Elizabeth Fry

Freedom from fears – caring for the prisoners in Newgate

Other themes:

courage, faith

The Problem

Listen to this and see what you think.

Katy was having second thoughts. She hadn’t realised how it would look from up here. It was a long, long way down. Why on earth had she signed up for this? Oh, she knew why really – she’d wanted to try abseiling for ages, her friends had all done it and thought it was great.

But suddenly it seemed stupid, pointless. Why couldn’t she use the stairs? Why go down the wall?

Steve, the instructor, could see the hesitation, no – more than hesitation: this was fear. “You don’t have to do it, you know,” he said quietly. “I assure you you’re perfectly safe. But it’s up to you.”

Katy longed to say, “Yes, I’ll do it.” And she knew she’d regret it if she turned away now.

But – it was a long, long way down.

Now think:

What should she do? What would you do? Have you ever been in a situation like this, where your fear could stop you doing something you really want to?

(You could discuss this or pass on to the main story.)

The Story

Our true story begins about two hundred years ago, in London. A fashionable city, but also a dangerous one. A city of wide thoroughfares, but also of dark alleys, very dark alleys. There were areas where no one wandered alone, areas where anything could happen – and usually did.

But only one spot in London was known as “Hell above ground”. It was the worst place of all. Our story is about a woman who went there. Alone.

Sshh…listen…there’s her carriage now…

The horse-drawn carriage shudders its way over the rough ground. Perhaps the woman inside is shuddering too. But that would be from the deathly cold, not from fear. Oh yes, part of her is afraid – for she knows she may be attacked, even killed. But deep down she has peace. For she has, with God’s help, faced her fears many times before this and God has never let her down. And she knows God has sent her to this place, this “Hell above ground”. He will protect her.

Through the window she sees a road-sweeping boy scuttling out of the way of the horse. Then she sees – it. Her destination. Newgate Prison, looking like a hideous black castle. Only a few streets from St Paul’s Cathedral, but another world, a darker world.

The carriage stops and she gets down. Pulling her grey shawl more tightly around her, she mounts the stpes to a heavy shoulder-height door topped with iron spikes, through which a shadowy figure peers at her.

She is recognised. The door swings open, slams shut behind her. She is inside. Inside the dreaded Newgate Prison. This is the lodge, the way in, and for the very fortunate, the way out. But she must go further than this. She gazes at the handcuffs and cruel leg irons hanging on the wall while the guard unbolts a massive inner door. Another guard slides from the shadows and without a word leads her down a long dark passage. She has been in Newgate several times before, but never to “Hell above ground”.

Anyone who’d known her as a child would be surprised to see her here, for she had been the timid one, the one who was so afraid of the dark, who jumped at loud noises. She had ten brothers and sisters, all bright and boisterous; only Betsy, as she was called then, was full of fears.

But as she grew up she realised there was someone who could help her overcome her fears. God. She was glad, for she didn’t want to spend all her life being afraid. Her family were Quakers, Christians who had their own kind of church, called a Meeting House. But Betsy wanted to take it more seriously than her family seemed to.

So she married a strict Quaker, Joseph Fry, and moved to London. But life was unexpectedly dull. She wanted to do something for God. But what? Back home in Norfolk she’d done things – visiting sick people and cooking for them, starting a little school for the poor local children. Bedraggled and often smelly they were, but she loved them – “Betsy’s Imps” they were known as – and they loved her and the wonderful Bible stories she read to them. Surely in a big city there was something like that she could do.

Then a visitor came to the Fry home and told her about Newgate Prison, how the conditions were so terrible, how, because their mothers were prisoners, there were children there, babies even, unfed, unclothed. Betsy, or Elizabeth as she was called now, got together a group of Quaker friends and began knitting baby clothes. At last – something to do!

On that first visit she went to the Women’s Infirmary, the prison hospital. She was horrified. There were no beds. A few of the women and children had some dirty straw, but most were lying on the cold, bare boards. She saw no sign of medicines, no place to wash properly.

She was overwhelmed by their need – and, when she gave them the clothes, overwhelmed by their gratitude too. Somebody cared – they’d forgotten that. Yes, Elizabeth told them, God cares, and I care too. She knew they were prisoners, but knew too the innocent were mixed in with the guilty, knew that people were arrested for anything. Why, you could be hanged for stealing a loaf of bread, or a shirt from a washing line.

She visited the infirmary again and again. And she learnt that elsewhere in the prison were hundreds of other women, living in even worse conditions, living in a place called by the jailers, “Hell above ground”.

And now, she is here. The jailers in this section are astonished to see her, to hear her request. To go in there – alone? Into “Hell above ground”?

“Oh, madam, you don’t understand.”

“I understand,” she says. “Now please open the door.”

She can hear them already: mad laughter that threatens never to stop, shrieks of agony, a hundred other voices, shouting, arguing, singing.

The jailers open the door. And she walks in. The sight is incredible. Two women are fighting on the floor, tearing at each other’s hair. A child is slumped in a corner, dressed only in filth. A young woman, clearly starving, rocks a baby, trying to stop its sobs. The mad laughter is still going on. But then everyone seems mad, mad with despair.

Then they notice her and there is total silence. Even the laughing stops.

And Elizabeth knows this is the moment of most danger. They could so easily rush at her, tear at her clothes, her hair, in jealousy or in rage.

But they don’t. They see something in her eyes, something they barely recognise. Can it be love?

She moves over to the filthy child and smiles.

And the child smiles back.

Before long she has gathered the women together, told them that she wants to do something for them, for their children. To start a school. Right there in the prison. Yes, yes, they say.

So Elizabeth returns with books and helpers, and the school – for thirty children – begins. The mothers crowd round, wanting to learn too. So more helpers are brought in, the women taught not just to read, but also to sew, so that if and when they are released they will have an honest way of getting money.

The schooldays begin and end with Elizabeth reading Bible stories. The prisoners love them as much as the Imps did.

The prison authorities, even Parliament, are astonished at the change in “Hell above ground”. In face Elizabeth Fry became so well known that tourists would arrive at the prison asking to see her reading the Bible.

It was just the beginning. She helped improve conditions in other prisons, not just in England, but in France and Germany and other countries too, and on the convict ships that took thousands of women prisoners to Australia. Wherever she saw a need, she did something. She set up libraries for the bored men in coastguard stations. She founded the first professional group of nurses – the “Fry nurses” as they were known. And lots more.

All because she would not allow her fears to take over her life. When she felt afraid of doing something, if it was a good and right thing to do, then she prayed for courage and got on an did it – and felt less afraid the next time.

For God was with her. And didn’t he do wonderful things through her?

Time of Reflection

Some fears are good to have – God does not want us taking silly risks or playing dangerous games. But some fears can stop us enjoying life to the full or stop us doing something for other people. What are you afraid of? God can help us if we ask. He wants u to enjoy life, not be afraid of it.

Just take a moment to think about this.

Bible Bits

David, often in lonely dark places looking after his sheep, could say,

“Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me.” (Psalm 23:4)

And God himself said:

“Do not be afraid! I am with you…I will make you strong and help you.” (Isaiah 41:10)

Prayer

In the Bible, Father, many of the heroes were afraid at times – Moses, Gideon, even your son, Jesus. Yet you stood by them and helped them face their fears and overcome them. Help us when we’re afraid, to know that you’re there, ready to give us courage and strength. Amen

Variations on a Theme

Perhaps there is an adult known to the children who can talk about a time when they were afraid and God helped.

Or you could tell the story of Moses’ call at the burning bush, how God understood his anxiety and boosted his confidence.

Quiz Questions

  1. How many brothers and sisters did Elizabeth Fry have?
  2. How was she different?
  3. She started a little school in Norfolk – what were her pupils known as?
  4. Why was she unhappy at first in London?
  5. What did she do when she heard about Newgate?
  6. What was bad about the Women’s Infirmary?
  7. Why were the jailers to the women’s prison unwilling to open the door?
  8. Why was she not more afraid?
  9. Why did tourists want to visit Newgate?
  10. She improved conditions on the convict ships bound for – where?
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