Book Review: Betsy — The dramatic biography of prison reformer Elizabeth Fry

Amanda and Pelo Gibberd of the Pretoria Worship Group

Amanda and Pelo Gibberd of the Pretoria Worship Group

Betsy: The dramatic biography of prison reformer Elizabeth Fry by Jean Hatton

Book Review by Amanda Gibberd, Pretoria Worship Group

I came across this book during Meeting one Sunday around March last year.

I’d read a news article on the BBC (British News) website about the hiatus in England caused by the lack of women on bank notes, and the twitter abuse case that followed as a result, against the woman who campaigned about it.

One article about the bank note issue mentioned the ‘Glowering face’ of Elizabeth Fry, I had forgotten that she was there. Not just a woman, but the only woman apart from the Queen, on a UK bank note. She representing a particularly minor, oddly-dressed Christian sect, and I wondered how on earth she had managed to get onto any bank note in the first place.

The article notes that ‘Fry herself was not widely known prior to her selection’, and I as a Quaker, embarrassingly realized I’d have to agree.

What did I know of her? The little that I did came from trite, short extracts I’d read as a child in Meeting.

Looking at her picture in these weird clothes as a child, I guess I had also felt that she was way too boring to deserve any more valuable child-time and gone out to play with sisters or talk to real people in Meeting who were genuinely interesting.

I knew that she was a famous Quaker woman who had helped prepare women prisoners for their transportation to Australia. And that she had done lots of Good Things, as Quaker women (and men) did.

I knew that as children, Elizabeth and her sisters wore colourful clothes and that other Quakers didn’t approve, taking this as an indication that the Gurney’s (Elizabeth’s maiden name) didn’t take their Quakerism seriously.

The book about Elizabeth Fry caught my attention on the table in Meeting in Pretoria not only because of the UK bank note fiasco but also because it was such an honest portrayal of her.

Finding out that after her death her children covered up her real-life and struggles portraying Elizabeth as a near-saint was a revelation.

As I read the book I understood why, but honestly wished they hadn’t. It would have helped me in my own life as a Quaker to have read about the real person earlier.

Betsy was someone who, through the way her life spoke, clearly had a major effect on not just British society, but European society as well. Probably in the States too, at a time when, in the 1800’s, unless you were royalty, women just didn’t take public roles; except perhaps within Friends.

Jean Hatton’s meticulous, tender and empathetic research draws a picture of a very real person behind the pious Quaker bonnet, far from a saint.

She shows Betsy as a woman who struggled in her life as a child, wife, mother (of 12 children), and public figure. However who also as a woman, demonstrated clearly that she was beyond her generation; and far more capable of great things than her generation expected.

And yet Betsy managed to find a way of demonstrating this to her generation, by the sheer scale of what she instigated, but more especially how clearly she thought out methods for prison reform, and the manner in which she executed them.

If she had not been the person that she was through her life experiences, as a Quaker, and the way in which she believed God to be present in her life; Betsy would definitely not have had the effect she did.

The book’s sub-text hints at how Betsy became a catalyst for the generation to come. It mentions that she helped to lay the foundations for the universal suffrage movement, was an inspiration to Florence Nightingale, the nursing movement, and reformers in many prisons throughout the world.

Betsy didn’t just reform prisons, she turned reformation into a fashion. For the most, women prisoners loved her to the point of worship. But what is also interesting is that she managed to make her ideas sustainable by involving the ‘chattering classes’, and making it fashionable to help or to do good, regardless of class, or religious sect.

She aimed all her work at women, and men pulled her in to help with their causes.  Ending slavery was part of Elizabeth’s cause, but not the focus. Around 1790 a number of reformers of British society, including Quakers, were attempting to change society including bringing about the abolition of slavery.

It was apparent in the book that women were excluded from the public face of the movement, and yet despite this, Betsy, through her connections to royalty, managed to sneak into important meetings and be at the forefront.

Elizabeth formed relationships with every strata of society. She was a real crowd-puller. She loved it, never quite knowing, and challenging herself frequently, on whether she was serving God or her own ego.

Given the amazing range of people she met, it makes you wonder what similarities she saw in them. If only she had written about this rather than her angst about whether she was a good enough wife/mother/person. Maybe she did and those were the pages that she tore out of her diaries.

So who was Betsy? How did she end up being this sort of person?

Betsy was born the fourth child to Quaker parents, in 1780. Hatton paints a picture of a tormented, lonely child, after she lost her mother when she was 12. Her older brother died as a baby so Betsy herself was the third child of eleven. She came from a family that could trace its history to George Fox, through Robert Barclay.

She grew up in a large comfortable house, surrounded by people who cared about her, but was troubled her whole life by ‘inner demons’ and self-doubt. She appears to have had quite serious mood swings and was bothered by depression throughout her life.

Betsy kept a diary, but tore pages out because she was worried people would read them, especially later in life. Despite this, Hutton had 47 volumes to use in her research.

She was an intense child, whose mother was committed to the idea that girls should be educated. Her mother, whilst she was alive, developed a special relationship with all her children, and had a soft spot for Betsy.

Her siblings, especially her sisters, found Betsy monumentally irritating. Her love/hate relationship her brothers and sisters changed as she grew older, especially her oldest brother who bank-rolled her philanthropic career, as if her good works complemented his money-making ventures.

However her sister Louisa, who termed her rather unruly children, Betsy’s Brats, was obviously someone who hurt her feelings, but probably with fair reason.

There was a love interest from a Lloyd of Quaker bank Lloyds, (Now Lloyds TSB) when Betsy was 15. Hatton couldn’t find out exactly what went wrong with the relationship with James Lloyd, but believes that Betsy had a complete breakdown.

Betsy’s conversion to a more serious form of Quakerism, or her convincement, came in 1798 when at 18, she heard a visiting US Quaker called William Savery who ‘spoke to her condition’. His message was on an archetypal Quaker theme that you had to ‘do’ the Kingdom of God not talk about it or think about it alone. She then sought advice from a Quaker cousin, who reinforced Betsy’s commitment to doing something, even if she wasn’t sure what.

After hearing William speak, Betsy became a ‘plain Quaker’, laying aside jollity and taking a more serious view of life (and clothes), much to the dismay of the rest of her family. However her decision seems to have helped her deal with her moods and focus on her relationship with God. This seems to have given her a bit more emotional stability, although Hatton writes in a captivatingly human way about how this wavers through Betsy’s life.

She met Joseph Fry at her home when she was 19. It’s not clear how, but he turned up without really knowing her very well to ask for her hand in marriage, seemingly to have admired her from a distance.

She rebuffed him a few times, largely goaded by her sisters, but he never gave up. Her father hoped that this steady worthy chap from a good, wealthy Quaker family would add stability to her life, and he did.
Although he was pretty hopeless in business and more extravagant in nature than Betsy felt comfortable with, he was solidly behind his wife’s good deeds. Hatton portrays a committed and gentle husband capable of lifting his wife out of her moods, and looking after her, with admiration, throughout their marriage.

Whether or not Betsy was cross with him for his lack of business acumen is not apparent. It seems that she was more annoyed with him for not wanting him to help her with her prison work.

He seems to have taken better care of the children than her, and that this in some way helped their relationship. However, her diaries seem to give the impression that she would have preferred a more spiritual partner. There isn’t much detail in the book about what Joseph though of Betsy. Perhaps he was too busy sorting out the children.

Joseph seems to have been a husband from a future generation as well, given that he seemed to have enjoyed both bringing up and playing with his children, possibly more than he did working. He seems to have been quite happy to let Betsy go off and change the world whilst he held the family together. Given that they still managed to have such a large family, maybe Betsy was as happy with him as she could have been with anyone.

(One of) Betsy’s forms of extravagance was entertaining people. She may have dressed very ‘plainly’ but seemed to have hosted huge numbers of people during Yearly Meeting as local Quakers were required to do by London Yearly Meeting.

Betsy seems to have really enjoyed this, and missed entertaining terribly when she and Joseph were so poor that they had to move from the Fry family home in the City of London, close to the banking centre of England.

The Society of Friends was certainly a pretty tough crowd in those days. When Joseph became bankrupt, they kicked him out. It can’t have been nice for his creditors, but the kind of compassion that Betsy demonstrated in prisons seemed to be missing from the broader Quaker body.

Quakers also didn’t let parents of Friends go to the weddings of their children if they married ‘outside’ The Society, which seems mean.

None of Betsy’s children seemed to have remained Quakers. Some married into Quaker families, but ended up leaving the Society. It can’t be nice if your father has been dismissed rather than assisted, and your mother, despite huge public acclamation, is frowned upon by the religious group that she cared so much about and dedicated so much time to advertising.

That she had time or energy to pursue her career of compassion as well as having an active, complex family and Quaker life is surprising in itself. It is all the more remarkable that she also managed to convince thousands of other women to do good works as well, during a period when women did not have an active role in society.

Obviously she came from a class that could afford servants (although Betsy and her husband were able to exist in this way only because of family help). But why would anyone listen to her advocacy for prison reform and other endeavours?

After her convincement, as a teenager, Betsy made a habit of visiting ‘the poor’ and found she had a knack of organizing children in schools, and supporting people who were sick. She enjoyed it.

She followed William Savery to London and he seems to have seen something in her, or supported her budding quest to do something out of the ordinary. She corresponded with him on his return to the States.

Her father took her to visit a Quaker school and the newly established Retreat, in York. Despite a certain amount of emotional instability herself, she doesn’t appear to have connected with it as a psychiatric institution beyond admiring the way in which emotionally unstable Quakers were given care.

After her marriage to Joseph, she remained at the Fry family home in the City of London, and seems to have felt trapped. She found herself by venturing out into the slums and meeting people. Betsy started visiting prisons as a request from another Quaker. She started working in them possibly as a way of dealing with what was probably post-natal depression.

Somehow from somewhere, she seems to have developed a system for empowering people and she managed to persuade Newgate prison authorities to let her try this system, put in into practice and developed it further.

Prisons in the 1800 were basically human dust bins. People were put there when society felt they should be hanged, which some of them were. If they didn’t they would probably die in prison anyway, having a horrible life in the meantime.

But prisoners in the 1800 were not just criminals, although criminals were there too. The industrialization of British society had meant that many labourers were not needed. Unemployment rose as the price of basic food stuffs rose, because wealthy land owners protected their income by raising the price of food stuffs. Consequently many people couldn’t even afford bread, and were in prison for long sentences as a result of petty theft.

Betsy didn’t pick and choose worthy prisoners, over non-worthy; that was not her approach. She never seems to have questioned at the beginning of her career whether or not someone should have gone to jail, just that prisoners had a right to a life and should be able to leave.

She divided women from men, and focused on the women. She never seems to have become very involved with male prisoners although Hatton indicates that men’s prison conditions eventually changed as a result of her work and reforms.

Her basic method was to create teams of 12 women, with one monitor. She taught them to do something; knitting or sewing, sell their goods, and got them to save money for when they got out. She contributed to the ‘leaving fund,’ giving each woman an incentive amount depending how much money they made whilst in prison. Her system was more complex than this, these are just the basic principles.

The effect on the prison authorities of taking women who were considered not much more than animals, en mass; and turning the animals back into the women they were, was dramatic.

Betsy’s experiment was extremely successful and lead her on a rolling programme of visiting and reforming prisons all over Britain and beyond, for the rest of her life.

Why prison? Could it be because early Quakers spent their lives in prison? Whatever the reason, she had found a niche that no one else was interested in.

That’s the cynical view, but it would not be fair to portray Betsy in that light, and Hatton doesn’t do this. Hatton, although frank about her troubles, portrays Betsy as a tender, naïve enthusiast. She is very clear that Betsy was led by her beliefs, in fact the picture is given that she was driven to do so, with zeal, fortitude and a clear idea of what would work and why.

This was no money-making venture, and Betsy hadn’t asked her family for financial help to support herself in it beforehand. Betsy worked in prisons, connecting emotionally with prisoners. Possibly because she found life emotionally stressful, she threw herself into ‘something’ and ended up reaching out.

For all the ‘do-gooder’ that Betsy was, it is clear not just from this biography but from history itself, that she was both a convinced Quaker but a very convincing person, which lead her to develop meaningful relationships with women in prison.

She ministered regularly in Newgate, and then in other prisons, and demonstrated her ability to convince others that she was called by God do what she was doing. No one, then, appeared to have spent much time questioning whether she should, as a woman, be preaching at all. Lucky for Betsy that she was a Quaker.

She travelled around Britain frequently, visiting prisons and talking about her work, incidentally advertising Friends. She drew crowds to hear her talk and most people in public spoke of her with complete admiration.

She didn’t just visit prisons, she wrote reports, she handed them out and ‘took up’ matters. She wore her poor family out with her zest for her chosen role and whilst they seemed ambivalent to her in their relationship with her, were in awe of her public persona.

As word spread, religious leaders, eminent parliamentarians, and royalty in Britain, and Europe, became interested in her and her work. She responded religiously to a massive mail box and an ongoing roll of visits. Hatton recognizes that nowadays clearly Betsy would have been seen as a networker of note.

Betsy’s energy for reformation within British and European societies continued as she got older. She seemed to get more fired up with a sense of urgency to complete what she had begun. This determination seems to have grown into a mission to get everyone to join in helping people, whom she saw as victims of the way in which the upper classes treated them.

Where she got the energy from is a mystery. How she managed to make this palatable to the upper classes when she was criticizing them, is another.

In her final decade, Betsy used her relationships with British and European royalty to further her cause, and she counted some of them as her friends, entertaining the King of Prussia at home.  Whilst she wasn’t close to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, she does appear to have sent them wholesome books and letters stressing the importance of reading children extracts from the Bible.

She certainly seemed to have quite a bit of cheek. At one notable moment, she burst in on the King of Denmark, who was talking with her brother about slavery instead of some prisoners (who were Ministers of the church). Betsy felt these prisoners should be released, but the King refused to listen to her,

But this sort of encounter also makes Betsy’s story endearing and believable.

Later in her life, a report on prison reform pointed out that prison work was for serious people not the job of gentrified ladies dabbling in ‘do-goodery’.

This report was a bitter blow to Betsy, who was searching for people to take her seriously. Yet Hatton recounts that this even this did not seem to have stopped Betsy. By then, many people knew about her, and many had experienced the effect of what she had done for them.

Having read this book, I find myself not just being proud of the woman on the UK bank note who many years ago broke the mould so that I could work in the way that I do in the world. I feel as if she is part of a very proud inheritance that I have direct access to as a Quaker woman.

As a human being, Betsy tried her best to be honest and real with her life. She tried to find some way of dealing with her personal relationships, not always successfully. Rather than let this hold her back, she ‘did stuff’ because she felt she had to. It was almost as if through ‘doing stuff’ in the outside world and sorting out other people’s lives, she was able to get some perspective on her own.

More than that, the difference she made to the lives of so many people without a future, particularly women, was profound.

Even if they do not recognize it in the UK now, enough people felt that she was worthy of bank note notoriety at the time she was chosen to represent half the population of the country by being on a five pound note. This is despite Betsy’s and her husband’s propensity towards bankruptcy.

Maybe someday in the future, Mrs Fry will be recognized again for the changes she made in British society at that point in history. However maybe it is now her turn to step down, and with quiet satisfaction that no one can ever know the extent to which she affected a man’s world without them even realizing it.

Even if much of the historical credit in the areas of society that interested her went to men, and whatever anyone thought of her; this book makes it clear that what mattered to Betsy as Hutton says ‘is that all people are valuable and no matter what their present condition, they can help shape their own destiny and also leave their own world in a better place.’

In this way, Betsy has unobtrusively has passed through so many hands this century, amongst men and women of every persuasions, whether this came with recognition or not.

— Amanda Gibberd

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