Elizabeth “Betsy” Gurney Fry by Jenn Frederick

On June 24, history came alive at Camas Friends when Elizabeth “Betsy”
Gurney Fry spoke about her life and work at the monthly Convergent
Friends Meeting. She spoke with great passion about her calling to
work with the women and children at Newgate Prison, helping to improve
the grossly substandard conditions of the prison, creating schools for
the prisoners and their children, and providing spiritual guidance for
many of the prisoners. Her work at Newgate Prison led her to become
one of the leading voices in prison reform in England and the world.
Elizabeth became a leading voice in prison reform, as well reforms in
insane asylums, hospitals, and poor houses throughout England. She
testified in front of numerous parliamentary committees and
commissions and became a renowned speaker around Europe and the New
World, often bringing forth crowds far too large to fit into the
buildings in which she was speaking.

Beyond some of the better known history of Betsy’s work, she shared
with the group her childhood, often reading snippets from her own
numerous journals. She spoke about being born into the wealthy Gurney
family, one of 12 children, being raised in the “gay Quaker” style
(but later feeling God’s calling to adopt the “plain Quaker”
lifestyle). She endured some hard times – struggling with bouts of
depression  and seeing the oldest 6 of her 11 children taken out of
her home by the Gurney and Fry families, not to mention many of these
children marrying into and converting to Anglicanism. But her passion
for this work transcended these difficulties, and the work she did is
among the most important in prison reform work and she has become an
important figure in British and Quaker history.

Now, you may be wondering how Camas Friends was able to host such an
important woman 167 years after her death. This was made possible
through the insightful and creative work of Roena Oesting, from La
Jolla (California) Monthly Meeting. Appearing in costume,  Roena spent
the first part of the presentation speaking as Elizabeth Fry, engaging
some members of the audience to give voice to some of the important
people in Elizabeth’s life (including her sister, her husband, the
Newgate prison Governor, and others). What began as a 5 minute speech
for Toastmasters has become what her own meeting has recognized this
program as a leading for her. Roena has been able to bring this
program to various states, and hopes to expand her travel program to
the entire country (and possibly beyond).