“But can nothing be done for these poor creatures?” asked a sweet, pained voice, and the pitiful blue eyes filled with tears of compassion. “Nothing; they are, I repeat, utterly irreclaimable, sunk in depravity and crime beyond the power of all rescue.” But the young Quaker, Elizabeth Fry, visiting the prison called Newgate, said, “Utterly lost, sayest thou? Dost thou mean to say – but thou surely canst not—that these poor creatures are beyond the power and mercy of their God?”
The jailer responded, “Well, no of course not quite that, I suppose; but – but- well, the chaplain can do nothing with them, nor any one else that I know of.”
Here in a square of less than two hundred yards were huddled a confused mass of female prisoners and children, some untried (and so might be innocent of offence) others convicted of all kinds of wrong-doing, almost all dirty and shameless. Mrs. Fry’s own words to her brother were : “All I tell thee is a faint picture of the reality, the filth, the closeness of the rooms, the ferocious manners and expression of the women toward each other, and the abandoned wickedness which everything bespoke are quite indescribable.” And yet it was into such a place and to such people that this lady, nurtured in all refinement, ventured to bring the message of pardon and peace.
On her first visit to Newgate she met with great difficulties – the governor, chaplain, jailers, all alike strove to discourage and hinder her. The task was more helpless and disgusting – not to say dangerous – than any lady could imagine. She would hear awful language; the creatures were apt to turn brutally unmanageable. And what then?
“Then” said the slight, flaxen-haired matron, sedate and grave, in her plain Quaker’s dress, “then, as now, I shall be in God’s hands. I fear no other – let me go.”
And go she did, not so much as leaving her watch or purse at home for safety. Alone and unguarded, she was locked up with that awful crowd, which pressed about her with shrieks and jeers. They could not understand what such a one came for. And while they pushed, and begged, and swore, she stood, - strong in the sublime charity that hopeth all things, believeith all things, - New Testament in hand, patiently waiting. By and by, however, the Babel lulled, and she opened the page where it spoke most kindly and tenderly of the poor and fallen of all time, not as reprobates and accursed, but as sisters, to be raised and comforted, and one day led, safe and purified, to the Father’s feet. Her voice trembled somewhat now; but otherwise she showed no fear of the wild, haggard group about her, and they were subdued in spite of themselves by the determination of this fragile woman to tell of something beautiful and new. A real lady, too, - one of the class that passed them by with disdain; a lady speaking as though she loved and sorrowed for them as women of many trials and worthy of all compassion.
Suffice to say, God used Elizabeth Fry to revolutionize the prisons, The inmates heard and saw God’s love; they learned to read and write, to knit, sew and spin, earn money that they might not start penniless at the end of their imprisonment. The children were schooled and it is no wonder that one poor creature exclaimed, tearfully, when asked if she remembered Mrs. Fry:-
“God bless her, and the day she came to Newgate. She has done us all good, and we have, and shall always have good reason to bless her.”
By Clara L. Mateaux - Picture from the Internet