At EFry, we’re often asked about our namesake. People wonder if Elizabeth Fry formed our organization or if she plays a key role on our management team. In a way, she does. Everything we do supports two lessons her life taught us – first, that one person can change people’s lives and second, that everyone deserves respect and the opportunity to become contributing members of society.
Our organization was named in honour of Elizabeth Fry’s legacy. She was born Elizabeth Gurney in England on May 21, 1780. As you can imagine, women were not seen as leaders 234 years ago. Nor did the privileged class try and improve the lives of the less fortunate. Yet Elizabeth, whose parents were part of England’s prestigious Gurney and Barclay banking families, did just that as she believed everyone had value and should be treated with dignity.
She began her work by donating clothing to the poor, caring for the sick and opening a school in her home from which she taught children to read. She married Joseph Fry, a banker, at age 20 and had 11 children. After her marriage, Elizabeth toured London’s Newgate Prison, a visit that changed both her life and history. Appalled by the living conditions of incarcerated women and their children, she made it her mission to raise awareness and create change.
Elizabeth Fry is credited with single-handedly driving prison reform in Georgian England. She formed ladies’ associations to provide hands-on in-prison aid and was the first woman to address England’s parliament, where she lobbied for – and achieved—change. The positive impact of her reforms spread throughout Europe. She then looked to support the sick by opening a nursing school, which inspired a young Florence Nightingale. Upon Elizabeth’s death in 1845, her legacy was honoured by people from all walks of life.
In 1939, the women who formed our Society chose the name Elizabeth Fry because they sought to do what she had done – improve the conditions of confinement for incarcerated women. Like Elizabeth, they achieved many successes. Over the past 75 years, the scope of EFry’s work has grown to include helping women and girls at risk of justice system involvement and those who are transitioning back to life in our communities. We have also expanded our efforts to include supporting children with an incarcerated parent.
At each stage of growth, where the need has been clear and reflected our mission to support marginalized and criminalized women, we have asked ourselves: Can we make a difference? Thanks to Elizabeth, each time the answer has been the same. Yes, yes we can.
By Shawn Bayes
Executive Director, EFry