Elizabeth Fry: 'The angel of prisons' Oct. 1, 2020

from The Forum· ·

Life behind bars in English prisons in the early nineteenth century was, to put it mildly, grim. Prisons at the time were often damp, dirty and over- crowded. Common punishments included shipping convicts to colonies like Australia - and many crimes carried the death penalty. And the poor suffered most of all, because they couldn’t buy privileges like extra food rations. Into all this walked a woman known as the "angel of prisons", Elizabeth Fry. She was one of the major driving forces behind a new way of thinking about prisons – one that stressed that improving conditions for prisoners …



Life behind bars in English prisons in the early nineteenth century was, to put it mildly, grim. Prisons at the time were often damp, dirty and over- crowded. Common punishments included shipping convicts to colonies like Australia - and many crimes carried the death penalty. And the poor suffered most of all, because they couldn’t buy privileges like extra food rations. Into all this walked a woman known as the "angel of prisons", Elizabeth Fry. She was one of the major driving forces behind a new way of thinking about prisons – one that stressed that improving conditions for prisoners and treating them with humanity would lead to better outcomes and lower re- offending rates. A Christian philanthropist from a large Quaker family, her ideas were taken up across much of Europe, and she became something of a celebrity in Victorian England. Joining Rajan Datar to discuss her work and legacy are: Averil Douglas Opperman, author of a biography of Elizabeth Fry called 'While It Is Yet Day'; Criminal barrister, Harry Potter, author of 'Shades of the Prison House – A History of Incarceration in the British Isles'; And Rosalind Crone, historian and author of 'The Guide to the Criminal Prisons of Nineteenth-Century England'. Produced by Jo Impey for the World Service. Image: Painting by Jerry Barrett depicting Elizabeth Fry reading to prisoners at Newgate, 1816 Image credit: Henry Guttmann / Hulton Archive / Getty Images