Female Prisoners at Newgate and Elizabeth Fry

There were many female prisoners at Newgate during the 1700 and 1800s. Part of the reason why is that the living standards for rural women in England and Wales appears to have worsened as the Industrial Revolution progressed. This may have been one reason why one study provided by Stephen Nicholas and Deborah Oxley titled Living Standards of Women in England and Wales, 1785-1815: New Evidence from Newgate Prison Records shows that in 1795, the average age of a woman incarcerated was 36.94. By 1809, the average age was 25.59 and as the Georgian Era progressed the average age for an incarcerated woman fell to 22.22 by 1814.

The second Newgate a 19th-century print by George Shepherd. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Among the 300 female prisoners at Newgate not all were adult women. This was demonstrated by Mrs. Elizabeth Fry, often referred to as Betsy Fry, who had been prompted in 1814 by a family friend, Stephen Grellet, to visit the women incarcerated at Newgate. She discovered that both women and children were “crowded together in two wards and two cells.”[1] Most of these children were under the age of seven with one new mother described by the Carlisle Patriot in the following manner:

“One of them, of interesting and respectable appearance, was suckling her infant. We were informed that she and her husband had been condemned to die for forgery. The woman, being pregnant, obtained a respite, but she is still under sentence of death.”[2]

Fry was an English prison and social reformer who as a Quaker was also a Christian philanthropist. Her first visit to Newgate Prison happened in 1813. What she found was perhaps worse than what visitors might experience when visiting Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors. Fry was horrified and reported:

“They [the female prisoners] slept on the floor, at times one hundred and twenty in one ward, without so much as a mat for bedding, and many of them were very nearly naked. She saw them openly drink spirits, and her ears were offended by the most terrible imprecations. Every thing was filthy to excess, and the smell was quite disgusting. Every one, even the governor, was reluctant to go amongst them. … She saw enough to convince her that every thing bad was going on. … she repeatedly said, ‘all I tell thee is a faint picture of reality; the fifth, the closeness of the rooms, the ferocious manners and expressions of the women towards each other, and the abandoned wickedness which every thing bespoke, are quite indescribable.”[3]  

female prisoners at Newgate - Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

To further demonstrate how terrible it was for the female prisoners at Newgate she reported that because of the extreme shortage of clothing “two women were seen in the act of stripping a dead child, for the purpose of clothing a living one.”[4] The women’s section also included some prisoners who had not received a trial, and she found prisoners had to do their own cooking and clean themselves by washing in their small cells.

Fry was appalled and returned the following day with food and clothing for some of the prisoners. She wanted to help further but the Fry family was undergoing several difficulties at the time. These obstacles included financial issues and thus she had to wait several years before she could help. Nonetheless, when she returned to Newgate in 1816, she soon became the driving force behind legislation to treat prisoner more humanely, something that Queen Victoria supported her in accomplishing.

At the time, authorities dealt with the imprisoned population through punishment, but Fry was promoting rehabilitation instead. Penalties for both male and female prisoners included such things as the treadmill for punishment designed in 1818 by Sir William Cubbit to generate power for mills, so that items like grain could be ground. Prisoners operated the treadmill by walking side by side in a sort of stair climbing activity. However, it was intensely physical and arduous work that endangered the lives of prisoners.

Treadmill for women. Public domain.

Fry found that the female prisoners at Newgate were “pining away” for want of food, air, and exercise, and, moreover, they spent their time in idle conversations, gaming, and drinking. With little to do, there were numerous reports about obscenity, imprecations, and licentious songs resounding throughout the women’s wards. One visitor noted that “the language of indecency, violence, and blasphemy excited no surprise, for it was the common language of the place.”[5]

The bad language also filtered down to the children: “Infants [were said to] utter oaths and filthy expressions, amongst the first words they … articulate[d].”[6] Moreover, when Fry visited Newgate, she reported:

“I soon found that nothing could be done, or was worth attempting for the reformation of the women, without constant employment; as it was, those who were idle were confirmed in idleness, and those who were disposed to be industrious, lost their good habits. In short they were there to have the work of corruption completed, and subsequent examination has discovered to me the cases of many, who before this period, had come to Newgate almost innocent, and who left depraved and profligate in the last degree.”[7]

To curb such bad behaviors, in 1817, Fry helped found the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. This association wanted to provide incarcerated women with talents and skills. To do so the association provided materials for the women to learn certain skills. For instance, female prisoners could learn knitting, sewing, and needlework skills, which also allowed them to earn money for themselves and gave them a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Immediate promise was demonstrated by female prisoners at Newgate who were participating in the program as their lives significantly improved. It also resulted in other prisoners wanting to become “partakers” in the plan. This then led to a more extensive program being rolled out, “the principal object of which was to introduce regular work and useful employment, among them all, and such rules as would tend to their moral and religious improvement.”[8]

Furthermore, to accomplish this skills program on a broader scale a “well-disposed” and “respectable” woman was appointed as matron. She was placed over a certain group of women and charged with providing constant supervision and reading portions of the scriptures both morning and night to these women. In addition, members of the association paid daily visits to assist and support the matrons. They also inspected the education opportunities available and provided friendly counsel and encouragement to the female prisoners.

Prior to the help of the association and Fry’s visits to female prisoners at Newgate, riots were common. However, with Fry recommending that female convicts vote on rules she suggested, and that more humane treatment implemented for the prisoners, big improvements in behavior by the female prisoner population resulted. This was noted by the Morning Post in 1820:

“The tendency to rebellion was so strong, that very frequently, and on various occasions, every pot, pan, stool, and window in the prison, have been known to be broken; now that tendency is so effectually counteracted that the uniform demeanor of the great majority of prisoners is gentle, quiet, and peaceable, and the breaking of six panes of glass is gravely insisted on as denoting a portentous riot!”[9]

Authorities had also instituted a practice where prisoners were transported to distant places to serve out their sentences. Fry campaigned against this as prisoners usually ended up in penal colonies. Moreover, those who were transported knew that once they served their sentences in these faraway places, they would likely not have the necessary funds to return home after release.

In relation to the transporting of convicts, Fry visited 106 transport ships and saw 12,000 convicts. The idea of being taken far away always produced “much feeling” in those female prisoners at Newgate who were slated to serve out their sentences somewhere else. It was difficult for many of them to imagine being separated from their family and friends for many years or perhaps even for life.

female prisoners at Newgate

Convicts embarking for Botany Bay by Thomas Rowlandson. Courtesy of Trove.

The female prisoners at Newgate who were transported also had to undergo much humiliation to reach the transport ships. The women were often chained together and then they had to travel through London streets in open carts. It was an indignant ride as they were regularly pelted with food and filth by Londoners as they passed by, something that Marie Antoinette also endured on her way to the guillotine. Condemned female prisoners were fearful enough of this ride to sometimes riot the night before they were set to be transported. A mention of this stated:

“[S]ome of the convicts [at Newgate] became furious, and insulted the Governor, from the windows of their wards, with language the most improper and indecent. It appears that out of the 40 women who were ordered for transportation, eighteen joined in this passionate and indecorous expression of their feelings; six panes of glass were also broken.”[10]

Fry worked tirelessly to change this practice of transporting criminals and because of her efforts she was able to persuade the Governor of Newgate to send the women in closed carriages. In addition, she visited ship captains and convinced them to implement systems to ensure each woman and child would get a proper share of food and water during the long trip. Later she also arranged for each female prisoner to have fabric scraps and sewing tools so that they could have something to do and so that by the time they reached their destination they had acquired a useful skill.

Most female prisoners at Newgate, as well as many prisoner reformers, found Fry’s humane approach and recommendations better than punishment. Fry herself also found it rewarding to aid incarcerated women so that they might stay out of prison forever. This was demonstrated when a reporter mentioned to Fry how she had helped female convicts and admired her abilities in doing so. Fry replied:

“I have done nothing that ought to astonish you; I have no other merit than that of having hazarded a moral experiment, which was indeed new – of having tried the influence of a system of mildness and kindness on souls quite strange to those impressions, however hardened they might be to the system of rigour and repulsion, of which most of them, perhaps, have been victims. At first I fancied myself shut up with a set of wild cats: I had however, the happiness to make some impression; I was encouraged to preserve, and was amply rewarded when I heard one of these wretched creatures one day say to me: ‘Ah Madam, I bless God for the day when he brought me to this place! – the Gaol of Newgate.’[11]

Fry also frequently visited and interacted with the female prisoners at Newgate. The Carlisle Patriot reported on one of her regular visits in 1819 stating:

“The female convicts to the number of forty or fifty, nearly dressed, enter in file, and in profound silence take their seats on the benches, which they fill: they are accompanied by their young children – who little suspect the part which Mrs. Fry makes them act in the conversion of their mothers. They sit down on the floor at the feet of the latter. Nothing can be more moving than this sight: nor is any more striking than this to see in this narrow space ladies of the highest rank … brought almost into close contact with these degraded and guilty creatures … She [Mrs. Fry] enters – All eyes are fixed upon her. … After conversing a few moment with such of the visitors as are known to her, Mrs. Fry takes her seat, opens the Bible, seeks and always finds a passage applicable to the condition of her auditory. She reads it with the most impressive tone of voice that can be conceived. … When she has finished, after a solemn pause … Mrs. Fry … addresses to the unfortunates, who survey her as though she were an angel … She comforts, she encourages them, she raises them in their own estimation by the sense of that very interest which they exist in persons who formerly beheld them only with disgust and horror. … All eyes are rivetted upon her; tears trickle from some, and the emotion becomes contagious.”[12]

female prisoners at Newgate

Elizabeth Fry reading to the female prisoners at Newgate. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, a parliamentarian, abolitionist, and social reformer, also heard about Fry’s work. He joined Fry and the ladies in their work. He also provided financial support to help institute their ideas, and he wrote about their success stating:

“Thousands pass through out prisons every year, and learn there, vice and the arts of successful villany. A judicious application of the methods adopted by these ladies, may furnish the prisoners with other acquisitions, and render our prisons what they ought to be … schools of morality and reformation.”[13]  

Sir Thomas Buxton. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fry died on 12 October 1845 from a stroke in Ramsgate, England, a spot where Jane Austen and her cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, visited during their life. Fry’s remains were buried in the Friends’ burial ground at Barking and because of her methods and tireless work in the prison system, The Ipswich Journal reported:

“We find the grand jury of the City of London, … expressing themselves in reference to Mrs. Fry’s exertions … ‘They cannot … concluded their report without expressing in an especial manner the peculiar gratification they experience in observing the important service rendered by Mrs. Fry and her friends, and the habits of religion, order, industry, and cleanliness which her humane, benevolent, and praiseworthy exertions have introduced among the female prisoners; and that if the principles which govern her regulations were adopted towards the males, as well as the females, it would be the means of converting a prison into a school of reform … they would be restored to it repentant, and become useful members of society. … Her readiness to hear the cause of the distressed and destitute and alleviate their sufferings, won for her the respect of all classes, and raised for her a name which reflects credit on her sex as well us on the Society of Friends, of which she was so distinguished a member.”[14]  


  • [1] The Christian Observer (London: J. Hatchard, 1818), p. 447
  • [2] Carlisle Patriot, “Account of Mrs. Fry, and the Reformation of the Female Convicts in Newgate,” February 6, 1819, p. 1.
  • [3] The Christian Observer (London: J. Hatchard, 1818), p. 447.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Morning Post, “Female Prisoners In Newgate,” April 28, 1820, p. 4.
  • [6] T. F. Buxton, Inquiry Whether Crime and are Produced or Prevented (London: John and Arthur Arch, 1818), p. 103.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 102–3.
  • [8] Evening Mail, “Female Convicts in Newgate,” August 8, 1817, p. 3.
  • [9] Morning Post, p. 4.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Carlisle Patriot, p. 1.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Christian Herald and Seaman’s Magazine, (New York: Christian Herald, 1818), Volume 5, p. 548.
  • [14] The Ipswich Journal, “The Late Mrs. Elizabeth Fry,” October 25, 1845, p. 4.

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