The Angel of Mercy who fought for women in 'hell'

Let's Talk|June 2020

The Angel of Mercy who fought for women in 'hell'
She was born in Norwich 240 years ago and you must have carried a portrait of her in your purse or wallet. Derek James pays tribute to Elizabeth Fry.
Derek James

There are many people from history who we wished we could have met ... and I am sure many of us would have loved to sit down and talk to a woman born in Norwich on May 21, 1780.

The little girl they called Betsy became known as the ‘Angel of Mercy’ and she dedicated her life to improving hellish conditions for women in prison.

In fact she devoted her life to helping others. In notorious Newgate Prison, where girls and women were beaten and tortured, she offered a rare hand of friendship, comfort, and hope for the future.

She wrote of her days visiting Newgate: “All I tell thee is a faint picture of reality; the filth, the closeness of the rooms, the furious manner and expressions of the women towards each other; and the abandoned wickedness, which everything bespoke are really indescribable.”

What made Elizabeth such an achiever is that she had friends in high places who could turn words into deeds and help these poor women, rather than listen, nod, and do nothing as was often the way. Queen Victoria admired her work and granted her audiences while Robert Peel passed acts to further her cause. The King of Prussia also met Elizabeth during her tours of Europe promoting welfare and prison reform and he visited her at Newgate Prison.

Make no mistake, she upset a lot of people during her life as a prison reformer – and thank goodness she did.

Irish journalist and author Averil Douglas Opperman wrote a book about Elizabeth five years ago and told me: “She was a fascinating person but she had plenty of faults. I have tried to make sure this book will appeal to those who are not avid readers of history or biography.”


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June 2020