Turbulent Londoners: Elizabeth Fry, 1780-1845

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Today I’m focusing on Elizabeth Fry, who you may recognise as the face of the English £5 note between 2002 and 2017, but how much do you actually know about what she achieved?


Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry in 1843. Portrait by George Richmond (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Elizabeth Fry was a penal reformer and philanthropist whose portrait graced the English £5 note between 2002 and 2017, only the second woman to appear on English currency (the first was Florence Nightingale). She was a strict Quaker, and her religious beliefs drove her philanthropy and campaigning. Elizabeth Gurney was born on the 21st of May 1780 in Norwich, the 4th of 12 children. The 7 girls in the family received a thorough education, but Elizabeth missed a lot, and didn’t learn to spell until much later. Both her parents came from respectable Quaker families, but after her mother died in 1792 the rest of her family didn’t take religion too seriously. Elizabeth did, however, and in 1799 she adopted the dress and speech of a strict Quaker.

On the 19th of August 1800, Elizabeth married Joseph Fry, who came from a wealthy orthodox Quaker family. Between 1801 and 1822 the couple had 11 children. At first the family lived in central London, but in 1809 the family moved to East Ham, which at this point was a small village outside London. Despite a busy family life, Elizabeth did a lot of work for the local community, distributing clothing, food, and medicine in what was known as the ‘Irish colony.’ Despite her own slow start, education was a high priority for Elizabeth; she started a Sunday school in Earlham, and co-founded a school for girls in East Ham. She was an advocate of vaccination, and helped almost completely eliminate smallpox from the villages around East Ham. In 1811 she was acknowledged as a Quaker minister, and began a long career of preaching and writing and distributing religious tracts. Despite her husband’s support, Elizabeth always felt a tension between her religious ambitions and her marital duties.

In 1813 Elizabeth first visited the women’s side of Newgate prison, notorious for it’s poor conditions. She was appalled by what she saw, as well as the severity of criminal law at the time. An interest in prisoners is part of Quaker tradition, and Elizabeth was not the only reformer who took an interest. She was unusual because of her gender however, and she was also the first to take a specific interest in female prisoners. Elizabeth believed that prisoners should be treated humanely, and that the primary purpose of prisons should be reform rather than punishment. She advocated for women-only prisons, with female staff. Elizabeth didn’t return to Newgate until December 1816, but when she did she met with the prison authorities and prisoners and instituted a series of reforms. These included religious and elementary education for the prisoners and their children (children were often imprisoned with their mother at the time); a classification system for prisons; prison dress; constant supervision by matrons and monitors; and paid employment. Fry or one of her supporters also visited daily to talk with the women or read to them.

The conduct of the female prisoners in Newgate improved dramatically as a result of Fry’s reforms, and her success in the infamous prison won her a lot of her supporters. In April 1817 the Ladies’ Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate was set up. In 1821, it was expanded to become the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reform of Female Prisons, the first nationwide women’s organisation in Britain. From 1818 onwards, Elizabeth toured the country, combining her responsibilities as a Quaker minister with her prison reform efforts. She would visit prisons and suggest improvements, as well as establish local ladies’ committees to visit prisoners. In 1827, she published a handbook detailing her reforms: Observations on the Visiting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners. Elizabeth also advocated reforms to capital punishment and the treatment of female prisoners on convict ships bound for Australia; she was responsible for considerable improvements in conditions on the ships.

In 1828, Elizabeth’s husband went bankrupt. This was a very humiliating time for the family, and must have been very difficult for Elizabeth as her husband was disowned by the Quakers. She was able to keep up her campaigning though, as she was supported financially by her brothers. During the 1830s, Elizabeth began to face serious opposition to her prison reform ideas; as a religiously motivated woman, her ideas were dismissed as old-fashioned and unprofessional. Her opposition to the increasingly popular system of solitary confinement meant that her ideas were increasingly accused of being out of date. Despite this, between 1838 and 1845 Elizabeth made 5 trips to Europe, where she lobbied for better treatment of prisoners and lunatics, the abolition of slavery, and religious toleration.

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Elizabeth Fry was on the English £5 from 2002 until 2017. The image on the left of the note is an idealised depiction of Fry reading to prisoners in Newgate (Source: Open University).

Elizabeth’s health declined over several years, and she died of a stroke on the 13th of October 1845. Her legacy was significant; she had contributed to prison and legal reform around the world. Her example also helped to start the organised women’s movement; she strongly believed that women should become active on behalf of other women. Her achievements were acknowledged in 2002, when she became the second woman to appear on a Bank of England note. The recognition was well deserved.

Sources and Further Reading

Crone, Rosalind. “The People on the Notes: Elizabeth Fry.” The Open University. Last modified 21st February 2017, accessed 5th January 2020. Available at https://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/the-people-on-the-notes-elizabeth-fry

de Haan, Francisca. “Fry [nee Gurney], Elizabeth.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 1st September 2017, accessed 5th January 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/10208 [Subscription required to access].

Simkin, John. “Elizabeth Fry.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 5th January 2020. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/REfry.htm

London’s Protest Stickers: Hong Kong Protests

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On a recent trip to London I found multiple protest stickers relating to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 20/11/19)

At the time of writing this post in December 2019, protests in Hong Kong have been going on for more than 6 months. What started as resistance against a specific law became a movement against Chinese rule that took everyone by surprise in its ferocity and determination. The protests have been outward looking, with demonstrators calling on the international community to intervene on their behalf. To an extent, the rest of the world has responded, with many world leaders (including most recently Donald Trump) calling for the rights of the protesters to be respected. There has also been significant demonstrations of international solidarity. A few months ago, I wrote about a Lennon Wall for Hong Kong that I came across in Melbourne this summer, and on a recent trip to London I found a large number of protest stickers relating to the city. It is interesting to reflect on whether this solidarity reflects patterns of emigration from Hong Kong, is simply support from the international activist community, or is a mixture of the two.

To see where these stickers were found, check out the Turbulent London Map.

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A simple demand for freedom in London’s China Town. Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s situation is anything but simple. Handed back from Britain to China in 1997, the city has lived under a ‘One Country, Two Systems’ arrangement that sees Hong Kongers enjoy much more freedom than Chinese people on the mainland do. The protesters argue that this freedom is being eroded however, and they are willing to fight for it despite the overwhelming power and might of the Chinese state (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Gerrard Street, 19/11/19).

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The Hong Kong protesters have embraced technology, including social media and the internet. This hashtag is used on social media to critique China from multiple angles, not just it’s handling of the Hong Kong protests (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Gerrard Street, 19/11/19).

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This sticker was located on the characteristic gates that mark the entrance to London’s Chinatown (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Gerrard Street, 19/11/19)

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It is perhaps not surprising to find protest stickers relating to Hong Kong in China Town, but such stickers can actually be found all over London. It may seem hyperbolic to call the protests ‘The Revolution of our Times’, but it certainly does feel like they are significant. I would be very surprised if Hong Kongers were able to win freedom from Chinese rule, but I never expected the demonstrations to last this long, and the hopelessness of the cause makes the protesters all the more admirable (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Charing Cross Road, 21/11/19).

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Using post-it notes as protest stickers is a tactic that I have come to associate particularly with expressions of solidarity with Hong Kong – I have seen it in Sydney, Melbourne, and now London. Amazingly, only one person has died during the protests so far, although there have been several suicides associated with the campaign (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 20/11/19).

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This collection of post-it note protest stickers I found under the railway bridge across Borough High Street shared characteristics with a Lennon Wall, where people are encouraged to put up their own messages. These two stickers seem to have been written by different people, one of whom is particularly pessimistic about the outcome of the protests (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 20/11/19).

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The protesters have 5 demands. One of which, the withdrawal of the hated extradition bill, has already been achieved. Another demand is the formal retraction of the government’s classification of some of the first protests on the 12th of June as a riot. The protesters argue that this was a political move, and that there wasn’t any rioting. It is hard to deny that there has been rioting since then, however (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 20/11/19).

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I assume this is referring to the Extradition Bill. The Bill would have made it easier for suspects to be extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China, where the justice system can be biased and political, and torture is sometimes used. The Bill was clearly just the final straw, however, as many more grievances have been voiced over the last few months (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 20/11/19).

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The writer of this sticker, declaring that Hong Kong is dead in French, clearly has no doubts about how the protests will end (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 20/11/19).

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This sticker shows Joshua Wong, who was imprisoned for his role as a leader the 2014 Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong. There are many similarities between the protests in 2014 and those in 2019, and Joshua Wong has emerged as a spokesperson of the 2019 movement, although there don’t appear to be any clear leaders (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Brick Lane, 21/11/19).

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This sticker doesn’t have much English text, but the protester is holding a placard which lists some of the demonstrators’ key demands. If anyone would be willing to translate the rest of the sticker for me, I would be very grateful! (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Brick Lane, 21/11/19).

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Again, I can’t tell what the top sticker is saying, but I think the image depicts a protester and a Hong Kong policeman. The bottom sticker depicts a Hong Kong protester, now well known for covering their faces, and says: “Even the darkest night will end. Together we fight and the sun will rise. Guardians of Hong Kong (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Brick Lane, 21/11/19).

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This sticker has quite a lot going on. It is accusing the Hong Kong police of working with the triad, Chinese criminal gangs. The photos show police officers being respectful of an alleged gang member, and mistreating a protester. The sticker also argues that the 1997 handover treaty in which China promised to uphold the One Country, Two Systems policy has been violated (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Charing Cross Road, 21/11/19).

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Apparently not everyone in London sympathises with the protesters. It looks like someone has deliberately tried to obscure the message of this sticker by scratching off the words ‘Hong Kong’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Charing Cross Road, 21/11/19).