Thursday 27 October 2016

Your Last Paper Five Pound Note by Janie Hampton

For the past fifteen years, all of us who live in Britain have looked at this woman many thousands of times. But within the next few months she will disappear from public view as paper notes are replaced with plastic ones.. Who is she? 
The last paper £5 note
She is Elizabeth Fry, the woman on the “back” of the £5 note. (The woman on the “front” is Queen Elizabeth II, who appears on all British sterling notes.) So why was she chosen?
Elizabeth Fry changed the lives of prisoners in the 19th century, in Britain and all over the world. Much is already known about her extraordinary humanitarian work , so I’ll tell you a bit about her early life.
Betsy, as she was known, was the daughter of devout Quakers from East Anglian banking families – her mother Kitty (1755-1794) was a Barclay; and her father John Gurney (1749-1809) was a partner in Gurney’s bank. Eventually the two banks married too.  Born in 1772, Betsy grew up the third of eleven children in Earlham Hall, a country house in Norfolk built over many centuries. It had 80 cupboards for ‘hide and seek’ and was set in beautiful park land - now the site of the University of East Anglia. There were at least two dozen indoor and outdoor staff, who were treated as part of the larger family.
The Gurneys of Earlham were known as ‘Gay Quakers’ – they loved to dance and sing, and they wore cloaks with colourful linings. Kitty believed in liberal and equal education so Betsy and her six sisters were taught French, Latin, Botany, History and Geography, as well as needlecraft and family economics. Drawing lessons were given by John Crome and John Sell Cotman, leading members of the Norwich School. As part of their social and moral education, Kitty would fill jugs with soup and march her children off to feed the local poor.
Unlike her rowdy siblings, her mother described her third daughter as ‘my dove-like Betsy, scarcely ever offends and is truly engaging’. Her sisters found her moody, self-absorbed and difficult. She resisted joining them in the North Sea at Cromer or duck-shooting on the Norfolk Broads. Following Quaker practice, the children were encouraged to write their true feelings, and faults, in daily journals – and then had to read them out to the family. Betsy was unsparingly honest about the sins of both herself, and her sisters. Her four younger sisters were often irritated by her goodness: ‘she does little kindnesses, even to those who ignore her.’
When she was only 37, Kitty died of erysipelas, a skin infection which is easily treated nowadays. The Gurney children were then aged between one and 16 years; Betsy was just 12. To keep them cheerful, their father would hire a blind fiddler on Saturday evenings who could not know that the sound of laughter and dancing came from Quakers. Despite being shy, Betsy had a beautiful singing voice and danced with grace. She observed in her journal that dancing made her flirt more and at 17 she wrote, ‘I must beware of being a flirt, it is an abominable character’. Much to the disapproval of the Plain Quakers, her father invited guests belonging to other Christian denominations, and encouraged his children to know about the world. Just as many of us boycotted South African wine to bring down apartheid, as early as 1800 the young Gurneys resisted eating sugar to try and end slavery.
On Sunday mornings, the family walked the three miles into Norwich for “Goats”, the Goat Lane Friends Meeting House. On the way there any child who lapsed from speaking French was fined a farthing. Quaker meetings lasted three or four hours, sometimes in complete silence. For children who loved riding, swimming in the river, dancing and drawing, this was an agony of self-sacrifice and they found  it “extremely dis” [disagreeable]. By the end they felt “thoroughly goatified” until they got home to Earlham for a “romp and a dance”. Their journals refer as often to dancing, as they do to their sins.
A watercolour of Betsy's Quaker cousins at Friends Meeting House, Gracechurch Street, London in 1778.  Twenty years later, Betsy would have been sitting on the left and William Savery speaking from this platform.  Note the speakers hat hanging above him.
One Sunday in February, 1798, the seven sisters were sitting in the front row at Goats. Betsy intended to spend the meeting contemplating the beauty of her new pair of purple boots with red laces. But she became transfixed by the speaker, an American Quaker called William Savery (1750-1804). ‘I had a feint light spread over my mind…it has caused me to feel a little religion,’ she wrote. Determined to hear Savery speak again, she asked her father to take her to London. During the week, she attended Drury Lane theatre, Covent Garden opera, saw performances of Hamlet and Bluebeard, went dancing, had her hair done, and finally on Sunday went to hear Savery again. Her life was never the same again. Much to her family’s annoyance, she gave up dancing and singing, wore only plain grey clothes, spoke quietly and determined to overcome her fear of the dark. She visited the sick and poor with clothes and food, started a Sunday school and became a Plain Quaker. Two years later she married a fellow Quaker, Joseph Fry (1777–1861) – whose family made their fortune in chocolate, although Joseph was an unsuccessful banker.
The 'Angel of Prisons' reading in Newgate Gaol.  The man on the left wearing spectacles is her brother-in-law Thomas Fowell Buxton MP. Painting by Jerry Barrett, 1816, on which £5 note is based.
The couple lived in London where in 1813 Betsy visited Newgate Prison. She was horrified by the filthy, overcrowded conditions of women, many imprisoned with their children. Five years later she became the first woman to present evidence to Parliament, which led to the MPs John Peel and  Thomas Fowell Buxton supporting the ‘Gaols Act of 1823’. She formed the “British Ladies' Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners”, the first national women's organization in Britain; and campaigned against capital punishment. She established a "nightly shelter" in London for the homeless,and in towns all over Britain she organized volunteers to help the poor in their homes. After Betsy set up a college for nurses, Florence Nightingale took some of them to the war in the Crimea. Queen Victoria supported her work and the King of Prussia even joined her on a visit to Newgate Prison. Betsy visited over 100 convict ships before they set sail, giving each woman a ‘useful bag’ for her transportation. She wrote, “My mind is too much tossed by a variety of interests and duties — husband, children, household accounts, Meetings, the Church, near relations, friends, and is a little like being in the whirlwind and in the storm; may I not be hurt in it, but enabled quietly to perform that which ought to be done.”
Betsy died of a stroke aged 65 and was buried in Essex. There are many buildings named after her, including an 1849 women’s refuge in Hackney; part of the Home Office headquarters; and a school in Greensboro, North Carolina, USA. There are statues of her in Wormwood Scrubs Prison, East Ham Library, and the Old Bailey Court, London.
“Oh Lord, may I be directed what to do and what to leave undone.”
Statue of Betsy in The Old Bailey,  the site of Newgate Prison, London.
There’s even a National Elizabeth Fry Week in Canada every May. Many thousands of people, mostly unknown to her, benefited from her humanitarian work. Nevertheless some people criticized Elizabeth Fry for neglecting her domestic duties - despite the fact that all but one of her eleven children reached adulthood. Sadly, this is a problem women still face today. So before you spend your last paper five pound note, think about this woman who changed the way we think about the homeless, prisons and slaves - and yet still managed to annoy her sisters!
Elizabeth Fry, née Gurney, 1780-1845.
Janie Hampton is descended from four of Elizabeth Fry’s Gurney siblings.
This blog uses her mother's book: 'Friends and Relations - three centuries of Quaker families', Verily Anderson, Hodder & Stoughton, 1980.


AnnP said...

I knew a little about her work but the details of her early life are really interesting. Thank you.

Susan Price said...

Yes, thank you. I think I would probably be as irritated by Mrs Fry in the flesh as her sisters were, but you have to admire her.

Joan Lennon said...

I used to have nightmares about the prison conditions she described - and worked in. That's a lineage to be proud of, Janie!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating to read about her early life and, indeed, your heritage.

Janie Hampton said...

One of Elizabeth Fry's direct descendants was the wonderful children's writer Noel Streatfeild (yes, it is spelled that way!)