Elizabeth Fry

Mini-Unit on Famous People

Famous Person: Elizabeth Fry
Related Topics: Condition in prisons
How information travels
Treating others with kindness
Grade Level: 3rd/4th
Author: Adri Anne Madsen


Time Allotment
Resources Needed


The situation in the prisons became apparent to Elizabeth Fry in the year 1813, during her first visit to the Newgate prison that was located in London. It was at this time that Elizabeth became dedicated to helping reform the prisons. Although she was concerned about the men's situation her primary concern was for the women and their children.

As Elizabeth entered the Newgate prison the sight that came to her eyes was one of 400 women, with their children, crammed into four rooms. There was no more space than the slaves were allowed in a galley. They were all dressed in rags and surrounded by dirt. They were not given bedding, toilets, heat, ventilation, or light. They were given so little food that the women almost had to fight just to get some. Also there was no doctors or nurses to help those who got sick. The women were so mentally disturbed by their situation that they would hurt not only one another, but they would also hurt themselves. The feeling was one of survival with no reason to survive.

At this time the prisoners were not treated as human beings, because they were not looked at as human beings. It was felt that the prison was set up as a place were criminals were to be punished so that it should be unpleasant. Many times what they forgot was that the criminals were people too, and how they were being treated was clearly inhumane. Elizabeth Fry felt that there was good in every person, and if you took the time to help them eventually they would find the good in themselves and reflect it to others. This could not be accomplished through treating them as if they were animals.

Elizabeth Fry was born a rich, quaker girl in the year 1780. But it wasn't until the year 1797, at the age of 17, that she became a "Plain Quaker". The "Plain Quakers" are Christians who believe that they must help and take care of those around them. They are a generous people and full of compassion. This is shown through the way that Elizabeth lived her life. They were very simple in the way that they dressed, they did not wear jewelry or any elegant dresses. They also wore a bonnet on their head to cover their hair. Elizabeth Fry believed in all of this and easily gave up all her elegant clothes and rich lifestyle.

It was through the Quakers that Elizabeth was informed about the conditions in the prisons. Once this was brought to her attention she was determined to make a difference. She began by forming a committee of volunteers that wanted to go in and make a difference in the prison. The committee was referred to as the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. The first thing that this committee brought into the prison was clothing and fabric. This fabric was used by the women in the prison to make quilts not only for themselves, but to sell. This in turn made it possible for the women to earn something for their personal needs.

The next step that Elizabeth Fry took was to convince the authorities that the women should be given more space. Then with this space she categorized the women by the seriousness of the offense, and their ages. This action made a very large difference in how the women felt about themselves. For once they saw that someone cared enough to make the differences in their lives. Elizabeth watched as the women gradually gained self-respect, and an overall feeling of hope.

Elizabeth then went to the governor of the prison to ask if she could possibly start a school for the little ones. At first the governor simply brought out the fact that there was not enough room to run a school. This did not stop Elizabeth. She found the room with the help of the women. An unused cell was agreed upon as a meeting place for the children to be taught. The lessons were taught by Mary O'Connor, a prisoner herself. The mothers also longing to learn would cluster around the doorway to the cell and try to listen to the lesson. The minds of the children were open to new concepts every day.

Unfortunately there were some changes that Elizabeth was not able to help bring about. But this did not stop her from doing her best to make the situation a little more tolerable. I am referring to the way that convicted women were transported. The women were herded into a ship where they were chained to each other by their arms and their legs. Some of the women even had to carry their children in this position. But Elizabeth did persuade the prison officials to be more humane to the prisoners, and she also provided them with materials that they would need for the long voyage.

The things that Elizabeth Fry did for the prisoners were all based on the idea that prisoners should be treated with kindness. She felt that through taking care of people eventually they would become good people. Her ideas went far beyond the walls of the Newgate prison. In 1818 Elizabeth was asked to stand before the Parliament and inform them of the conditions in the country's prisons. By invitation, from Elizabeth, members of Parliament visited the Newgate prison, and in 1824 some of the changes were brought about that Elizabeth had been waiting for. One of these was that women were guarded by other women. The prisoners were also given things to do that helped them develop skills. They were also taught how to read.

Elizabeth ended her life by traveling around Europe to spread her ideas of how prisoners should be cared for. As she traveled she checked on the prisons in the area, and helped to set up societies that would aid the prisoners and watch out for them.

The idea of being kind to the prisoners made such an improvement in the prisoners behavior that the ideas spread throughout England. The rulers in France, Holland, Denmark, and Prussia welcomed her advice. Even the emperor of Russia was willing to take her advice to build a new prison in St. Petersburg.

Her thoughts even carried into the asylums. Her words affected many people, and her words still affect many people. For example today in Ottawa, Ontario there is a society that is referred to as the Elizabeth Fry Society of Ottawa. This group goes into prisons to provide counseling and court work for the women who need their help. They also aid in helping the women to gain knowledge and be emotionally stable. Then when the women are sent back into the community they make sure that these women are successful and able to function in the society. They are miracle workers like Elizabeth was.

Elizabeth also had a great deal of responsibilities outside of the prison. Like the rest of us she had things at home and in her community that she had to be doing. Elizabeth Fry had 11 children and then 25 grandchildren. She had a life full with a great many interests and duties, for example: husband, children, household, accounts, meetings, church, and Newgate. Yes, her life was as busy as we are today. Yet she was able to find the time to make a difference.

The message that Elizabeth Fry brought to the people was a message that still rings true for us in this day and age. One thing that would always be wise to keep in our minds is a statement that Elizabeth wrote at the end of one of her reports to the King of France. She said "When thee builds a prison, thee had better build with the thought ever in thy mind that thee and thy children may occupy the cells." (Johnson, pg. 61)


George M. Anderson," Elizabeth Fry: Timeless Reformer," America. October 1995: 22-3.

Johnson, Spencer. (1976). The Value of Kindness. La Jolla, Calif: Value Communications.

Pollard, Michael. (1992). People Who Care. United States: Garrett Education Corporation.

No Author. (1995) Sentient microfilaments Home Page. (On line). Available:


1. Students will be able to brainstorm and discuss differing views on prisons. They will then produce a list of words describing their views.

2. Students will be able to describe the contributions made by Elizabeth Fry and explain how these improved the community.

3. Students will be able to identify specific differences that were brought about in the prisons.

4. Students will be able to brainstorm ideas of how they would help to improve the situation for the people in the prisons, and people who may need their help in general.

5. Students will demonstrate the ability to work in groups for the betterment of people's situation in their community.

6. Students will be able to write an appropriate letter, using the correct format.

7. Students will demonstrate the ability to locate different places on the map and measure the distance.

Time Allotment:

Approximately one and a half weeks to two. 7-10 class periods.

Resources Needed:

Rulers and varies measuring instruments.

2 Guest speakers- one as Elizabeth Fry and a prison official

Material needed to make a quilt
Quilt stand


1. Carousel Activity. Before the children come into the classroom place 5 pieces of large paper around the room. Each paper should contain a question on it that is an open-ended question about prisons or prisoners. As the children come into the classroom split them into 5 groups and have them go to one of the five papers. Once they are all sitting in front of a piece of paper hand each group a different colored marker. Tell them to respond to the question in front of them with anything that comes to their minds and write it down. Give them about three minutes and then have them rotate to the next paper were they will go through the same procedure. After the children have rotated to all the papers have them go to their seats. Take the time to discuss the things that were written down, especially on the papers that had a great variance in the responses.

Some questions that you may want to use are:
-How would you feel about going into a prison by yourself?
-What words do you think describe prisoners?
-What kind of treatment do you think the prisoners should get?
-What are different things that people might have done to get put into prison?
-How would you feel if you were a prisoner?
-What kind of rooms do you think are in a prison?

2. Visualization and Discussion. Have the children close their eye's while you explain the sights, sounds, and smells of the Newgate prison in the year 1813. Add a great deal of detail so that the children can picture it and feel as if they are really there. You may want to turn on a tape with sounds of women fighting, and babies crying. While they are sitting there with their eye's closed have them show you with their bodies what they are feeling like. Afterwards let the children open their eye's and give them a couple minutes to think silently to themselves about how this experience made them feel. Then split the children into groups of five. Assign one person in each group to be the scribe. Give the children time to discuss how it made them feel. Then have the children dictate to the scribe why they think that they felt the way that they did.

3. Role Playing. Before you begin the lesson have the children come up with some ways that they could make the situations in the prisons a little bit better. Write down the ideas that the children are giving. Then tell them that you know about a wonderful woman that went into the prisons to help all the people who lived there. Then have a parent volunteer come in dressed up as Elizabeth Fry. Tell the children that you can't believe it, but Elizabeth Fry came to talk to them and tell them her story. Have the person tell the children about Elizabeth Fry's life and different things that she did. Afterwards have each child write a list of three ways that they thought Elizabeth Fry improved the situation for the prisons, and how they thought that these helped the prisoners.
*Then have her tell the children that she brought something for them that she hopes that they will use wisely to help someone who may need it. Have her go out in the hall and bring in the material that is used to make three or four quilts.

4. Think-Pair-Share. Have the children get with a partner and brainstorm different people that may need the quilts. Then have the whole class come together and have students contribute ideas of people that they think may need the quilts. After you have the list maybe you could narrow it down to a few good places and have the children call those places to see if quilts are needed. Also have them get a list of other things that the place or the person might need.

5. Service Project. Once the children have called the various places they can inform the class about what was said. Then as a whole, the class will discuss who they feel will need our help the most (the children may want to help more than one place). Once the decision has been made you will list the things that those people may need besides the blankets. The children will come up with ways to possibly collect supplies for these people. Possibilities include: a newsletter, a bulletin, a poster, etc. Assign committee members to different parts of helping this service project come together.
Then split the children into three or four groups. Set up the quilt for the children and help them get ready. Then have the children figure out mathematically where they are going to tie the quilt. Guide them in measuring the quilt and figuring out how far apart the ties should be, etc. Then have them tie the quilt. Then take the quilts home and sew the edges.
*See appendix A.
*If this seems to be to big for the children and you do not have the time you may want to simply stick to making the quilts.
*Also this is going to probably last until the end of your unit, so teach other things while you are wrapping up your service project.

6. Guest Speaker. Have half of the children write letters to a prison official inviting him to come to the classroom and tell them about the situations in the prisons. Then help the children to brainstorm questions that they can ask the official when he comes. Afterwards have the children compare what they have learned about the situations in the prisons compared to what the Newgate prison was like in 1813. Have them create posters that are bent in half. Half of the picture will show what the prison was like and half of it will show what the prisons are like today. Afterwards have the other half of the children write a thank-you note to the prison official for coming into your classroom. * Teach the children the appropriate format for writing a letter.

7. Value Whip. Throw out the question "What have you learned from the story of Elizabeth Fry?" Give the children a chance to think about it for a minute and let them write down a response to the question. Then start at the front of the class and have every child say their response as quickly as they can. Let children have the option of passing.

8. Role Play. Remind the children about the various things that Elizabeth had to do that took a great deal of courage. These include: going into the prison where some of the women were mean and rough, going to talk to Parliament, telling people about her ideas when they might be against her and not like her way of thinking. Then in groups of four have them decide how they might act out the situations in which she had to be brave. Let them choose the one that they liked the most and act it out.

9.Learning Journal. Each day give the children the opportunity to write in their learning logs what they have learned. At the end have them conclude by writing how they feel about the situations in the prisons, and how they feel about Elizabeth Fry.

10. Map Skills. Have the children look on the globe to find the different places that Elizabeth Fry's message went to. Have them figure out the distance that her message traveled on a map with a partner. Then compare the different distances that were figured out by using subtraction. Talk about the different places and how news travels from place to place. Then think of ways that they communicated in the time of Elizabeth Fry.


1. During the carousel activity the children will be assessed by what their group contributed to the list at each paper. The teacher will be able to informally look through the list that the children made.

2. The children will be watched informally as they participate in the discussion. This is a chance to see what the children are thinking and if they are getting the idea that you are aiming for.

3. Contributions made during the Think-Pair-Share will be looked over informally.

4. Their involvement during the service project will be analyzed as to how well they worked with the group . The children will fill out a paper on what they did to contribute to the overall project and what everyone in their group did. This will give you the chance to see how well the children pulled their fair share. Inform the children of this before they start working on the project.

5. The notes that are written to the prison official will be looked over and assessed as to how well the child is doing on their writing. I would also have the children help me to create a rhubric so that we could grade their posters.

6. During value whip the children will be assessed informally on their answer.

7. While they are role playing you will be able to assess how well they understood the situation of Elizabeth Fry and what she was attempting to do.

8. The papers that they have written in their learning journal at the end of the mini-unit will be assessed.

9. Through the map activity the children will be assessed on how accurate they were.

Appendix A

Service Project: This is one way that you could divide your class into different groups to get your service project underway.-

Researchers- One group would be the researchers, they could call the different places that might be in need of help. When they called they would see what the situation was and they could ask what the people might need besides quilts. After they decided as a committee which group would most benefit from our help, they will make a list of things that they want to get or do for these people. For example- in a rest home they may want the children to come and sing for them, in the homeless shelter they may need canned food, maybe it is around Christmas and a family needs toys or clothing for their children. Once they have decided they will present the situation to the rest of the class.-

Decision Makers- This group will take the information that was supplied for them and decide what needs to be done to gather these resources for the families or the place that was decided on. They will take the list of things that need to be done and organize a list of what steps need to take place. For example: For a food drive the organization may look like this: 1. Make fliers and posters to advertise the food drive (the flier must include who the food drive is helping). 2. Distribute the fliers around the community. 3. Get some of the mothers to volunteer to drive the children around to pick up the food. 4. Have children go and pick up the food. 5. Then plan a time when all the children can take the things that they have gathered and the blankets that they have made and deliver them to the place.

*The groups would then be split up into the 4 groups.
1. Advertising: Figuring what to say on the fliers. Then figuring out how to illustrate the fliers. Have these children discuss with the distribution committee so that they could decide how they were going to know which houses to go to when it was time to pick up the food.

2. Distribution: There would be a group who decided where the fliers would be the most affective and distribute them to these places.

3. Writing letters: One group would write letters to mothers of the class asking for volunteers. This would have a way for the mothers to contact the children to let then know if they could do it.

4. The last group will be in charge of organizing the route that each volunteer will take, then making a map for them, and then organizing which children will go with each mother.

*This is just an example of the way that your service project could be handled, but you as the teacher can decide what will be more appropriate for you.