Elizabeth Fry (1780 - 1845) and Forest Gate

Thursday 29 November 2018

Elizabeth Fry is one of Britain's most famous historical figures (of either gender).  Her Forest Gate significance is probably that her life donutted the district, with firm connections to: East Ham, Green Street, West Ham, Barking, Dagenham, Stratford, Plaistow, Hackney and Wanstead!

Elizabeth Fry - 1780 - 1845
She was born in Norfolk on 21 May 1780, as Elizabeth (better known as Betsy) Gurney. Her father was a banker and her mother was from the Barclays family, behind the eponymous bank. She was, by six years, Samuel Gurney's (see here)older brother, and when their mother died in Elizabeth's twelfth year, she took on a major responsibility for bringing up her younger siblings, including Sam. She was, like her family, a Quaker, but unlike most of them, took her religion seriously.

She spent her childhood years in Earlham Hall in Norfolk, after which the Forest Gate Grove is named.  That building now houses the law faculty of East Anglia University.

Aged 20, Betsy met Joseph Fry, also a Quaker and a tea merchant, who was a member of the chocolate manufacturing family. The couple married and moved to Brick Lane in Whitechapel - close to Fry's work place. They soon moved to St Mildred's Court, opposite Mansion House in the City and became hosts and hostesses to much of the City of London's considerable Quaker society - a duty Elizabeth hated.

Joseph's father died in 1808 and left the Fry estate - Plashet House, with servants and a cattle farm - in East Ham and Green Street, to him. The Frys upped sticks and moved. Their St Mildred's Court house has long gone but on its site is a City of London blue plaque, recording "Mrs Elizabeth Fry, 1780 --1845, prison reformer, lived here 1800 - 1809." (for details of the other, many, memorials to Betsy - see the end of this article).

Joseph Fry - Elizabeth's
husband, in 1824
Elizabeth, meanwhile, was busy producing her 11 children, who in turn provided her with 25 grandchildren. She would have been the first, however, to accept that a life of domestic bliss was not for her. In 1811 she became a Minister of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). She soon set up a girls boarding school in a large house, opposite her own in Plashet, with accommodation for 70 girls.

The Frys home in Plashet,
before hard times descended
Two years later, a French Friend, Stephen Grellett, was visiting  Newgate prison (on the site of what is now The Old Bailey)and witnessed, inside:

a sight and smell so dreadful ... above everything it is the plight of the women and babies, women lying in layers, the babies on the ground, all but naked, and dying in the cold - a population rendered diseased, brutish and depraved (that sends Grellett)out onto the street, chocking for breath.

Grellett rushed with his story to Elizabeth Fry, and she took up the cudgels.

She found, for herself, that the women's sections of prisons were over-crowded with women and children, who were forced to do their own washing and cooking and sleep on straw.

Elizabeth Fry, entering a women's cell at
Newgate. The overcrowding she encountered is
indicated by the cell, on the left of the photo
Her response was to get clothing in to female prisoners, establish education classes and sewing groups there and provide bibles. She set about bullying prison authorities to introduce humane, sanitary conditions for women, many of whom were held there without trial or on trivial, or no, charges.

In 1817 she founded the Association for the Reformation of Female Prisoners in Newgate, and four years later the London Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners.

She was in her element, in the early years of the nineteenth century, and applied what would be regarded two centuries later as slick PR campaigns to draw attention to her and the female prisoners' causes. She called upon the resources of her well-connected friends to highlight prison conditions. 

She insisted on entering Newgate unaccompanied, and thereby gained both the trust of the female prisoners and great public attention for here "fortitude and bravery".

Visiting prison cells,
unaccompanied by prison staff
She campaigned against women being manacled in chains, against the public exhibition of female prisoners, against transport ships, solitary confinement and above all, capital punishment.

She would attract wealthy visitors (left of sketch) 
and supporters, to watch her read to female
prisoners at Newgate - good for fund raising
In 1818 she gave evidence to a House of Commons committee on conditions in British prisons - and so became the first woman to present evidence to the British Parliament. Not the only "first" to her name.

Above - Newgate Prison, in 1902, shortly
before its demolition.  Below, the statue of
Betsy that stands in the Old Bailey, built
on the site of the prison.
For relaxation, in 1824, the family took a lease on two fishing cottages at Dagenham Breach (pretty much on where Ford's factory is today) and spent subsequent summer holidays there. Elizabeth's daughter, and East Ham historian, Katharine wrote:

It is difficult to convey the sort of enjoyment Dagenham afforded us ... there was fishing, boating, driving and riding inland by day, and when night closed in over the wild marsh scenery the cries of water birds, the rustling of the great beds of reeds, the strange sounds from the shipping on the river gave the place an indescribable charm.

Dagenham Breach in 19th century

The charm was not to last, however. In 1829 Joseph Fry's business hit financial difficulties and the family were forced to sell the Plashet estate in order to survive. Family connections stepped in, to save the day. Elizabeth's younger brother, Samuel, himself a successful banker, was beginning to build himself a substantial property portfolio in the Forest Gate area.

The Upton estate, at the time of the Frys residence
He owned Ham House and its grounds - what was later to become West Ham Park. Within the grounds was Upton Lane House, which is said to have been constructed earlier in the century from the barn and buildings of an earlier house. He lent it to his sister and brother-in-law.

Upton Lane House - later
became the Cedars, see below

This later became known as Cedar House, with its distinctive yellow bricks and central pediment and classical porch. It was located on what is now Portway.

After the Frys/Gurneys moved on, the building became the headquarters of the Territorial Army, until its demolition in 1960.  The current building  on the site bears a plaque, commemorating Betsy's stay there.

Samuel was indebted to the Frys - Betsy had helped bring him up, after their mother had died, and Joseph had nurtured his career, when he first moved to London, in search of work. Samuel showed his gratitude, by loaning it out to the Fry family, until Elizabeth's death in 1845. Katharine was to remark that: "from the grounds there was a fine view across the river to Greenwich Park."

Elizabeth always referred to the house as "Upton".

The wolves, having been kept from the door, Elizabeth was able to resume her philanthropic works.

She worked with other Quakers, including her brother-in-law, Thomas Fowell Buxton, to fight against the slave trade. She founded a Night Shelter for the homeless in 1819 and, in one of her last acts,  a Refuge for Prostitutes, in Hackney, in 1844.

She campaigned vigorously against prisoner transportation, and visited 106 prison ships and over 12,000 convicts. Her campaign resulted in the abolition of prison ships, in 1837.

In 1840, she opened a training school for nurses and inspired Florence Nightingale, who took a team of Fry's nurses on her famous Crimean War mission in 1856.

Elizabeth Fry was no shrinking violet. She revelled in the public attention she attracted. Queen Victoria was an admirer and patron, and they met on a number of occasions.

Betsy sought, and gained, international recognition for her works, touring French prisons in 1839 and Danish prisons two years later.

Victoria was not the only royalty drawn to Betsy. In 1842 she entertained Frederick William 1V of Prussia, at "Upton", after she had given him a tour of Newgate Prison, following his interest in her reform work there. The visit caused all kinds of upsets in diplomatic circles, because many state protocols were ignored.

Above - King of Prussia pub
Prussia. Below Stratford pub named
after him, whose name was changed to
King Edward V11 on out-break of WW1

The king's visit to West Ham was commemorated by naming a pub on Stratford Broadway the King of Prussia  - a name rapidly changed to the King Edward V11, with the onset of war, in 1914.

Elizabeth Fry died in Ramsgate, aged 65 - on 12 October 1845, three years after the king's visit to Upton. She was initially buried in the Friends burial ground, in Barking, but as that closed, and the one at Wanstead Friend's House, in Bush Wood, was refurbed in 1968, she was moved there and remains.

Her legacy is huge - and at a time when, rightly, there are complaints about the lack of statuary etc to women in this country, Elizabeth and her supporters can have few complaints.

She became the first female non-royal to appear on a British banknote, when she adorned the £5 note, from 2001 - 2016. There are plaques commemorating her on the site of her birth, death and original burial ground, in Barking - as well as those in St Mildred's Court and site of Cedar House, referred to, above.  

There is a statue of her in the Old Bailey - the site of the old Newgate Prison, demolished in 1902 - with which she is most associated, and memorials to her at Kensall Green cemetery, Wormwood Scrubs, All Saints Church, Cambridge and the Home Office in Marsham Street.

St Stephen's, Upton Park - now demolished,
following WW2 bomb damage - St Stephen's
Parade on Green St sits on the site. Church
dedicated to Elizabeth Fry
More locally, there is a bust of her in East Ham library and St Stephen's church - finally demolished after bomb damage in 1954 - off Green Street, was dedicated to her. Katherine Road is a misspelled (should be Katharine)is named after one of her daughters and the broken drinking fountain on the corner of Capel Road and Woodford Road, is dedicated to one of her sons, Joseph, who ran the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association (see here).

Clearly, no small Fry!

We are grateful to Derk Pelly's Upton Connection - 1732-1916, a story of families, for use of some of the line drawings of houses in this article.

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