Elizabeth Fry by Samuel Drummond

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    Elizabeth Fry,    by Samuel Drummond,    circa 1815,    NPG 118,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Elizabeth Fry, a key campaigner in the fight for better conditions in prisons.
Elizabeth Fry
by Samuel Drummond
watercolour on ivory, circa 1815
4 1/2 in. x 3 1/4 in. (114 mm x 83 mm)
NPG 118
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Elizabeth Fry (1780–1845) is best remembered for her work on prison Reform Change that is made to a social system or an organization in order to improve or correct it. during the early 1800s. At that time, if a woman was sent to prison, her young children would go with her.

Many prisoners were poor and desperate women who had resorted to stealing to feed themselves and their families. Fry was shocked at the horrific conditions she saw at Newgate Prison in London and worked to improve the lives of prisoners across Britain – particularly women and their children.

As well as her prison reform work, Fry also helped campaign to end the barbaric Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean.  and the enslavement of African people, set up a training school for nurses and helped reform Mental asylum A hospital specialising in the treatment of people with mental health problems. and Workhouse A building where very poor people were sent to live and given work to do often in appalling conditions. .

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
    Elizabeth Fry,    by Samuel Drummond,    circa 1815,    NPG 118,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Elizabeth Fry, by Samuel Drummond, circa 1815

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?

    • Although she was from a wealthy family, her clothes don’t look expensive. They are simple and plain.
    • She has a blue shawl around her shoulders and a plain white headdress fastened under her chin.
    • Her headdress is a Bonnet A hat tied with strings under the chin, worn by babies and, especially in the past, by women. , made of muslin. Bonnets like these were worn by Quaker ​A member of the Society of Friends, a Christian religious group that meets without any formal ceremony and is strongly opposed to violence and war. women. The designs were much plainer than the fashionable bonnets of the time.
    • The book on the table in front of her is a Bible The holy book of the Christian religion, consisting of the Old Testament and the New Testament. . It looks as though she is about to turn the page.
    • In the background we can see a grid of prison bars.
    • Elizabeth is shown making one of her regular visits to Newgate Prison, where she read from the Bible to women prisoners and their children.
I have lately been twice to Newgate to see after the poor prisoners who had poor little infants without clothing, or with very little, and I think if you saw how small a piece of bread they are each allowed a day you would be very sorry. 
Elizabeth Fry, 1813

Who was Elizabeth Fry?

  • Elizabeth Fry came from a well-off Quaker ​A member of the Society of Friends, a Christian religious group that meets without any formal ceremony and is strongly opposed to violence and war. family. She received a good education, unlike most women in the late 1700s.
  • In 1813, she visited Newgate Prison in London and was horrified by what she saw. Over 300 women prisoners and their children were crowded into a small, filthy space. They had no proper clothes or bedding and had to live, cook and wash in the same area, with a bucket for a toilet.
  • She visited the prison regularly, bringing warm, clean clothes for babies and children and blankets for the sick. She taught the women skills like reading, writing and sewing and started a prison school for children.
  • In 1817, she created the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners, organising other well-off women to help female prisoners.
  • In 1818, Elizabeth was asked to speak in Parliament The meeting place of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, where British laws are made. about the prisons in Britain. It was extremely unusual for a woman to be consulted by men for her professional knowledge. The Gaols [prison] Act was passed in 1823, and some improvements were made.
  • Fry became a well-known personality in Britain. She was criticised in the press, which said she was neglecting her home and family. But Queen Victoria supported her work. When Elizabeth Fry died in 1845, more than a thousand people came to her funeral.

Why is this portrait significant?

  • This portrait of a wealthy, respectable woman in a prison is rare. Campaigns in the 1800s were not often led by women. Elizabeth Fry was the first woman to fight for prison Reform Change that is made to a social system or an organization in order to improve or correct it. .
  • This is a very small portrait, known as a ‘miniature’. It is just over 10 cm tall – about the size of a phone screen. Miniatures were often worn (usually on a chain) or carried as a reminder of someone special.
  • The portrait has been painted onto Ivory A hard white substance like bone that forms the tusks of elephants and some other animals. . Ivory has always been a rare and valuable material so this would have been an expensive object.
  • Elizabeth Fry is one of only three historical women (aside from Elizabeth II) to appear on a Bank of England banknote. She appeared on the English £5 note between 2002 and 2016.

Questions

  1. Why do you think it was so unusual for a woman to lead a campaign like this in the 1800s?
  1. Are there social issues or campaigns you feel strongly about today?
  1. Use the links to find out more Elizabeth Fry and the changes she helped make to improve the horrific conditions for women prisoners.