocked the nation when she founded a Quaker ministry inside London’s chapel of the damned. By the time Agnes and Janet were headed to Newgate, Fry was already a London celebrity.
Elizabeth’s husband, Joseph Fry, accepted his wife’s commitment to a higher purpose. He also tolerated her blatant defiance toward how London ladies were supposed to behave. In return, every day of the week except Sunday, Mrs. Fry rousted Joseph out of a deeply stuffed parlor chair, rallying the ambition that too often escaped him. On workdays, the dutiful Mr. Fry opened their front door and headed out to his bank’s counting house, conveniently located just below their living quarters at Mildred’s Court. In the morning fog, Joseph sometimes tripped over the skirts of women and children who waited patiently on the front stoop. Word had spread on the streets near Bishopsgate, Poultry, and Cheap-side about a Mrs. Fry who helped destitute women, offering them fresh food and clean clothing. “In very hard winters she had soup boiled in an out-house in such quantities as to supply hundreds of people with a nourishing meal.”1
Between the births of her children, eleven in all, Elizabeth expanded her humanitarian projects. Determined to stop the spread of smallpox, she vaccinated families who lived in remote villages and in London’s darkest slums. She established a girls’ school in Plashet for the children of laborers and servants, set up libraries for men stationed at remote coastguard locations, and founded a nursing school that provided free care for those without funds. Years later, Florence Nightingale, a distant cousin, would take some of Fry’s well-trained nurses to the Crimean War front. Still, this was not enough.
In a coincidental turn of fate, just as Elizabeth was searching for her own spiritual purpose, a French aristocrat turned American Quaker minister knocked on her door at Mildred’s Court. On a cold, rainy afternoon in January 1813, Stephen Grellet was shown into the Frys’ drawing room, the well-known British Quaker William Forster at his side. A striking figure with ragged silver hair, dark bushy eyebrows, and a prominent nose, the pockmarked but graceful Grellet could barely contain the fullness of his heart.
Grellet was an outspoken reformer, who devoutly followed the tradition of Quaker empathy and compassion for society’s outcasts. Drawn to the cause of London’s forgotten poor, Grellet was appalled to learn that nearly a million faced imminent starvation. As the New Year approached, Parliament refused imports of wheat and oats in an effort to maintain the high price of British-grown grain. Artificially inflating the price of grain backfired. It undermined the farmer and caused a dramatic spike in crime as thousands fled the fields and flocked to the city for work that did not yet exist. Bread had become a luxury item in London. The poor either suffered starvation or took desperate measures to feed themselves, resorting to theft and prostitution. Some abandoned their children. Others blinded reality with London’s cheap and plentiful gin.
Stephen Grellet rejected the ruling class’s prevailing belief that the destitute deserved their suffering. In January 1813, he called a meeting for thieves, pickpockets, and prostitutes at the St. Martin’s Lane Quaker house. It was an unprecedented request, and no one knew what to expect. The meeting was called for seven P.M. because most among this group were considered “nighthawks.” Surprisingly, thousands attended, most barely twenty and nearly all homeless. Grellet understood the depths of their misery and wrote: “I wept bitterly over them. The lofty heads, the proud looks were brought down. I have seldom known such brokenness and so general as it was that evening.”2 The police chief magistrate who watched as the crowd exited deemed Grellet foolish and offered to collect all the scum in London for his guardianship. Grellet declined his taunting offer but used the opportunity to ask for permission to visit London’s prisons, where he had heard that even young children were housed.
Grellet quickly filed the required petitions to visit Newgate Prison, “having religious opportunities in the many separate apartments, where the miserable inmates are confined.”3 Once inside, he tried to comfort the boys and men who awaited hanging. When he asked to visit the women’s quarters: “The gaoler endeavoured to prevent my going there, representing them as so unruly and desperate a set that they would surely do me some mischief . . . concluding that the very least I might expect was to have my clothes torn off.”4 Grellet refused to be turned away.
On that auspicious January afternoon, over a glass of brandy to chase away the biting winter chill, Stephen Grellet told Elizabeth Fry, rather breathlessly, what he’d just seen. About three hundred half-naked women and children lived in a cell about forty by forty-two feet in size, allowing each inmate a space about two feet by two feet, barely enough to sit down. A few among them had committed murder or arson. Most were chained and imprisoned for stealing a watch, a dress, a piece of cloth, or a cloak. For minor misdemeanors, prisoners waited up to six months to be assigned a ship that would transport them to Van Diemen’s Land, known today as Tasmania.
Grellet found the women gaoled in conditions much worse than those he had witnessed for Newgate’s men. His aristocratic ease became completely unhinged upon visiting the women’s sick ward. “On going up, I was astonished beyond description at the mass of woe and misery I beheld. I found many very sick, lying on the bare floor or some old straw, having very scanty covering over them, though it was quite cold; and there were several children born in the prison among them, almost naked.”5
Grellet never had to ask Elizabeth for her assistance. Fry immediately volunteered to visit Newgate to see for herself. As it happened, her friend Anna Buxton was visiting when Grellet arrived. Within hours of his departure, the Fry household grew alive with activity. In the twinkling light of the silver candelabras, Elizabeth and Anna immediately began making flannel clothes for the infants at Newgate. Throughout the night, a small parade of Quaker neighbors arrived at Mildred’s Court to assist with the sewing.
The very next day, Mrs. Fry awoke with a fire in her belly as she pulled back the curtains around her four-poster bed. Turning down the cotton sheet underneath several wool blankets and a silk coverlet, Elizabeth felt none of the malaise and depression that had plagued her so often since her mother’s death twenty-one years ago. She was on a mission.
As mistress of Mildred’s Court, Elizabeth’s first order of the day was to attend to her household duties and give the staff their orders. Technically, her address was St. Mildred’s Court, but Quakers do not believe in saints, so the Fry clan simply shortened the name to suit them. Hustling her husband, Joseph, out of bed and into his dark grey waistcoat was a daily ritual. They were served their breakfast in the parlor before Joseph headed downstairs to his office at the family bank. For Elizabeth, getting dressed was somewhat of an ordeal. Her lady’s maid had already laid out a corset and five starched white petticoats. After a quick curtsy, she applied the ornate silver hook and cinched tight Elizabeth’s corset, stiffened with whalebones and not at all comfortable. Then she layered one petticoat at a time, pulling and tugging each into place. As a final adjustment, she fluffed Fry’s billowing skirt and pulled on the creases of the puffed beret sleeves. Decorative but impractical, they added to the illusion of an hourglass. Together, they accentuated the feminine waist, even if it was a bit round like Elizabeth’s.
Fry’s maid drew back the heavy, deep crimson silk damask curtains, fastened with fringed tiebacks, that protected Mildred’s Court from London’s boisterous streets and blackened air. Elizabeth looked out her bedroom window and watched a relentless drizzle fall across the slick black slate roof of the family’s tea house. She walked to her dressing room, opened the enormous ceiling-high carved mahogany wardrobe, deliberately chose a simple black wool cloak, and then reached for another. Mrs. Fry would need a second shawl to protect her from the penetrating dampness.
Before heading downstairs, Elizabeth looked in on the eight children she had given birth to during the first twelve years of her marriage. They were currently under the watch of her housekeeper, Jane King. Efficient, albeit haughty and distant, Miss King ensured that Elizabeth’s children had fine care, but still Mother Fry worried about her absences from home. Entries in her diary reveal an emotional struggle over her responsibilities as a mother and her ordained purpose: “May I not be hurt in it, but enabled quietly to perform that which ought to be done; and may it all be done so heartily unto the Lord, and through the assistance of His grace.”6
The clocks in the house began to chime, first the large grandfather clock in the hallway, seconds later the mantel clock kept under glass to protect its delicate works from persistent, penetrating coal residue. Eight o’clock; the day was well underway. Elizabeth expected Anna Buxton at any moment. Hours before, the downstairs maid had lit a fire to warm the breakfast parlor, replenishing the hand-carved coal scuttle at the base of the fireplace. With no central heating, Mildred’s Court was filled with thickly stuffed lounging chairs and velvet couches that helped insulate the rooms from the blustery cold outside. Typical upper-class taste in décor was characterized by excessive detail in which elaborate wallpaper met floral-scrolled carpets beneath embossed, patterned ceilings. Ostrich feathers in painted vases accented shelves of cluttered bric-a-brac that required endless dusting. Crowning this visual carnival, treasured family portraits covered virtually every available space.
Long before sunrise, the downstairs maid had filled several bucket loads with about thirty pounds of coal. The work was not easy, but employment as a housemaid offered the coveted benefits of a reasonably warm room, just off the kitchen, and three hearty meals a day. Leftovers were plentiful in this grand home. A typical breakfast included porridge and salt, eggs and potted beef, toast, and butter. This cornucopia was presented on the finest translucent china covered by monogrammed silver domes. The feast filled the Frys’ mahogany sideboard to overflowing. On this gloomy London morning, the starched white linen tablecloth brightened the dark English oak that paneled the breakfast room. Logs crackled in the marble fireplace. A sliver of steam rose from the gleaming silver teapot while Elizabeth silently sipped from the gold-rimmed cup she held between her fingers.
From outside, Elizabeth heard the chains rattling as Anna Buxton’s coach delivered her just in time for morning tea. Anna and Elizabeth had been friends since childhood. Anna’s brother Thomas Fowell Buxton was a fervent Quaker abolitionist, and later Member of Parliament, who was married to Elizabeth’s sister Hannah. He would soon join Elizabeth and his sister in their work to save the women who awaited exile inside Newgate Prison, including Agnes McMillan and Janet Houston.
The Bone Gatherers
Mrs. Fry, anxious to head straightaway to the prison, tied her bonnet securely under her chin and fastened a satin shawl at her bosom with a rose pin made of wool. Her carriage soon arrived, and the footman obediently draped Elizabeth’s outer cape over her shoulders. He held her elbow to steady her as she climbed into the small black buggy that creaked under the weight of its new cargo. Sitting bolt upright just as her mother had taught her, she directed the coachman to Newgate without delay.
The horses tensed, steam blowing out of their nostrils as they shifted nervously against the leather harnesses. Elizabeth and Anna heard the crack of the whip, the wheels began to roll, and with a lurch they were on their way. The Fry horses had their own groomsman, who fed them a steady diet of fresh oats and barley, a feast worthy of envy by most of London’s poor. Although Mrs. Fry erred on the side of modesty in public displays of status, even riding in an open carriage in the winter, her horses’ smooth coats glistened with impeccable care and signaled her family’s wealth. Elizabeth liked to keep pretense at bay. In conspicuous contrast, her sisters, Louisa and Hannah, preferred the comfort of a glass coach for their leisurely excursions to the fashionable St. James Park. Her older siblings never fully understood Elizabeth’s affinity for helping the unfortunate. Louisa felt supremely annoyed by the intrusion of London’s downtrodden on their family visits, remarking: “We have had a regular Mildred Court day, poor people coming one after another till twelve o’clock, and then no quiet.”7
Distanced and detached from the true city, the well-to-do often carried pampering to heights of the absurd, taking extreme measures to avoid contact with the world inhabited by most Londoners in 1813. When a woman of means shopped for a dress in the upscale West End, she expected to be carried from the carriage across the shop’s threshold, her dutiful servant careful not to soil her satin slippers or the bottom of her gown. With a well-positioned ivory-handled fan, she need not look upon the paupers that were nearly everywhere. More than seven hundred thousand people, 85 percent of the city’s population, lived in tenement slums or in the alleyways. Hay carts, sheep, pigs, beggars, street dwellers, and pickpockets all jostled for survival in the constant commotion pulsating through London’s dark heart. Children battled with rats over scraps of rotting food.
For many, adults and children alike, prison offered more comfort than life on the street, including the certainty of a free piece of bread. Purposely committing a crime was a gamble on their future the desperate were willing to take. Depending on the judge, they either gained food and shelter inside a gaol or risked transport to Van Diemen’s Land.
As Elizabeth’s coachman turned onto the notoriously bad Cheap-side, tiny figures scampered around the carriage in a slippery blend of horse manure, dead rats, human waste, and rotting refuse. These were the bone gatherers. Ragged six- and seven-year-olds grabbed at the prime bone pickings, their barefoot toes bleeding into the gutter’s muddy winter sludge. Bone ash was mixed with clay to strengthen the ceramic that lined the shelves of the wealthy. If the bone grubbers were lucky in foraging for a key ingredient to delicate bone china, they earned enough to pay for a meal.
If one of these street urchins had parents, his mother probably worked as either a laundress or a prostitute. Perhaps his father was one of the few who hadn’t been drafted and was able to find work in the winter of 1813, when jobs were hard to come by. Gin, however, was cheap and all too easy to find, so there was a good chance that father, mother, or both were drunks. Even children stumbled through the byways in an alcoholic stupor, fed beer to fill their stomachs.
While the Fry children fancied pony rides and tea parties, the poor were chained to their lot in life like donkeys to a cart. Some crawled through the alleys, stuffing into their pockets the dog dung they could sell to tanneries, where it was used to cure fine leather. From baby to toddler to drone, as soon as a child could carry a bucket or hold a tool, he or she was put to work. Physical aging arrived early, stealing youth and health. As in Glasgow, half of London’s children died before age five, poverty’s only blessing offering them an early grave and an end to their suffering.
Mrs. Fry’s carriage rolled through the cobbled streets now bustling with activity. As the morning fog lifted, dead horses, drunks, and sometimes infants were found decomposing, stiff, mouths agape, and covered with flies. Despite the handkerchief pressed to her nose to block the cold and filter the soot, Elizabeth could not help but gag on the noxious vapor of raw sewage and decay that clung to everything, and everyone, on the streets of London.
“I Come as a Thief ”
The street grew noisier as the Frys’ driver arrived at the corner of Newgate Street and the Old Bailey. The coachman began to slow the horses when the carriage approached the gaol entrance. In the flesh-chilling morning rain, Elizabeth and Anna came face to face with Newgate’s stoic presence. The prison had been rebuilt after a fire in 1780; creator George Dance’s design drew on the school of architecture terrible, a style intended to evoke terror in those on both sides of its walls. London’s Lord Mayor William Domville eagerly and enthusiastically promoted Newgate’s sinister reputation, believing that fear deterred crime.
The very structure of the building was designed to undermine the prisoner’s spirit in every possible way. Female statues depicting Liberty and Plenty interrupted the harsh masonry blocks under the protection of sheltered niches in the wall. The cornucopia of plenty taunted those for whom there would be no feast of abundance. A French-capped Liberty mocked the freedom lost by those within the granite walls.
Newgate’s ominous exterior characterized what novelist Henry Fielding described as a “prototype of hell.”8 Iron chains carved above the main entrance offered a stern warning as newcomers were admitted into this human-made purgatory. A façade of windows composed of stone, rather than glass, reinforced the prison’s impenetrability and purposeful claustrophobia. Bricks filled in framed indentations where light should have entered, suggesting a cruel joke by designer George Dance. Newgate’s real windows faced inward and delivered a ridiculing message to the damned: This hell hath no escape. His design allowed the prisoner not a single glimpse of the outside world. Instead, the windows faced the inner yard, where fellow inmates were marched in circles for exercise.
Elizabeth and Anna looked up at the chains and shackles carved over each doorway, representations of the leg irons worn by prisoners inside who could not afford to pay an “easement.” Inscribed on a sundial just above the menacing iron door were the words Venio sicut fur (I come as a thief). The two Quakers had passed Newgate many times but had never considered entering.
The horses came to a stop. Newgate’s center gate opened, and the driver helped the ladies down from the carriage. John Addison Newman, the gaol’s governor, greeted them personally. Bundles of flannel baby gowns tucked under her arm, Elizabeth explained the reason for their visit. They wanted to attend to the physical neglect of the infants and the spiritual deprivation of their mothers. This was a highly unusual request, and Governor Newman planned to dissuade the ladies from their folly. Seldom did outsiders find the courage to enter this dreary enclave. Fewer still dared visit the Newgate females, a place where no male risked entry by himself, fearful of assault by the unruly creatures.
The governor had no choice before a determined Elizabeth Gurney Fry. He grudgingly acquiesced to her request and unlocked the inner gates to the gaol. The ladies were led to the infirmary, housed in a small room on the prison’s second level. At first, Elizabeth and Anna stood motionless outside the tiny quarters. Gagging from the reek of death, the two needed a moment to regain their composure. Nothing in their serene souls could prepare them for the scene before them: A woman was in the process of removing clothing from a dead child to put on her own suffering baby. Without saying a word, Elizabeth and Anna untied the flannel bundle and passed out the gowns to women too ill to react. They had not brought enough clothes to outfit every infant and would need to sew more gowns for another day’s visit.
Mindful of her promise to Stephen Grellet, Mrs. Fry asked to be taken to the common criminal ward. Governor Newman reluctantly escorted the women to the turnkey station that guarded the women’s wing. An agitated turnkey, responsible for keeping the cells locked, issued a stern warning to the two ladies, just as he had cautioned Stephen Grellet. The gaoler was certain that the caged women would injure the do-gooders and that he alone would be held responsible. He pleaded with the surely misguided women, imploring their retreat from the gaol’s dark recesses and its subhuman population.
There would be no turning back. The tall Quaker stood her ground, refusing to leave. The turnkey saw the answer in her eyes and shook his head. If he could not spare foolish Mrs. Fry from the vile and the violent, he could at least protect her material possessions. Fearing that within minutes her gold watch would be stolen, he beseeched her good sense to remove it. Once again, Elizabeth stood her ground. Shrugging his shoulders in resignation, the turnkey plunged the iron key into the gate’s lock, and the bars swung open.
Bibles in hand, Elizabeth and Anna entered the cavernous tunnels that connected Newgate’s wings. The gas lanterns that lit the passageway to the women’s ward seemed to whisper a warning to the two intruders, like the sound of the wind before a storm. The gate slammed shut, and the outside lock fell against the latch. Its impact reverberated down the stone hallways with a sorrowful shudder. The two were undeterred, though a terrified Anna relied on her friend to lead the way. A painting by Henrietta Ward depicts a later Newgate visit and shows another volunteer hiding behind Elizabeth’s ample frame, eyes wide with trepidation, hands clutched tightly to Fry’s. In the same painting, Elizabeth appears at ease, her countenance calm and saintly.
The ladies began to walk hand in hand. Their footsteps reverberating through the long hallway made a sound as though there were many people walking with them. Reluctantly, the turnkey led the two ladies toward the deafening outburst of bellows, screams, sobs, and cries that emanated from the hallway’s end. Bony, blackened hands grasped at the cell’s iron grating, begging for notice. Unbolting the barred door, lifting the heavy latch that creaked under its own weight, the turnkey took one more look at these silly women before ushering them across the cell’s threshold. He sighed, then retreated quickly and snapped the gate shut.
Three hundred women and children began to claw their way forward, moving as a teeming mass of misery, fascinated by the two ladies who wore clean clothes. The scraggly group deduced their upper-class status immediately by their polished fingernails and clear skin. Elizabeth stepped forward to meet her audience, revealing her “tall, large figure . . . with eyes small but of sweet and commanding expression—a striking appearance, not plain, but grand rather than handsome.”9
A frenzied jumble of the innocent, the mad, and the condemned greeted them. Anna’s brother, Thomas Fowell Buxton, described what confronted another Quaker upon visiting Newgate for the first time: “The railing was crowded with half-naked women, struggling together for the front situations, with the most boisterous violence, and begging with the utmost vociferation. She felt as if she were going into a den of wild beasts, and she well recollects quite shuddering when the door closed upon her, and she was locked in with such a herd of novel and desperate companions.”10
In this communal cage, young girls who had stolen small items to fight off starvation and get through another day were trapped with murderers, violent felons, shivering babies, and the feeble-minded. Lurking in the shadows, tormented souls would explode at the slightest provocation with rage so overwhelming that it oozed from their every pore. Mayhem and madness were the order of the day. Pelting the air with foul language and encouraging fights among the inmates helped the condemned pass the time and release their seething frustration. The crowd surged forward again, tearing at the ragged clothing on the silhouetted figures closest to the entry. The rowdiest prisoners called out to the two well-dressed Quakers in a chorus of competing voices begging for money.
A few pence went a long way in gaol, where everything was available for the right price. Bribes to the guards could buy a pint of beer from Newgate’s prison tap, an extra source of income for the wardens. The tap flowed continuously, even when food ran out. Cheap gin was also for sale. Consequently, many prisoners were drunk day and night.
Still adjusting to the dim haze of near darkness, Elizabeth and Anna looked toward the blurry outlines surrounding them. They were the ghostlike remains of women whose stooped frames clung tenuously to the remnants of existence. As the two Quakers moved closer, they were greeted by vacant stares, many too numbed from life’s weariness to speak.
Heavy-lidded eyes crusted thick with grit and infection opened slowly as women from all corners squinted to focus on their unexpected visitors. Their matted hair ran wild with lice and fleas. Most had learned to ignore the live vermin that continually ravaged their tired bodies. Rats brushed against their flimsy clothing, skittering around their legs. Beetles and cockroaches moved in a constant parade across the floor, where the women lived, ate, and slept. Lying on the stone floor, scratching half heartedly at scabies and other itchy rashes born of filth, scores of women and children lay covered in oozing sores raw with infection and neglect. Most were pockmarked. Some stank from the rotting odor of syphilis. Others squatted along the cell’s perimeter to relieve themselves.
The two finely dressed ladies had no choice but to breathe in the cell’s stagnant air, thick with the taste and smell of urine, unwashed bodies, and rotting afterbirth from infants born in prison. Unshaken by the stench, Elizabeth stood straight up to her full height and stepped forward. Immediately, her heels sank deeply into the muck of mud, menstrual blood, rotting straw, and human excrement carpeting the entire cell. Never once did Elizabeth look down, her blue eyes level with the curious mass that pressed closer to examine her. Not for a moment did the Quaker minister avert her glance in the manner expected from a woman of her stature.
Captivated by the three hundred pairs of eyes riveted on her face, Elizabeth felt drawn to a young mother who cowered against the stone, anxiously cradling a tiny infant to her breasts. Eyes lit with compassion, so many times a parent herself, Fry reached forward to comfort the mother and child, unfazed by the lice as she stroked the baby’s fine hair. This gesture of touch, pure in intent and unmarked by judgment, composed the chaos and hushed the room to an eerie silence. The Quaker’s gentle manner shocked the condemned as it drew them yet closer.
Compassion was a rare commodity at the turn of the nineteenth century. The wealthy rarely spoke to those outside their class, save to bark orders at their servants. Neither Elizabeth nor Anna carried the slightest hint of moral condescension into Newgate’s dungeon. Three hundred women immediately connected with the two Quakers, the lines of caste erased by an act of human decency. In this grey mildewed pen, the boundary between England’s black-and-white social orders dissolved for an instant. Dignity entered a setting where it seemed out of place but where it took hold in its purest form.
As the crowd pressed against her, Elizabeth seized the moment to introduce herself and her friend Anna: “I am Mrs. Fry and this is Miss Buxton.” Even among the condemned, etiquette demanded certain polite customs. Fry spoke plainly in the Quaker style, addressing royalty and prisoners alike as “thee” and “thou,” well-mannered references that would have sounded quite strange to her Newgate audience. It was unlikely that a lady of Elizabeth’s pedigree had ever addressed these petty thieves and prostitutes with this courtesy. Acknowledging them as one woman to another, the Quaker minister asked: “Tell me. What doest thou need?” This question, luxurious in its directness and simplicity, kindled a bond between Mrs. Fry and London’s forgotten that lasted many decades. The answer to her question would also ignite social change and prison reform across Europe and around the globe.
Minds numbed by the January cold, the mob paused to consider the Quaker’s request. A momentary reprieve of silence reverted to Newgate’s cacophony: the hollow cough of tuberculosis, the whimper of a sick baby, moaning, bickering, and the occasional piercing wail of the insane. The women with the sunken eyes and yellowed teeth searched to understand Mrs. Fry’s intention. It was puzzling to receive an offer of hope, but the initial shock soon dissipated, and the throng began to speak all at once.
Quickly the group reached consensus and despair dissolved into eager anticipation of the touch and scent of clean cotton against the skin. This was the first wish for the half-dressed women in torn and filthy rags. The indignity of near nakedness tugged at them in a way that an empty stomach did not. If Mrs. Fry could do anything, their first request would be for clean clothes. A simple shift would suffice.
Mrs. Fry promised the women she would return with a dress for each of them. Anna, silent throughout the visit, spontaneously fell to her knees and began to pray. Elizabeth joined her friend in divine supplication. Several of the prisoners followed, kneeling rather awkwardly on the wet floor. In the eerie darkness, the embossed gold lettering on Fry’s Quaker Bible flashed through Newgate’s shadows. Stillness enveloped the cell in a dreamlike state of heavenly quiet. Elizabeth described it in her diary: “I heard weeping, and I thought they appeared much tendered; a very solemn quiet was observed; it was a striking scene, the poor people on their knees around us, in their deplorable condition.”11
In the early nineteenth century, Quaker views of the poor differed radically from those of other Christians. It was every Friend’s challenge to lift people up, whereas the prevailing Church of England view considered poverty a condition of sin resulting from the indigent’s own wickedness and self-damnation. Early Quakers had been persecuted vigorously throughout Europe. In England alone, fourteen thousand were imprisoned during the reign of Charles II, the “merry monarch” who ascended the throne in 1660. During that time, members of the Society of Friends were stripped naked, placed in stocks, publicly whipped, and gaoled for refusing to take an oath of allegiance to the Church of England. At the same time, its members in the American colonies were executed for practicing their religion. The most famous Quaker of all, founder George Fox, had been imprisoned at London’s Newgate Prison, as had William Penn, the Quaker who established the state of Pennsylvania.
Swept into a rising crest of evangelism that defied the traditional British view, Elizabeth and Anna felt obligated to help “the wretched” heal both body and soul. Although Mrs. Fry believed that words from her Bible brought the gaoled closer to the Lord and to redemption, she might well have recited Shakespeare and achieved a similar reaction. For most Newgate women, religion played no part in their lives. Still, they were drawn to the Quaker minister who read to them, enthralled by stories strange and new. A few dared to ask aloud, “Who is Christ?”12 Never before had they heard this name. Even so, the ragged souls found themselves inspired by Fry’s kindness. Seduced by the rhythmic cadence in her voice and the serene softness in her eyes, the female prisoners found momentary escape in the soothing beauty of her words. No sooner had the women begun to feel comfortable than the visit was over. The turnkey swung open the gate and beckoned the two do-gooders to retreat. Mrs. Fry promised the women she would return, although few believed it.
Elizabeth had much to ponder as her carriage slowed to a jolting halt. It had been a short, cold ride back to Mildred’s Court after they’d dropped off Anna. As the coachman helped her from the buggy, a liveried butler swung open the town house’s grand door to greet the mistress as she approached the steps. Before crossing the threshold, she first removed Newgate’s muck from the soles of her shoes using the wrought-iron boot scraper located just outside every upper-crust home. Elizabeth immediately requested that hot water be brought upstairs for a bath. Her house servants hurriedly set up the bathtub and prepared several steaming buckets of hot water to be carried from the kitchen stove. Mrs. Fry’s personal maid assisted her mistress in the complicated process of unhooking and unbuttoning her contaminated clothing. Like a rancid onion, every layer was permeated by Newgate’s putrid presence. Her clothes were in ruins, but her soul was on fire.
A Promise Fulfilled
For the next three days, Mrs. Fry lobbied her network of Quaker friends to assist in sewing garments. As promised, she collected and delivered clean clothing to everyone in Newgate’s congregation of the forgotten. The women she first visited left a lasting impression on Elizabeth, but after a week of prison visits, life events prevented her return to their stony tomb until four years had passed.
Mrs. Fry’s Newgate work was put on hold as she gave birth to two more children and suffered the loss of her beloved daughter Betsy at age four. The Tambora volcano eruption led to the “year without a summer” in 1816, causing the tea crop to fail and bankrupting her husband, Joseph, who was heavily invested in it. While they dealt with their financial crisis, they sent their six oldest children to live with wealthy relatives.
Although Elizabeth and Joseph were in debt, the Gurney family still owned a successful banking business. Elizabeth’s mother had died when she was twelve, so she had been responsible for helping raise the younger children, including her brother Joseph John Gurney, who was now an influential lobbyist. He was inspired by “Betsy’s” work to the point of bailing out the Fry bank and joining her mission of prison reform.
When Elizabeth turned to Newgate again, just after Christmas in 1816, it was with renewed purpose. She organized regular visits and opened a schoolroom for the children who were imprisoned with their mothers. She taught the women to sew and to read the Bible. In 1817, she founded the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners in Newgate. All of this activity occurred at a time when the public’s sordid interest was turning toward the plight of the poor. A female reverend was strange enough, but the image of her reading the Bible to the Newgate “beasts” was sensational. Stories and drawings of these encounters began to appear in London newspapers, which were now widely available to the general public.
In 1818, Thomas Fowell Buxton, who had married Elizabeth’s sister Hannah, was elected to Parliament and began to promote Elizabeth’s causes. Mrs. Fry had become a figurehead for a prison reform movement and was now backed by powerful allies in Parliament. Little did she know how her widely publicized visits would expose the empire’s secret plan to replace its slave labor pool with poor young Londoners, starving Irish, and other undesirables. Designed by effete Parliamentarians, the scheme hinged on a belief that outcast girls like Agnes McMillan would never be missed. These exiled citizens included the twenty-five thousand girls and women whose unfortunate fate included transport to an isolated island on the other side of the world. In the years to come, Elizabeth would meet many of these women as they passed through Newgate Prison on their way to the convict ships.
Mrs. Fry and her Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners could not be ignored. She became one of the few advocates for treating the female inmates humanely. This plain and proper revolutionary broke nearly every rule for how a respectable lady was supposed to behave.
On the afternoon of April 28, 1818, Elizabeth prepared for her call at Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s residence. Queen Charlotte was this day’s honored guest for a charity event at the mayor’s palace. Mrs. Fry could not possibly leave her brownstone without the layers and layers of attire required for a woman of her social standing. Fashion dictated that multiples of crinoline and lace measured pedigree. Abundant petticoats signaled affluence for a middle-class lady, although Elizabeth’s were modest and unfussy in the tradition of her Quaker upbringing. Her dark silk gown, light silk cloak, and unadorned Friends’ cotton cap stood out from the brocaded gowns and jeweled tiaras of her contemporaries.
Elizabeth was among the last to arrive at Mansion House, delayed by a bitter dispute with Britain’s home secretary, Lord Sidmouth, over a young woman’s execution outside Newgate. As she entered the Egyptian Hall, filled with princesses, lords, and bishops, “A buzz of ‘Mrs. Fry,’ Mrs. Fry,’ ran through the room.”13 While the guests strained for a closer look, their exclamations were muted ever so slightly in the thick carpet fibers and sumptuous satin curtains surrounding the hall.
At Windsor Castle, a rather miserable, cold, and distant Queen Charlotte prepared for another state function, donning in melancholy silence the sumptuous regalia demanded by her position. At public pageants, her well-practiced detachment helped perpetuate the royal mystique for those outside the inner circle. Quaker daughters in the prominent Barclay family who observed the Queen wrote: “She is vastly genteel with airs . . . truly majestic. . . . Her clothes, which were as rich as gold and silver and silk could make them, were a suit from which fell a train supported by a little page in scarlet and silver.”14
Now a well-publicized humanitarian, Elizabeth Fry was more widely admired within British society than Queen Charlotte and her mad King George. Elizabeth spent her days on the unfashionable tasks of soliciting funds for soup kitchens, setting up schools for impoverished children, and lobbying to change Britain’s tradition of punishing petty thieves with death. Her work at Newgate Prison had become a public spectacle, part of the Dickensian melodrama that ran in the daily newspapers. “The American Ambassador wrote home to say that he had now seen the two greatest sights in London—St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Mrs. Fry reading to the prisoners in Newgate.”15
It was appalling for an upper-crust lady to consider any of the Newgate women worth saving, so shocking that the warden issued tickets for admission to view the fearless missionary who read to the prisoners. Each day, the idle rich flocked to the grey fortress to watch in awe as the gentle voice of hope transformed the “wretched creatures.” A schoolmaster who visited Newgate observed that the features of prisoners were “strongly marked with animal propensities” with “an approximation to the face of a monkey.”16 Newgate had become a zoo of sorts, with the full range of human suffering on display and safely locked behind its iron bars.
On a much loftier stage, the royal family, too, was part of this theater of the absurd. At age seventy-four, Queen Charlotte often focused her attention on her husband, the mentally unstable George III. The king had recently taken to running naked through the palace as his dressers chased him, tackling him to put on his pants. He is today believed to have suffered from porphyria, a genetic disorder with symptoms that include mental disturbance. This may have been triggered by arsenic contained in a medication he was given. Queen Charlotte served as his “regency of the person,” his surrogate. In this capacity, she dispensed funds for the Queen’s Lying-In Hospital and for various orphanages. The queen’s concern for these causes, whether genuine or feigned, was an attempt to promote a favorable image for a monarchy whose political influence was in ruins.
Today, in the center of the Egyptian Hall from her platform three steps up, the aging queen had come to view the children who attended Mrs. Fry’s basement school and London’s charity orphanages. It was highly unusual for anyone save nobility to share this opulent space, but Queen Charlotte required a comfortable venue from which to inspect the little waifs, examining them like the exotic bird-of-paradise flowers she grew in her botanical gardens.
The queen watched over the banquet with cultivated regal detachment. The sound of sterling silver knives, tapping ever so lightly against the patterned bone china, pleased the queen in a way that the voices of Mrs. Fry’s young students never could. The royal family’s practiced opulence shined in full display under the Corinthian columns that lined the mayor’s palace. Jewels glittered in the candlelight. The refrains of Johann Christian Bach, formerly court musician and music teacher for the queen, wafted through the air while ushers guided distinguished guests to their seats. From her dais above the fray, Queen Charlotte overlooked the well-adorned hall, complete with the Union Jack and crests symbolizing the Crown’s expanding empire. Attendants wearing golden brocade robes, lined with beaver fur, moved in military precision and filled five hundred crystal glasses with Moët’s finest champagne. In anticipation of the royal toast, the court’s choir sang “God Save the King” from the hall’s inner balcony.
Teetering stacks of puffy white rolls surrounded silver trays luxuriously garnished with fresh fruit and dense buttery cheese. Shimmering sterling platters featured collared veal and rump steak pie smothered in thick gravies. The battalion of cooks it took to prepare the feast, the creamy custards, and cakes dripping with icing, included a chef de cuisine, two attending yeomen, and twenty-four chefs from Windsor Castle. 17 Between courses, forty or fifty in all, ladies in feathered headdresses and men in shiny topcoats sipped wine or sherry. With each course, plate after plate was sent back uneaten. Even the most gluttonous lord left heaps of delicacies on his plate as he began unbuttoning his leather braces to make room for more butter and cream. By the time dessert was served, portly men with red noses and fat ankles leaned back in their chairs, unable to cross their legs, many suffering from gout—a malady that affected only the overindulgent upper class. Meanwhile, Fry’s unappetizing waifs were kept out of sight.
The bishop of Gloucester ushered Mrs. Fry to her seat alongside a bench full of bishops. When Queen Charlotte rose from her chair and walked to greet Newgate’s heroine, every pair of eyes in the room followed the diminutive queen, as the rustle of ten crinolines announced her every step. Earlier in the day, men in grand uniforms had laid down yards and yards of scarlet cloth to ensure that the Queen’s slippers would not be soiled. The starch in the translucent lace that framed her face, thick with white powder, crinkled ever so slightly as she moved down the dais to begin her audience with a few carefully selected attendees. Her Majesty’s voluminous skirts, designed for perching atop a throne, created the effect of her floating across the hall.
While Her Majesty reviewed the guests, Elizabeth sat serenely amid the silk and lace. Queen Charlotte shocked the hall when she stopped before the properly plain Quaker wearing a simple white cap and practical shoes. Her daughter, Katherine Fry, recounted to her aunt, Hannah Buxton, how she saw her mother in this moment: “her light flaxen hair, a little flush on her face from the bustle and noise she had passed through, and her sweet, lovely, placid smile.”18 When Mrs. Fry rose with the row of bishops, Queen Charlotte extended an arm, her elbow-length gloves adorned by her beloved pearl bracelets, etched with a miniature portrait of King George from his healthy days.
The two women looked an odd pair. Elizabeth was almost a foot taller than the queen. Despite this inelegance, she began the rote ritual etiquette demanded in the presence of royalty. Barely recognizing the unexpected honor of the queen rising to meet her and careful not to speak before being spoken to, Elizabeth leaned forward to greet the elderly monarch. Onlookers strained to listen as the queen asked: “How large is your family?” “Where is your home?” “Are you not afraid when you visit those terrible prisons?”19
“Why, the queen is talking to Mrs. Fry,” whispered astonished guests across the room.20 Being on the queen’s guest list was in itself quite a social coup for even a well-connected commoner like Elizabeth. Being addressed by royalty was an honor of stunning proportions. A mounting murmur erupted into a thunderous clapping, acknowledging Her Majesty’s salute to the plain-clothed Mrs. Fry. Like any devout Quaker, Elizabeth bowed only to the King of Kings. Her faith prevented her from following expected protocol of genuflection before the queen. To worship a mere mortal would have been, in her eyes, heresy. Elizabeth’s young daughter observed this first meeting as a study in contrasts: “The Queen, who is so short, courtesying [sic], and our mother, who is so tall, not courtesying, was very awkward.”21
As the pageantry unfolded, Elizabeth could think of nothing but the plight of Harriet Skelton, executed at Newgate prison that very day. She had begged Lord Sidmouth to seek a pardon for the poor girl, whose husband had persuaded her to pass a forged banknote. Elizabeth’s urgency to express outrage grew louder each time a life was extinguished for a minor crime. Searching for answers about how she might have saved Harriet Skelton, Elizabeth surmised that perhaps she had annoyed Lord Sidmouth by calling upon influential friends to lobby her cause. The Duke of Gloucester, a former dance partner now married to the daughter of King George III, had spoken to Lord Sidmouth personally on her behalf. The paranoid Sidmouth refused to budge, fearing that the end of capital punishment would lead to the sort of uprisings that had sparked the French Revolution. Elizabeth berated herself for exerting too much political pressure, writing in her diary: “In the efforts made to save her life, I too incautiously spoke of some in power.”22
A realist, Mrs. Fry quickly recognized that philanthropic work came at a price. As her list of charities grew, Elizabeth became increasingly dependent on other people’s money and power for support, especially with the collapse of the Fry bank. In moments of uneasy self-reflection, she focused on her own contradictions, worrying how her popularity might impede her hands-on social work. When newspapers began to write about her, she blamed the conflict on herself: “I have felt of late, fears, whether my being made so much of, so much respect paid me by the people in power in the city, and also being so publicly brought forward, may not prove a temptation, and lead to something of self-exaltation, or worldly pride.”23
Pulled from her musings back to her regal surroundings in Mansion House, Mrs. Fry heard the heralds as Queen Charlotte bid her leave. Later that night, reflecting on her introduction to the queen, Elizabeth felt unimpressed. In her diary, she wrote: “I think I may say, this hardly raised me at all, I was so very low from what had occurred before, and indeed in so remarkably flat a state, even nervous.”24
On this day in 1818, Elizabeth Gurney Fry could not know that her good work had thrown her unwittingly into the gears of the empire’s grand plan for social engineering. It was a scheme birthed by greed and nurtured on corruption. Because so many of the Newgate women were bound for transport, Mrs. Fry and her Quaker friends began to regularly visit the convict ships that anchored on the docks along Woolwich by Bony off the Butt for weeks at a time.25 A simple act of kindness became Elizabeth’s legacy. She made it her mission to save the souls of the female cargo bound for Van Diemen’s Land. As fate would have it, in giving them hope, Mrs. Fry freed them.