Book review: While it is yet Day: The Story of Elizabeth Fry  by Averil Douglas Opperman

While it is yet Day: The Story of Elizabeth Fry byAveril Douglas Opperman
While it is yet Day: The Story of Elizabeth Fry byAveril Douglas Opperman
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The familiar, homely face of ‘angel of the prisons’ and social reformer Elizabeth Fry on our £5 bank notes possesses a strange and little known irony.

Daughter of a wealthy Norfolk woollen manufacturer and banker John Gurney, Fry’s roots were firmly planted in the whole business of banking. She married London banker Joseph Fry and had connections to both the Barclays and Lloyds banking empires.

But it was the guiding principles of her Quaker religion that informed Fry’s conscience and drove her tireless reforming zeal. Indeed her mantra, ‘While it is yet day,’ epitomises her selfless determination to use every waking hour to improve the lives of the vulnerable and needy.

Horrified by the barbaric conditions at London’s notorious Newgate jail, Fry advocated and implemented a series of reforms and it was through her pioneering work that the treatment of prisoners across the world became more humane.

One hundred and seventy years after Fry’s death, Averil Douglas Opperman’s fascinating and inspirational biography, much of it drawn from Fry’s copious personal diaries, shines new light and understanding onto this shy, complex celebrity whose early years were a far cry from the perceived vision of a fun-free, frugal Quaker upbringing.

The story of how the lively, lovely ‘Betsy’ Gurney, who adored pretty clothes, dancing and singing, became the gentle, thoughtful and fearless prison reformer Elizabeth Fry is brought to vibrant life under the watch of an author with an equivalent zeal and passion for her subject.

Opperman, who herself grew up in a Quaker family in Dublin, first became interested in Fry when she was a child and, as she points out, the great lady’s achievements were even more remarkable as she was one of the first women to become famous for her causes within the constraints of a 19th century marriage and while running a busy home and raising her eleven children.

Consulted by the newly crowned Queen Victoria and Parliament, a source of inspiration for nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale and a close friend of the King of Prussia, Fry constantly juggled work, home, faith and family but never compromised on her calling to help the poor, the homeless, gypsies, thieves and neglected women prisoners.

Born in 1780, the young Betsy grew up at Earlham Hall near Norwich with her ten siblings. She was not beautiful in the modern sense, but tall with wavy blonde hair, a sweet rather than pretty face, and pensive eyes.

Their widowed father loved them all but was a busy man and his children – all handsome and energetic – roamed free, taking to the fields and country lanes and noted for ‘being cheeky to passers-by.’

Although the girls’ unruly behaviour was the sensation of Norfolk, they also possessed a charming simplicity. The family were ‘gay’ Quakers, a branch of the faith that enjoyed music, dancing and singing, rather than the ‘plain’ Quakerism which eschewed all such jollities and advocated a simple dress code.

Betsy was always the sensitive sister… delicate, kindly, painfully shy, capable of subtle self-analysis and the first of the family to seriously question where her life was going after a broken engagement and a meeting with American ‘plain’ Quaker William Savery.

The 18-year-old Elizabeth was deeply moved by his preaching and determined to follow the traditional Quaker path of bringing ‘light to the blind, speech to the dumb, feet to the lame.’

She gave up her ‘gay’ pleasures, collected old clothes for the poor, visited the sick and opened a school in her home to teach local children to read.

Two years later, she married Joseph Fry, a wealthy ‘plain’ Quaker from a London banking family and heir to the sumptuous Plashet estate in East Ham which they inherited in 1809. In between caring for their brood of children, nursing various family members through illness, childbirth and death, Elizabeth worked hard in the local parish and was credited with keeping the neighbourhood free of smallpox by overseeing vaccination.

It was another travelling Quaker, Stephen Grellet, who set Fry on her life’s work when he took her to the women’s quarters in Newgate and she witnessed women ‘reduced to the level of wild beasts.’

While arguments about prison reform flowed about her in high places, Fry set to work to transform their lives, bringing with her ‘a strange new inhabitant’ to Newgate… hope, in the shape of vastly improved conditions, a school for the children of prisoners and workshops for the women to make and sell their handiwork.

‘Punishment is not for revenge,’ she declared, ‘but to lessen crime and reform the criminal.’

The women quickly responded to her ‘serene courtesy’ and within three years Fry was famous, still battling her innate shyness but corresponding as a prison adviser to most of the crowned heads of Europe and later travelling throughout Britain, Ireland and the continent to encourage reform.

Fry’s life was one of dedication and selfless duty to others and on a personal level she suffered much soul-searching over her roles as mother and reformer, and many tragedies including close family deaths and her husband’s bankruptcy and consequent ‘disowning’ by the Quaker Society of Friends.

Worn out by life and work, Elizabeth Fry died at the age of 65 with her family at her bedside. In true Quaker tradition, her burial in Barking had no prescribed service but over 1,000 stood in silence to say goodbye.

Opperman’s warm, affectionate and very human biography pays tribute to the woman that was Elizabeth Fry, the loving wife and mother and the reluctant celebrity, feted by royalty, known by all, respected by everybody and loved by many.

Her kindness, common sense, integrity and unforgettable natural charm were summed up by the Duke of Argyll who wrote: ‘She was the only really great human being I have ever met with whom it was impossible to be disappointed.’

(Orphans, hardback, £16.99)