39 min

Elizabeth Fry: 'The angel of prisons' The Forum

    • Society & Culture

Life behind bars in English prisons in the early nineteenth century was, to put it mildly, grim. Prisons at the time were often damp, dirty and over-crowded. Common punishments included shipping convicts to colonies like Australia - and many crimes carried the death penalty. And the poor suffered most of all, because they couldn’t buy privileges like extra food rations. Into all this walked a woman known as the "angel of prisons", Elizabeth Fry. She was one of the major driving forces behind a new way of thinking about prisons – one that stressed that improving conditions for prisoners and treating them with humanity would lead to better outcomes and lower re-offending rates. A Christian philanthropist from a large Quaker family, her ideas were taken up across much of Europe, and she became something of a celebrity in Victorian England.

Joining Rajan Datar to discuss her work and legacy are:

Averil Douglas Opperman, author of a biography of Elizabeth Fry called 'While It Is Yet Day'; Criminal barrister, Harry Potter, author of 'Shades of the Prison House – A History of Incarceration in the British Isles'; And Rosalind Crone, historian and author of 'The Guide to the Criminal Prisons of Nineteenth-Century England'.

Produced by Jo Impey for the World Service.

Image: Painting by Jerry Barrett depicting Elizabeth Fry reading to prisoners at Newgate, 1816
Image credit: Henry Guttmann / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Life behind bars in English prisons in the early nineteenth century was, to put it mildly, grim. Prisons at the time were often damp, dirty and over-crowded. Common punishments included shipping convicts to colonies like Australia - and many crimes carried the death penalty. And the poor suffered most of all, because they couldn’t buy privileges like extra food rations. Into all this walked a woman known as the "angel of prisons", Elizabeth Fry. She was one of the major driving forces behind a new way of thinking about prisons – one that stressed that improving conditions for prisoners and treating them with humanity would lead to better outcomes and lower re-offending rates. A Christian philanthropist from a large Quaker family, her ideas were taken up across much of Europe, and she became something of a celebrity in Victorian England.

Joining Rajan Datar to discuss her work and legacy are:

Averil Douglas Opperman, author of a biography of Elizabeth Fry called 'While It Is Yet Day'; Criminal barrister, Harry Potter, author of 'Shades of the Prison House – A History of Incarceration in the British Isles'; And Rosalind Crone, historian and author of 'The Guide to the Criminal Prisons of Nineteenth-Century England'.

Produced by Jo Impey for the World Service.

Image: Painting by Jerry Barrett depicting Elizabeth Fry reading to prisoners at Newgate, 1816
Image credit: Henry Guttmann / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

39 min

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