The sleeping angel

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Raymond Smith

From time to time, I wander around local cemeteries here in east London. Not because I feel the need to book a spot for myself to occupy just yet (though I have got a bit of a cold), but to look at the local history recorded on memorial stones. I find victims of the Siege of Sydney Street, and know the perpetrators are nearby in unmarked graves. I see whole families wiped out during the Blitz, and lists of those who drowned in tragedies on the Thames. A member of the first Australian cricket team to tour England is buried in a local park. And now I know that one woman who achieved great things is lying in an open space nearby. She has no large monument, just a covering of grass. I cannot do her justice in this short piece, but perhaps encourage others to visit and gain inspiration from her.

New Life Growing

If you drive along the North Circular Road and turn towards Barking in east London, before you enter the town centre you pass the magnificent Gurdwara Singh Sabha, the largest Sikh temple in the area. Only 200 yards away, down narrow Whiting Avenue, is a small open space, the Quaker Burial Ground Gardens. Given the mix of sunshine and showers this summer, these grounds are beautiful, being lush and green, with wild flowers spreading, growing, and thriving.

When you look at the wall you see, engraved in stone, the face of Elizabeth Fry, the esteemed Victorian social justice campaigner known as the ‘Angel of Prisons’ whose mortal remains were interred here in 1845. Those of her husband, some of her children, and others from the Society of Friends, the Quakers, lie alongside. The Gurdwara is built on the site of their old meeting house, which closed in 1980. When it shut the headstones were removed from what was then the Quakers’ cemetery and moved to Wanstead, where their future gatherings would be held. The bodies were left to rest where they were buried, and the area changed from cemetery to public park. Perhaps Ms Fry might enjoy knowing that local people walk here and socialise, whilst children play on the grass. I am sure she would be pleased that the Sikh temple situated where she once attended worship does a lot of work with all the local community, including providing food for those on low incomes and offering shelter to travellers who have nowhere to stay, as her Quaker tradition was very much about being involved in improving the life of those for whom existence was a struggle, regardless of religion. It drove her through life.

Born to be a Friend

Quakers believe that everyone has a ‘light within’ that will shine if given the right opportunities, and try and work to bring that out in everyone they meet. They are opposed to violence and refuse to fight in wars, though they are willing to serve as medical staff to bring relief to the wounded. They campaign for social justice in every country in which they live. The international Friends Councils were awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts shortly after World War II. Interestingly, albeit randomly, the founders of the great sweet companies Rowntree, Cadbury, and Fry were all Quakers, as were those who created Barclays Bank, Lloyds Bank, and Friends Provident, as well as Clarks Shoes. It is from their tradition of deeply-held belief that Elizabeth, or Betsy as she was always known, found the passion she carried into her work on prison reform.

She was born in Norwich in 1780 into a family who were involved in banking, and Elizabeth Gurney, as she was, lost her mother when she was just 12. She was therefore involved in bringing up her brothers and sisters, one of whom, John, became a well-known philanthropist and another, Louisa Gurney Hoare, a pioneering writer on the importance of education. At the age of 20 Elizabeth married a banker, Joseph Fry, and over the years they had 11 children. They lived together in East Ham, later moving locally to West Ham, where they remained up to 1844. So east London was her home and her base. Her financial circumstances through married life had ups and downs as the viability of the bank fluctuated, and at one time this gave difficulties, causing her to pause her work. Not for long.

Newgate Prison

In 1813, she was encouraged by fellow Quakers to visit Newgate Prison to see the appalling conditions inside. The place was overcrowded, with no separation of men from women, leaving the women at risk of abuse and rape. Many had not even been tried. Many were subject to transportation in miserable crafts that Ms Fry described as no better than slave ships, and died enroute. Disease was rife; hangings frequent, even for petty offences; and the system was foul. She determined to see change.

After a short break caused by her family’s banking business having hit problems, she returned to campaign with vigour for urgent reforms. In 1817 she helped found the Association for Reformation of the Female Prisons in Newgate, and one year later became the first woman ever to give evidence to a Select Committee of Parliament, which is astonishing considering this was a hundred years before women were even given a vote. Her campaigns caught the attention of the public, and soon there were calls for major reforms for all women prisoners in Britain.

Due to her work and that of fellow campaigners, the Gaols Act was passed in 1823. It had a limited impact, but at least required that men and women inside were kept separate. She continued to push for more. She had meetings with Princess, later Queen, Victoria who endorsed what she was doing and also provided funds for the campaigns. In 1835 the Prisons Act was approved, introducing central control of prison policy and the appointment of prison inspectors. It led to the building of newly-designed prisons, with individual cells, and was a step forward. She persuaded senior politicians to spend nights in Newgate to experience the horrors for themselves.

Ending humiliation

Ms Fry was opposed to the death penalty but knew that abolition had limited support, so she pressed for deportations to Australia to replace capital punishment where it was possible. From 1818 onwards she would visit ships transporting prisoners and pressure the captains to provide safety and clean food and water. She also provided materials so those being carried could make products to sell on arrival. Indeed, she was an ardent enthusiast for education and work inside jails, and ensured that when a person made an object for sale, they received the full amount made from any transactions because she knew that when leaving prison, they would need money to begin a new life.

She also stopped humiliation being heaped on those being taken to the docks for transportation, by insisting that instead of travelling in open carts that allowed the public to shout abuse and throw rotten fruit at them, they were in closed carriages. She demanded prisoners be treated with human decency. She also spent time talking to leaders from around the world about their penal systems and, with friends and members of her family, tried to spread the concept of justice and rehabilitation rather than cruel and punitive punishment. And still she managed to raise her children to lead positive and creative lives.

Famous people from the past are often now looked at and judged by the standards of today, and found to be flawed. I think this is the right thing to do, even though they were of course living in different times with different standards. Some had been involved at some stage in the slave trade, others were clearly racist or violent. Some were crooks and thieves. We deserve to know the truth to balance good and bad. When past acts are assessed in this way, there are some who jump up and down and say that history is being rewritten and our heroes defamed. Yet history has always been reviewed and opinions adjusted, and I consider it a healthy thing to do. Even Florence Nightingale has been criticised for some of her views. But never has anyone found anything with which to criticise Elizabeth Fry, who, in addition to prison reform, campaigned against slavery, for education for all, and was anti racist and a strong supporter of the Traveller community who were then deemed criminal just for their traditional way of life, and are still abused today. Today she would be condemned as “woke”, but I find her remarkable.

The lesson for all

Elizabeth Fry and her husband moved to Ramsgate in 1844, but on 12th October 1845 she suffered a stroke and died the next day. The high esteem in which she was held by so many is shown by the actions of the Coast Guard at Ramsgate, who lowered their flags to half-mast; the first time this had occurred other than for the passing of a monarch. Thousands attended her internment on 20th October when she was buried in Barking, back in east London which had been her home for so long.

This should be a lesson to those in the public eye today who do not take action to bring about or speak out about the need for urgently-required prison reform because they are scared the media will slap them down for being soft ‘do-gooders’. In Ms Fry’s lifetime the Press was even harsher. The popular news sheets ran exaggerated or made-up stories of evil doers, and criminals were reviled. Public executions were jam packed, the throwing of vegetables at those being deported was considered entertainment, and the concept of fairness was held in very low esteem. Yet here was a woman who defied all of that and stood up for what was clearly right, and won the hearts of a nation. She was valued, left a legacy, and will always be remembered, whereas those today who keep on and on about longer sentences and locking up everyone for anything just to satisfy the mob will not. The name she had been given, Angel of the Prisons, was earned and well justified. After her death there was talk of a statue in Westminster Abbey or St Pauls Cathedral, but instead a fund was started to buy and run a refuge for women newly-released from prison or police custody, to be based in Hackney. Whilst the location has moved twice over the years, it is still running, in Reading. This was clearly an appropriate and worthwhile response.

However, what is not appropriate, and is certainly unwanted, is today’s backwards movement of the processes of the penal system. Elizabeth Fry wanted overcrowding in prisons to end. After her work, newly-built prisons were designed with single cells. Now we see each of those cells occupied by two people, and crammed. She wanted rehabilitation and education to be rewarded, yet pay rates for prisoners undergoing such activities are low, and people leave prison financially strapped, causing problems on release. She wanted to cut back on the offences for which people were jailed, but now we want to increase them and jail more people for longer in those overcrowded facilities.

She pushed for an end to transportation for prisoners, and it did indeed end two decades after her death in 1868. The Government are now trying to reintroduce it for asylum seekers, without any hearings or appeals permitted. Newgate Prison finally closed in 1877, replaced by the Old Bailey, but now politicians are fanatically keen on building more places, so more people waste more lives.

Be inspired

Ms Fry’s deeply-held but non-judgemental attitude to religion is something I admire, and perhaps if this cough gets worse that might attract me. However, I seriously urge all those involved in criminal justice today – whether politicians or governors, prison officers or indeed police, as well as present-day campaigners – to drive around the North Circular, stop near the Gurdwara, and walk up Whiting Avenue then take time to stand beside a woman who dared to take on the nation’s politicians and ruling classes in the interests of those who had fallen foul of the system, now sleeping for ever.

Betsy Fry gave speeches, but did more than just speak. She held meetings, but did more than just meet people. She wrote reports, but did more than just write and publish. She visited foul places, met thousands of prisoners, assessed the key problems, found solutions, and kept going back to make sure they were implemented. That is why she succeeded. That is why she is rightly admired. She will always be remembered as the Angel of the Prisons. Those who push the current failing policies and just parrot ignorant views for a passing headline and fleeting moment of popularity will simply be forgotten, and the sooner that happens the better.


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