The Bank of England’s £5 note, Elizabeth Fry and the Women of Newgate

A guest post by Helen Rogers

Elizabeth Fry £5 note

Current £5 note depicting the philanthropist and prison reformer Elizabeth Fry

Last Friday (26 April 2013) the Bank of England announced it is replacing the image of Elizabeth Fry on its five pound note with Winston Churchill. Instantly there were calls on Twitter to reinstate the Quaker prison reformer, the only woman currently commemorated on its banknotes with the exception of the queen who, one day, will also be replaced, most likely by a male heir. Already there is a petition to find another female face to grace the Bank of England’s pantheon of great Britons. Mary Wollstonecraft has my vote.

But Fry’s removal does not only mark the erasure of women’s history from our currency. Other banknotes celebrate heroic individuals: intellectuals (Charles Darwin, Adam Smith) and inventors (Matthew Boulton, James Watt), though the Bank makes room to honour its own; Sir John Houblon, founding Governor on its £50 note – I had to look him up!1 By contrast, the £5 note gestures, albeit obliquely, to a broader and yet more conflicted social history.

Alongside the head of the matronly Elizabeth Fry in her plain Quaker bonnet, the banknote portrays a group scene at Newgate Gaol in 1816. The pioneering prison reformer is reading the Bible to women prisoners and their children, looked on benevolently by Christian visitors. Few of us will have given the image much consideration. My students look nonplussed when I ask them what is on the £5 note. But before the Bank discards this group portrait, it is worth us looking more closely at the history it might reveal to us. It presents an idealized scene, to be sure: the outcast redeemed by kindness; rich and poor united by faith. But it evokes nonetheless a vital part of our national traditions – the collective struggles for social inclusion and welfare, for justice, fairness and compassion. Implicitly, it hints at the illegitimate economy that was so enmeshed with the commercial system represented and regulated by the Bank. Among Fry’s audience were the women we can find here in the Old Bailey Online who supplemented meagre wages or just about scraped a living by trading in stolen goods, lifting pockets, passing false coin.

Fry reading

Jerry Barrett, Mrs Fry Reading to the Prisoners in Newgate, in the year 1816 (1863) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The engraving is based on Jerry Barrett’s painting, Mrs Fry Reading to the Prisoners in Newgate, in the year 1816 (1863). At its centre, the prison philanthropist fixes her eyes on two women while pointing to the Bible, as if appealing directly to them. The women stand arm in arm. One, we are to be in no doubt, is a fallen woman who will have plied her body on the same streets from which she stole; her dress falls Magdelene-like off her shoulder and she looks shamefully at the floor. The other woman appears to be consoling her friend, yet behind her back conceals a pack of cards from Mrs Fry’s penetrating gaze. At their feet, two young boys – possibly their children – are playing dice, a warning about the evil of gambling and the corruption of innocence in England’s most notorious gaol. Behind them, some women are listening and weeping but, ominously, others are gossiping over a bottle of porter.

Barrett’s picture poses troubling questions: Can the women be saved? Will they defy intervention? Are some beyond redemption? Prison philanthropists were repeatedly called to answer these questions. Fry insisted that kindly, personal engagement with the convicted, Christian teaching and useful occupation were the most effective means of reforming prisoners. Those advocating more deterrent and punitive methods of correction won the argument. Challenging the growing use of the treadmill, silence and solitary confinement, Fry told the House of Lords in 1835, ‘I think there is more cruelty in the gaols than I have ever seen before.’2 By 1860 when Barrett painted the Newgate picture, humanitarians had lost their hold on policy. The 1865 Prison Act enshrined in statute the regime of ‘hard labour, hard bed and hard fare’ that already characterized the prison system. Barrett’s painting reminded viewers of a gentler, more forgiving approach.3

It is telling, however, that the watermark on the £5 note obscures the disreputable side of the Newgate ward depicted by Barrett and, with it, the more troubling responses of inmates. Instead of the ‘fallen’ girls, a seated woman bends maternally over the small boys at her feet. This sanitized image suggests we are no more at ease with prisoners and their rehabilitation than were Fry’s or Barrett’s contemporaries; we want them penitent and compliant. Our version draws on the mythic narrative of Fry’s miraculous achievements in transforming prostitutes and thieves into good wives and mothers, spun ever since news of her work at Newgate hit the headlines in 1818.

Quickly Fry became the face of female philanthropy. Smiling benignly from the pages of books and magazine articles, she was held up to generations of girls to admire; only Joan of Arc received more coverage in popular popular biographies of ‘women of worth’.4 As a woman who stepped so spectacularly out of the domestic sphere, her model of religious voluntary activism became a blueprint for public-spirited women who saw their mission lying not only in the home but in prisons, workhouses, hospitals and even government. Women suffragists honoured Fry in their pageants, rightly claimed her as a pioneering figure in the history of female citizenship even though, perhaps tactfully, she had always avoided the controversial issue of women’s political rights.

Despite the current outcry about Fry’s removal from the £5 note, however, she has long been a troubling figure for feminist historians who have done much to challenge her popular saintly reputation. The model of Christian sisterhood she pioneered empowered middle- and upper-class women activists, they have argued, but all too often by infantalizing and schooling less privileged women.5 Soon after she organized the Newgate women into classes, Fry proclaimed, ‘Already, from being like wild beasts, they appear harmless and kind.’6 Recognition of the outcasts’ humanity – that they were ‘poor’ rather than ‘beasts’ – depended on prisoners adopting appropriate gender roles, befitting their class. Fry’s programme of compassion mixed with strictness, devised in her early visits to Newgate, constituted a ‘powerful sympathy’, claims Randall McGowen, defined as much by class ideology as by Christian piety.7 For feminists and Foucauldians, philanthropy masks discipline and surveillance.


Unknown, ‘Mrs Fry visiting a female prisoner at Newgate’ © National Maritime Museum, London

Historians have rightly scrutinized the unequal power relationships that structured encounters between philanthropists and those they hoped to serve, in and beyond the prison. But their focus on discipline has led many to overlook the varied responses of inmates and the poor to such interventions. While firsthand accounts of Fry’s work seldom reproduced the words spoken by inmates, they provide some evidence of prisoner voices and agency.

From the outset, Fry believed reclamation depended on the consent of inmates and she developed her programme in answer to their demands: ‘Want of employment, was the subject of their continual lamentation’, she recalled; ‘They complained that they were compelled to be idle, and that having nothing else to do, they were obliged to pass away the time doing wrong’. Initially Fry planned only to open a school for their children. The Governor declared no room was available but the women took matters into their own hands and showed Fry where the school could be located. The adult schools came at the request of inmates: ‘Their zeal for improvement, and their assurances of good behaviour, were powerful motives and they tempted these ladies to project a school . . . for teaching them to read, and to work’.8

The schools at Newgate, then, were not just of Elizabeth Fry’s making: they were a joint, if unequal, enterprise driven by prisoners as well as their teachers. With a unanimous show of hands, Fry’s earliest scholars consented to rules devised by the ladies, renouncing reading novels, gaming, singing popular songs, dancing, and ‘dressing up in men’s clothes’ in return for Bible reading, education, and needlework.9 They had powerful incentives to follow the ladies’ instruction – the acquisition of new skills and learning – but they also seem to have acted according to their own sense of mutual responsibility. Forming inmates into groups, Fry left them alone to elect monitors and ‘the most proper person’ from their ranks as schoolmistress. They chose Mary Connor, ‘a young woman of respectable appearance’, recently committed for stealing a watch. From the record of her trial in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, she may have worked with women associates, soliciting men to rob them. ‘Assiduous in her duties’ in the schoolroom she was given a free pardon after fifteen months but died – a godly death, Fry tells us – of consumption contracted in gaol.10

Not all women were so enthusiastic. Barrett’s painting stages one of the most famous incidents related by Fry in 1818 to the House of Commons select committee ‘On the Prisons of the Metropolis’. The story, told the same year by Thomas Foxwell Buxton in the first public account of the work of the ‘Ladies Committee’ and widely circulated by the press in 1818, formed part of the dramatic core of the Newgate legend, repeated ever since. Suspecting many women stuck to their old habits, Fry asked them to hand over their playing cards out of kindness to their teachers as well as themselves. Six packs of cards were dutifully surrendered for ceremonial burning. The women were each rewarded with a new muslin handkerchief. One girl, however, ‘looked disappointed’. She had hoped for a Bible with her own name written inside it, ‘which she should value beyond anything else, and always keep and read.’11

For Buxton and Fry, the girl’s wish proved the successful and unprecedented ‘experiment’ in ‘humanizing’ the outcasts of Newgate.12 We might be more cautious in our interpretation of this episode. Did the girl feel under pressure to prove her commitment to reform? Was she seeking approval and the chance of more employment or a good report? Maybe the student was outwitting her teacher by claiming the moral high-ground? Or did she simply long for a book of her own inscribed with her name that perhaps, thanks to the ladies, she could now read or write? She had been one of the ‘worst’ of the women but afterwards was ‘amiable’ and sent to a Penitentiary, from which Fry trusted she would leave ‘a valuable member of society.’13

One of the most radical insights of Fry’s programme, illustrated by the above account, was that women could help each other reform. She insisted they benefitted from eating, working and learning together rather than in separate confinement.14 In 1819, eleven women awaiting transportation who had been involved in a disturbance wrote to apologize to their ‘respected friend and benevolent benefactress’ for bringing their ‘fellow-prisoners’ into ‘general disgrace’. They wished to ‘contradict the bad’ opinion ‘impressed on the public mind’ of women like themselves.15Fry’s reply suggests how she urged the prisoners to see themselves as active participants in the cause of prisoner reform: ‘for you sadly hurt the cause of poor prisoners . . . and you thus enable your enemies to say, that our plans of kindness do not answer, and therefore, they will not let others be treated kindly.’16

Harriet Sleigh, transported in 1818 for stealing poplin from a draper’s appears to have learned the lesson. From New South Wales, she wrote to Fry: ‘Believe me, dear madam, although I am a poor captive in a distant land, I would not give up having communion with God one single day for my liberty’. Sending her love to ‘all poor afflicted prisoners’ she wished Fry to make her ‘sincere sentiments’ known to the public, ‘that the world may see that your labour in Newgate has not been in vain’.17 Recently exiled, Sleigh used the contrite and devotional language, she had learned at Newgate, and cited Scripture. To gain Fry’s approval, prisoners had to adopt this penitent tone; ‘bad language’ was one of the main offences for which they were reprimanded and for which the disruptive women above apologized. We can be certain, I think, that Sleigh was sincere in her sentiments for she had nothing to gain in writing to Fry from Australia. But to demonstrate her gratitude, perhaps she took care to express these sentiments in the language she knew her benefactress would understand.

Over twenty years since her transportation in 1823 for shop-lifting, Hester Clark also wrote to Fry, unaware her ‘benefactress’ had recently died. Her letter was reported in Fry’s memoir. Though Clark’s words were not quoted directly, she seems to have struck a different note to the penitent letters above; more conversational, happily relating domestic detail. At Newgate, Clark had been elected Schoolmistress by fellow prisoners. On departure, Fry had given her a little luxury, ‘a pound lump of sugar, and half a pound of tea’. Clark now wished Fry to know she had been married for twenty years, had ‘plenty of pigs and fowls’ and could afford ample tea of her own which she bought ‘by the chest’. Her bed was still covered by the patchwork quilt she had stitched while aboard the convict ship, from pieces given to her by the Quaker ladies. In her letter, Clark expressed gratitude, but not in the language of contrition. Instead she weighed up her success and shared her contentment, one woman to another.

To demonstrate her thanks, she sent her former teacher a calabash (or gourd) from her own garden.18 It was a fitting if idiosyncratic gift. In 1876 Henrietta Ward painted ‘Mrs Fry Visiting Newgate’, showing Fry descending into the gaol’s netherworld with her fellow Quaker Mary Sanderson. The prison heroine clutches a red rose and the bible to her chest. The rose had been given to the artist by Fry’s daughter. It came from the same plant that her mother used to pick to give flowers to the women in Newgate. The roses had proved, Elizabeth Fry had said, ‘a means of softening their hearts and giving them a vision of beauty’.19


E.M. Ward, ‘Mrs Fry Visiting Newgate, 1818’ (1876), exhibited at World Columbian Exposition, 1893

Evidence of the Newgate prisoners’ feelings, filtered through the moralizing literature by Fry and other philanthropists, is fragmentary and defies certain interpretation. It is important, nonetheless, to acknowledge. Though Fry emerges from such works as heroic reformer they hint also at the agency – and courage – of prisoners in making the most of opportunities provided by the Quaker ladies, and in enduring and surviving captivity.

Recent historians have not looked too kindly on Elizabeth Fry. As popular interest in the reformer is briefly revived by her removal from the £5 note, it is perhaps time for us to re-evaluate her work and the significance of early prison philanthropy. This is not to advocate we return to the sentimental and heroic narrative evoked by the picture on the £5. But it is to suggest we take account of the fact that for many prisoners – though by no means all – Fry’s intervention amounted to something more than discipline alone. And it is to recognize that, as Fry disappears from our currency, many of her concerns remain current.

In the same week we learned of Fry’s demotion by the Bank of England, the crime statistics for England and Wales, 2011-12 revealed an overall drop in sentencing by 19% compared with 2006-7.20 Last year, as the Howard League notes, the prison population dropped by only 3.5%.21 The Howard League’s campaigns demonstrate the continuing relevance of Fry’s intervention: meaningful work for prisoners, the particular needs of women and children in prison, the active participation of offenders in rehabilitation and community engagement. They also shows that, as a society, we are no more comfortable with rehabilitation and little more compassionate to the convicted than were Fry’s contemporaries.

Helen Rogers



For names of people recommended by the public for inclusion on bank notes, see

2 Evidence of Mrs Elizabeth Fry, Mrs Elizabeth Pryer, Mrs Jane Pirie and Miss Catherine Fraser to the Select Committee on Gaols and Houses of Correction (1835), pp. 327-343, citing Fry, p. 332. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers Online, images 521-537.

3 Norval Morris and David J. Rothman (eds), The Oxford History of the Prison: the Practice of Punishment in Western Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), chapters by Randall McGowen (71-99) and Seán McConville (117-50)

4Alison Booth, How to Make It as a Woman: Collective Biographical History from Victoria to the Present (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 147-51. For example, see title page Women of Worth: A Book for Girls, illustrated by W. Dicks, (London: James Hogg, 1859).

5Eileen Janes Yeo, ‘Protestant Feminists and Catholic Saints in Victorian Britain’, in Radical Femininity: Women’s Self-representation in the Public Sphere, ed. by Eileen Janes Yeo (Manchester University Press, 1998), pp. 126–48.

6Fry’s diary, 14 April 1817, cited in Memoir of the Life of Elizabeth Fry, with extracts from her journals and letters, edited by two of her daughters 2 vols (London: John Hatchard, 1847), p. 261.

7 Randall McGowen, ‘A Powerful Sympathy: Terror, the Prison, and Humanitarian Reform in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jul., 1986), pp. 312-334.

8 Thomas Foxwell Buxton, An Inquiry, Whether Crime and Misery are Produced or Prevented, by Our Present System of Prison Discipline (London: John and Arthur Arch, 1818), pp. 114, 117, 118-9.

9 Buxton, Inquiry, pp. 123-6.

10 Memoir, pp. 260 and 277; Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.0, 09 May 2012), September 1816, trial of MARY CONNOR ANN RYMER (t18160918-183)

11 Buxton, Inquiry, p. 130-1; Memoir, pp. 297-8.

12 Buxton, Inquiry, p. 133; Memoir, p. 261.

13 Memoir, pp. 297-8.

14 Memoir, p. 297 from evidence delivered to select committee, 27 February 1818.

15 Memoir, pp. 355-6.

16 Memoir, pp. 356-7.

17Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.0, 09 May 2012), January 1817, trial of HARRIETT SLEA (t18170115-25); Letter to Fry, 10 July 1820, Memoir, pp. 267-8.

18 Memoir of Elizabeth Fry, pp. 445-6; Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.0, 09 May 2012), April 1823, trial of ESTHER CLARK (t18230409-103).

19 Cited by Annemieke van Drenth and Francisca de Haan, The Rise of Caring Power: Elizabeth Fry and Josephine Butler in Britain and the Netherlands (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999), p. 195, n. 7.

20 Statistical bulletin: Crime in England and Wales, Year Ending December 2012,–year-ending-december-2012.html

21 accessed 28 April, 2013.

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2 Responses to The Bank of England’s £5 note, Elizabeth Fry and the Women of Newgate

  1. Thank you for a wonderful piece. The current banknote debate does indeed highlight a fundamental divide in the ‘representation of women debate’. Some advocates of female representation simply want ‘a woman’ to appear on British currency because that would be ‘fair’ in a society comprised of both men and women. But others, myself included, want the inclusion of ‘a person of importance’–or, as you rightly acknowledge, an issue of importance–with due consideration of women candidates alongside men. There are many female reformers, medical researchers, and artists who deserve to be included for their actions or accomplishments, not their simply their gender. That they are excluded from consideration because they are not as well known as their male counterparts is criminal, and often merely a reflection of their active exclusion by (some) earlier historians. But to simply include a ‘token’ woman for the sake of ‘gender representation’ would be equally unwise. The argument put forth by some, that young girls are disheartened because they do not see women on currency, seems a very weak case compared to that of the unjust exclusion of individuals of merit.

  2. Reblogged this on Victorian Detectives and commented:
    A thoughtful argument by historian Helen Rogers for keeping Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note.

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