Mrs Fry and a pint of porter


a reformer in Germany

Reading the unpublished diary of Elizabeth Fry's lively niece, while sitting in a tower room at a magical moated castle in Oxfordshire:  this was one of the many rewards that came my way during the three years of research for Noble Endeavours, my history of England's long and fruitful friendship with Germany.

Mrs Fry was already celebrated through Europe for her work as a prison reformer when she decided, in 1840, to pay a visit to Germany and see for herself the results of her endeavours.  The trip (which began with an audience with Queen Victoria and her personal royal blessing for the venture) was undertaken with Samuel Gurney, Elizabeth's wealthy Quaker brother, and her niece, Elizabeth, who kept her record of the trip in a brand new diary, purchased in the Strand.

 Elizabeth Gurney's diary offers surprising sidelights on a hallowed figure. Feeding 'Aunt' up with sufficient porter and ale to keep her in spirits was demurely observed by Elizabeth to be quite a business in itself.  Greeted at every stoppping point in the German tour with smacking kisses from their Quaker counterparts, Elizabeth flinched.  'Not content with one good smack, they plan for at least four, that is two for each side...Aunt Fry bears it heroically.

  'I think,' Elizabeth added, 'she rather likes it.'

   Neither Mrs Fry nor her companions were impressed, on reaching Hanover, to find that this, the most closely connected of all German towns to England by its history, had one of the worst prisons in the country, with 400 men held permanently in chains, and an English-born King (a son of George III) who refused to hear their objections, declaring himself too ill for an audience. At Coburg, curiosity about Albert's home overtook concern for prison reform; Elizabeth and her aunt had been led by the English periodicals to believe that Albert, who had only very recently married Victoria. had grown up in the equivalent of a garret before he came to prey upon the wealth of England. They were in for a shock: the Prince's apartments were 'really splendid', an awed Elizabeth noted: 'we had no idea he lived in such state.'

Berlin, for Elizabeth, who had never left England before, was the high spot of their trip, not only because it was in Berlin that she met her future husband, Ernest de Bunsen, son of the Prussian Ambassador to England, but because, she, like her aunt, had an uninhibited and most unquakerish enthusiasm for mixing with royalty.

Note was made in Elizabeth's neat hand of every titled person that she met in Berlin, ranging from the courteous and magnificently bearded King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia down to an entire galaxy of princesses.  Soon, Elizabeth grew confident enough to draw distinctions.  She had met 'a vast concourse of Counts, Barons, etc.' she wrote to her sister, back in Norfolk, but two princes had failed to make an impression.  They were small fry, definitely 'not Royal ones'.

It gratified Elizabeth still more than the royal audiences to which she was a frequent witness, to see that, while her aunt, gowned in silk and looking 'fit for any court of Europe', drew an admiring crowd of onlookers on her arrival at the principal prison in Berlin. The Queen, together with a nervous group of court ladies who had never before stepped inside a prison - and looked as if they wished never to do so again -  attracted, by contrast, almost no interest at all. 

Kaiserswerth, a nursing insitute that had been set up by an admiring German pastor who had observed Mrs Fry at work in Newgate, back in 1824, formed a significant stopping point on the German tour.  Mrs Fry had promised to bring reports upon its nursing staff back to her London friend, the Prussian ambassador.  Following Mrs Fry's warm account, the ambassador encouraged a young Florence Nightingale to stand up to her family and pursue her courageous ambitions for a career in nursing. In 1850, Florence visited Kaiserswerth; returning the following year, she took her nursing exams and passed with flying colours. De Bunsen, meanwhile, had acted on Mrs Fry's recommendations.  Setting up London's celebrated German hospital on the fringes of Hackney, to serve the German poor, he imported, from 1845, teams of dedicated German nurses from Kaiserswerth. The hospital, for which Mrs Fry's recommendation had provided a valuable initiative, continued to serve as a beacon for excellence and high quality nursing care until the Second World War, when false reports that it was being used to store materials for munitions caused the (entirely innocent and elderly) nurses to be arrested and interned.

   Added: Sunday 17 November 2013