Elizabeth Gurney was born into a prosperous English Quaker family. In 1800, she married Joseph Fry, a banker and also a Quaker, and the couple had 11 children. Elizabeth was deeply moved by the inhumane treatment in the prisons of her era, and undertook to become a reformer and philanthropist to improve conditions for those in prison and the homeless. For example, in 1817, she organized a group of women into the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate, which organized a school and provided materials so the prisoners could sew, knit and make goods for sale. The association members took turns visiting the prison and reading the Bible to the prisoners. In 1827, she published a book called "Observations, on the visiting, superintendence and government of female prisoners," in which she described the need for prison reform, called for more opportunites for women, and strongly condemned the death penalty.
Elizabeth Fry and her principles were among the driving forces behind the enactment by Parliament of the Prison Act of 1835. For her work, she became a 19th-century celebrity, particularly in Europe, where she was acclaimed in France and the German states.