1780 – 1845
Betsy Gurney, best known by her married name of Elizabeth Fry, was a Quaker born into a family of provincial bankers. Their headquarters were in Norwich, where Elizabeth was born. Her mother, who died when Elizabeth was 12, was a member of another Quaker family of bankers, in her case the Barclays. Elizabeth married Joseph Fry, a Quaker of course, and also a banker. Not all Quakers were bankers – a branch of the Fry family were already making chocolate by the time Elizabeth was born. Fellow Quakers, the Cadbury brothers, started making drinking chocolate some years later, and eventually invented the chocolate bar.
Why all this banking and chocolate making among the Quakers? Well, the options for an ambitious Quaker were rather limited. The military was out of the question as Quakers were pacifists; medicine normally required a university education and only members of the Church of England were admitted to Oxford or Cambridge. Nonconformists could always study elsewhere if they wished to pursue a medical career; Edinburgh or Glasgow were popular choices. The law meant the taking of oaths in giving evidence, which Quakers would not do, and farming was also not an option as Quakers would not pay tithes. Plenty of Quakers found business opportunities in other than confectionary or finance of course (think of Quaker Oats), although both the Barclays and Cadburys are still well-known names in these respective fields. They have long ceased to have any connection with Quakerism however, and are now international corporations.
Elizabeth Fry came from a family tradition of bankers and it is appropriate that the £5 note should have appeared in 2001 with her likeness on it; but it was as social reformer rather for her connections with financiers that her name is remembered in the 21st century.
Elizabeth and Joseph Fry had 11 children – not an exceptionally large family by 19th century standards – and most of them survived into adulthood. One of her sons even lived into the 20th century. But you can see why some of her contemporaries accused her of neglecting her duties as a wife and mother by spending so much time looking after the female inmates of the London gaols. She had moved near to London upon her marriage.
She spent her youngest years in the village of Bramerton on the river Yare, four miles outside Norwich. The family passed the winters at their house in Magdalen Street and spent the summer months in their large house on Bramerton Common. Perhaps on Sundays they returned to Norwich to attend the Quaker Meeting House in Upper Goat Lane – I do not know if there was a Meeting House nearer to Bramerton. When she was five the family moved to the much grander Earlham House and left their houses in Bramerton and Magdalen Street behind. Earlham is now on the outskirts of Norwich but then it was two miles outside the city.
She particularly remebereded the strawberries grown by her neighbour at Bramerton, Mrs Greengrass. It so happens that I remember the delicious strawberries grown in a field in Surlingham Lane, Bramerton – just up Mill Hill from the common, where Betsy Gurney lived. She also remembered eating fish caught from the river Yare by the family’s gardener. I also used to catch eels at Bramerton Common which I ate fried for breakfast. My Aunt Olive lived on Mill Hill about 200 years after Betsy. During my 20s I was a frequent visitor to Bramerton.
To the child Betsy (Elizabeth Gurney) it was such a beautiful place that she thought the Garden of Eden could not have been any more lovely. It was also at Bramerton she first became aware of poverty and the difficulties faced by the poor. One of her neighbours – “One Arm Betty”- was disabled and her struggles to survive were even more difficult than those of her equally poor colleagues. Even in so beautiful a place the problems of life could not be forgotten. It was in Bramerton that Elizabeth Gurney’s social conscience was first awakened.
Memoir of the Life of Elizabeth Fry: With Extracts from Her Journal and Letters By Elizabeth Fry, Katharine Fry, Rachel Elizabeth Cresswell. First published 1847.
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