Great Women: Elizabeth Fry & Monica Barritt
This week’s blog for our ‘Great Place: Great Women’ series looks at the lives and contributions of two prominent Quakers. Elizabeth Fry and Monica Barritt, through quiet yet determined effort, sought to improve prison conditions and provide pastoral support for prisoners’ families. Their work, though separated by over one hundred years, greatly improved the welfare of prisoners and of family members visiting them. Both women were strong advocates of the Quaker belief that prisoner ‘rehabilitation is more effective in the long run than punishment’.
Elizabeth Fry (née Gurney) was born in Norwich, England, in 1780 ‘to a well-off Quaker family’. Distressed at newspaper reports of appalling conditions in British gaols, Elizabeth took up the mantle of prison reform and campaigned strenuously on the issue for over thirty years. Fry also lobbied against the prisoner deportation system and terrible conditions onboard ships taking British convicts abroad. For over 25 years she ‘visited every convict ship leaving for Australia’ and promoted reform of the convict ship system, which was eventually abolished in 1868.
Fry made a number of fact-finding visits to Ireland’s prisons and asylums during the 1820s and 1830s. On a visit to Belfast in March 1826, Fry organised a meeting ‘to encourage the women of Belfast to take an active role in the various charitable institutions within the town’. The result was the formation of the Belfast Charitable Society’s Ladies’ Committee, later chaired by Mary Ann McCracken, which championed public health and the welfare of poorer women across the rapidly-growing city.
Elizabeth Fry’s visits to Ireland took her across the country, from Derry to Cork, in an attempt to expose and eradicate cruelty in the British penal system. Fry’s notability was already apparent by 1827 when she described, with some amusement, ‘that upon our arrival in Londonderry we were saluted by a peal of bells’. In a letter to her children, written in Omagh in March 1827, Fry described ‘the unsettled state in the country’ evidenced by ‘the great numbers that we find in the prisons’. Writing to her husband later that month from Enniskillen, Fry described her shock at witnessing ‘so many bad cases of murder and cruelty in the prisons’ and the ‘extreme moral degradation in this part of Ireland’. ‘We saw six men’, Fry continued, ‘who had through enmity knocked a man’s head to pieces, and then put his body down a cave’. Elizabeth later co-authored a report with her brother, John Gurney, ‘addressed to the Marquis of Wellesley, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland’ detailing examples of cruelty in Irish prisons and highlighting aspects in need of reform.
Elizabeth Fry’s legacy of prison reform work informed the actions of later generations of Quakers. Monica Barritt was one such individual. Born in 1921, Monica was a devout Quaker and committed to peacebuilding initiatives in Northern Ireland. Along with her husband, Denis, Monica was a prominent member of the Northern Ireland Quaker community and helped to establish the South Belfast Quaker Meeting House in 1957.
The origins of active Quaker involvement in local prisons can be traced to 1971 when the then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Brian Faulkner, invited the Ulster Quaker Service Committee (UQSC) to run a canteen for visitors to the Long Kesh detention camp (later HMP Maze). The UQSC (later renamed Quaker Service) was formed in 1969 to assist ‘displaced and threatened families’ across Northern Ireland. Prior to the construction of the Quaker canteen at Long Kesh, prisoner ‘relations came from all over Northern Ireland, and they were just being bussed there and dumped’. The canteen, which opened in 1972, was staffed by Quaker volunteers and was the UK’s first purpose-built prison visitor centre.
Monica Barritt was made an MBE in the 1987 New Year’s honours list in recognition of her philanthropic work. Both Denis and Monica spent that summer at Pendle Hill, the Quaker college in Pennsylvania, USA, where Monica ‘talked on penal matters from her experience in Northern Ireland and relaxed in courses on pottery, art and gardening’. Monica Barritt remained an active member of the Quaker community until she passed away, aged 78, in 1999. The Maghaberry Prison Visitor Centre, opened in 1988, was renamed the Monica Barritt Visitor Centre in 2000 in recognition of her tireless work for prisoner welfare.
The Quaker Service no longer provides the services for visitors to the prison, which have transferred to another organisation. However, Quaker prison involvement continues with the Quaker Connections Programme. Volunteers currently support prisoners across Northern Ireland through various streams of work which include supporting those at risk and befriending isolated prisoners. Services include information, advice, one-to-one support, advocacy, childcare, transport, and family support groups. In 2019 the Quaker Service provided practical and emotional support ‘for over 6,000 people’ every month. As well as providing support for prisoners and their families, the Quaker Service also ‘liaise with prison staff’ and have ‘influenced prison reform and criminal justice policy in Northern Ireland’. In this regard, Quaker reformers Elizabeth Fry and Monica Barritt have much in common.
 Elizabeth Fry, Memoir of the life of Elizabeth Fry (London, 1847), p. 36.
 Ibid., p. 37.
 Freeman’s Journal, 20 December 1827.
 Mike Nellis and Maureen Waugh, ‘Quakers and penal reform’ in Stephen W. Angell and Ben Pink Dandelion (eds), The Oxford handbook of Quaker studies (Oxford, 2013), p. 389.
 Fermanagh Herald, 6 March 2002.
 Belfast Telegraph, 15 October 2004.
 Irish Press, 31 December 1986.
 Belfast Telegraph, 13 August 1999.