Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!


Elizabeth Fry
by [?]

It may not be generally known, but your religious ascetic is a great matchmaker. In all religious communities, especially rural communities, men who need wives need not advertise–there are self-appointed committees of old ladies who advise and look after such matters closely. The immanence of sex becomes vicarious, and that which once dwelt in the flesh is now a thought: like men-about-town, whose vices finally become simply mental, so do these old ladies carry on courtships by power of attorney.

And so the old ladies found a worthy Quaker man who would make a good husband for Elizabeth. The man was willing. He wrote a letter to her from his home in London, addressing it to her father. The letter was brief and businesslike. It described himself in modest but accurate terms. He weighed ten stone and was five feet eight inches high; he was a merchant with a goodly income; and in disposition was all that was to be desired–at least he said so. His pedigree was standard.

The Gurneys looked up this Mr. Fry, merchant, of London, and found all as stated. He checked O.K. He was invited to visit at Norwich; he came, he saw, and was conquered. He liked Elizabeth, and Elizabeth liked him–she surely did or she would never have married him.

Elizabeth bore him twelve children. Mr. Fry was certainly an excellent and amiable man. I find it recorded, “He never in any way hampered his wife’s philanthropic work,” and with this testimonial to the excellence of Mr. Fry’s character we will excuse him from these pages and speak only of his wife.

Contrary to expectations, Elizabeth was not tamed by marriage. She looked after her household with diligence; but instead of confining her “social duties” to following hotly after those in station above her, she sought out those in the stratum beneath. Soon after reaching London she began taking long walks alone, watching the people, especially the beggars. The lowly and the wretched interested her. She saw, girl though she was, that beggardom and vice were twins.

In one of her daily walks, she noticed on a certain corner a frowsled woman holding a babe, and thrusting out a grimy hand for alms, telling a woeful tale of a dead soldier husband to each passer-by. Elizabeth stopped and talked with the woman. As the day was cold, she took off her mittens and gave them to the beggar, and went her way. The next day she again saw the woman on the same corner and again talked with her, asking to see the baby held so closely within the tattered shawl. An intuitive glance (mother herself or soon to be) told her that this sickly babe was not the child of the woman who held it. She asked questions that the woman evaded. Pressed further, the beggar grew abusive, and took refuge in curses, with dire threats of violence. Mrs. Fry withdrew, and waiting for nightfall followed the woman: down a winding alley, past rows of rotting tenements, into a cellar below a ginshop. There, in this one squalid room, she found a dozen babies, all tied fast in cribs or chairs, starving, or dying of inattention. The woman, taken by surprise, did not grow violent this time: she fled, and Mrs. Fry, sending for two women Friends, took charge of the sufferers.

This sub-cellar nursery opened the eyes of Mrs. Fry to the grim fact that England, professing to be Christian, building costly churches, and maintaining an immense army of paid priests, was essentially barbaric. She set herself to the task of doing what she could while life lasted to lessen the horror of ignorance and sin.

Newgate Prison then, as now, stood in the center of the city. It was necessary to have it in a conspicuous place so that all might see the result of wrongdoing and be good. Along the front of the prison were strong iron gratings, where the prisoners crowded up to talk with their friends. Through these gratings the unhappy wretches called to strangers for alms, and thrust out long wooden spoons for contributions, that would enable them to pay their fines. There was a woman’s department; but if the men’s department was too full, men and women were herded together.