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Elizabeth Fry with the women of Newgate Prison
Elizabeth Fry with the women of Newgate Prison

Conditions for women changed considerably as the 19th century progressed. Women were rarely kept separate from men at the start of the 19th century. They were unable to keep clean, had nothing to keep them busy and had to bring their youngest children into prison if no-one was available to care for them.

This changed as a result of the work of Elizabeth Fry, who was shocked by the conditions that she saw in Newgate Gaol. In 1817 she formed the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners in Newgate. They were given suitable work, decent prison uniforms and female warders to guard them. Also as a result of Mrs Fry's campaign, women were better treated when transported to Australia.

The 1820 House of Correction and the 1849 gaol in Bedford were designed with separate cell blocks and exercise areas for women. Mothers could bring into the prison their very young children who depended totally on them. In 1833, for example, the authorities paid for the 15 month old child of a female prisoner to be brought to Bedford Gaol from Cambridge, and bought clothes for the child. The mother and both of her children were later transported to Australia.

(see case studies: Dazeley May Ellis )