Elizabeth Fry Refuge

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Elizabeth Fry Refuge' page

By Claudia Jessop

There are many reasons to protect an old building – architectural merit; rarity; the fact that it might once have formed a central strand of an area’s industrial or social fabric.  Sometimes what went on within its walls at some earlier period adds another imperative for seeking to ensure its survival.  No Hackney building is more vulnerable than 195 Mare Street, an impressive brick villa built at the very end of the 17th century, its graceful but battered façade currently hidden behind hoardings, its future unclear.  I would like to look at one particular period in its rich history, between its incarnations as a Belgian merchant’s family home, and as the New Lansdowne Liberal and Radical Club.

   Between 1860 and 1913, this was the Elizabeth Fry Refuge, where young women who had just come out of prison were given accommodation, food, ‘non-sectarian’ religious instruction, medical attention and training in laundry and needlework, with the goal of their return to a respectable life as domestic servants.  It was founded after the death in 1845 of Elizabeth Fry, the great Quaker campaigner for prison reform, as a memorial to her work (for the first 11 years after its establishment in 1849, it was housed in Cambridge Heath Road).  It was administered by the Society of British Ladies for the Reformation of Female Prisoners, a confederation of groups based on one Fry had formed in 1821, credited with being the first ever nationwide organisation of women.   The residents of the refuge, most of them aged between their late teens and mid-twenties, stayed for between a few weeks and a few months, before being found positions as servants, being passed on to other philanthropic organisations, or having their emigration to Australia or North America arranged.  Sometimes a short stay was arranged specifically to try to ‘cure the habit of drinking’.  They worked in the laundry which generated part of the organisation’s income (most of the rest came from subscriptions). 

   The emphasis was on rehabilitation and the right of the women to be free of the stigma of their crimes. Almost all of these were first offences of petty theft of food or ‘wearing apparel’, with some illegal pledging (i.e. pawning of someone else’s property without consent), disorderly conduct and prostitution.  Occasionally, the women had committed more serious crimes, including concealment of a birth, or assault; attempting suicide was also a crime, and some of the most poignant cases are of this.

   Although the idea of the individual’s moral conscience being cultivated was important, the ethos of the institution seems to have recognised the disadvantages which faced young girls who had come of age in severe poverty.  It seems to have been understood that the women had generally fallen into ‘sin’ as a result of odds being stacked ruthlessly against them, and the goal of the refuge was to help them leave their pasts behind – one example of this is the rule that, although any prospective employer would be told the woman’s history, if she was successfully employed for a year, her criminal past was never to be referred to again.

   Admission – highly sought after as being much preferable to the workhouse and as representing a rare opportunity for rehabilitation – was by recommendation from a prison chaplain, a magistrate, or an interested party of irreproachably respectable credentials.  It was dependent on the woman’s having a record of good conduct in prison.  The Refuge tried hard to trace any friends, relatives or former employers of the women, not only to seek testimonials as to her character, but also to try to forge rehabilitative connections, encouraging visits and sometimes even a financial contribution to the woman’s upkeep, or the offer of renewed employment.

   The case books from the Elizabeth Fry Refuge are held at Hackney Archives; they give vivid glimpses of the lives of its residents – like 25-year-old Emma Harvey, a former lady’s maid with a ‘grateful disposition’ who ‘tried to get her living as a tayloress with her sisters, had 1d left and took poison’ – surviving, she stole to fend off starvation, was convicted and tried again to end it all by throwing herself from a window in prison.  Or Ellen Gunn, who ‘feels she has disgraced her respectable friends and is afraid to show her face at home’, Lavinia Brown who ‘was led to steal a small piece of cheese when in great want’, or Emily Taylor, ‘a very uneducated woman every way unkindly treated by her father’.  The notes on the cases show the committee trying to weigh up each woman’s chances of making it in the respectable world – ‘large and stout’ 17 year old Mary Smith, imprisoned for stealing bread, is ‘truth-speaking’, ‘spirited’ and ‘promises to make a good servant’; 23 year old Emma Seaman, who left her job as a servant with a young man and was convicted of causing a disturbance, is ‘clean, industrious and servant-like’, but the matron of Pentonville, where she served her sentence, thinks her ‘high and restless temper’ makes her ‘not likely to do well’. 

   What comes across forcefully is how easily a Victorian woman could lose her all-important ‘character’, without which respectable employment was impossible.   Most of the women admitted had formerly been employed, and on the right side of the law. The membrane between respectability and disgrace was highly permeable when moving between the former and the latter states, but very much less so the other way round.  A single commonplace misfortune, moment of bad judgement or act of desperation could precipitate a woman into a downward spiral ending in destitution and pariah status.  The ‘Ladies’ who ran the Elizabeth Fry Refuge were seeking to provide a safety net to break the fall of such women.

   195 Mare Street is a magnificent building and the last surviving vestige of the street’s 18th century grandeur.  These facts make its neglect a real disgrace.  An understanding of the unique place it holds in the history of social and penal reform, of the Quaker movement and of women’s activism can only make its survival seem more urgently important.



This page was added on 28/03/2014.