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Millicent Fawcett
Some Eminent Women of Our Times

Some Eminent Women of Our Times
Millicent Fawcett

Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett

Some Eminent Women of Our Times / Short Biographical Sketches

“Non aver tema, disse il mio Signore:
Fatti sicur, chè noi siamo a buon punto:
Non stringer, ma rallarga ogni vigore.”

    Purgatorio, Canto 9, v. 46-48.
“‘I have a belief of my own, and it comforts me.’

“‘What is that?’ said Will…

“‘That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil – widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.’”

    – Middlemarch, Book iv.


The following short sketches of the lives of some of the eminent women of our times were written for The Mothers’ Companion, and are now republished by the kind permission of the proprietors and publishers, Messrs. Partridge.

They were suggested by the fact that nearly all the best contributions of women to literature have been made during the last hundred years, and simultaneously with this remarkable development of literary activity among women, there has been an equally remarkable activity in spheres of work held to be peculiarly feminine. So far, therefore, from greater freedom and better education encouraging women to neglect womanly work, it has caused them to apply themselves to it more systematically and more successfully. The names of Elizabeth Fry, Mary Carpenter, Sarah Martin, Agnes Jones, Florence Nightingale, and Sister Dora are a proof of this. I believe that we owe their achievements to the same impulse which in another kind of excellence has given us Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Elizabeth Browning.

The sketches were intended chiefly for working women and young people; it was hoped it would be an encouragement to them to be reminded how much good work had been done in various ways by women.

An apology should, perhaps, be offered to the reader for the want of arrangement in the sequence of these sketches. As they appeared month by month, in 1887 and 1888, the incidents of the day sometimes suggested the subject. Thus the papers on Queen Victoria and on Queen Louisa of Prussia were suggested by the celebration of the Jubilee in June 1887, and by the universal grief felt for the death of Queen Louisa’s son and grandson in 1888. As the incidents mentioned in some sketches are sometimes referred to in those that follow, it has been thought best not to alter the sequence in which they originally appeared. The authorities relied on are quoted in each paper.

    London, 1889.



“Humanity is erroneously considered among the commonplace virtues. If it deserved such a place there would be less urgent need than, alas! there is for its daily exercise among us. In its pale shape of kindly sentiment and bland pity it is common enough, and is always the portion of the cultivated. But humanity armed, aggressive, and alert, never slumbering and never wearying, moving like an ancient hero over the land to slay monsters, is the rarest of virtues.” – John Morley.

The present century is one that is distinguished by the active part women have taken in careers that were previously closed to them. Some people would have us believe that if women write books, paint pictures, and understand science and ancient languages, they will cease to be true women, and cease to care for those womanly occupations and responsibilities that have always been entrusted to them. This is an essentially false and mistaken notion. True cultivation of the understanding makes a sensible woman value at their real high worth all her womanly duties, and so far from making her neglect them, causes her to appreciate them more highly than she would otherwise have done. It has always been held – at least, in Christian countries – that the most womanly of women’s duties are to be found in works of mercy to those who are desolate and miserable. To be thirsty, hungry, naked, sick, or in prison, is to have a claim for compassion and comfort upon womanly pity and tenderness. And we shall see, if we look back over recent years, that never have these womanly tasks been more zealously fulfilled than they have been in the century which has produced Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale, Josephine Butler, and Octavia Hill.

Mrs. Fry was born before the beginning of this century – in 1780 – but the great public work with which her memory will always be connected was not begun till about 1813. She was born of the wealthy Quaker family, the Gurneys of Norwich. Her parents were not very strict members of the sect to which they belonged, for they allowed their children to learn music and dancing – pursuits that were then considered very worldly even by many who did not belong to the Society of Friends. The gentle poet, William Cowper, speaks in one of his letters, written about the time of Elizabeth Fry’s childhood, of love of music as a thing which tends “to weaken and destroy the spiritual discernment.” Mr. and Mrs. Gurney, however, seem to have been very free from such prejudices, as well as from others which were much more universal, for their children not only learnt music and dancing, but also – girls as well as boys – Latin and mathematics.

Mrs. Gurney seems to have discerned that she had an especial treasure in her little Elizabeth. She is spoken of in her mother’s journal as “my dove-like Betsy.” The authoress of the biography of Elizabeth Fry in the Eminent Women series, says: “Her faculty for independent investigation, her unswerving loyalty to duty, and her fearless perseverance in works of benevolence, were all foreshadowed” in her childhood. She had as a young girl what appears to us now a very extraordinary dread of enthusiasm in religion. One would think that if ever a woman needed enthusiasm for her life’s work, Elizabeth Fry was that woman. But she confesses in her journal, written when she was seventeen years of age, “the greatest fear of religion” because it is generally allied with enthusiasm. Perhaps the truth is that she had so deep a natural fount of enthusiasm in her heart that she dreaded the work that it would impel her to, when once it was allowed a free course. She had a very strong, innate repugnance to anything which drew public attention upon herself, and only the imperative sense of duty enabled her to overcome this feeling. In her heart she said what her Master had said before her: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.”

When the sphere of public duty first revealed itself to her, she records in her diary what it cost her to enter upon it, and writes of it as “the humiliating path that has appeared to be opening before me.” It must be noticed, however, that in her case, as always, the steep and difficult path of duty becomes easier to those who do not flinch from it. In a later passage of her diary, the public work which she had at first called a path of humiliation she speaks of as “this great mercy.”

In the little book to which reference has just been made, we read that the first great change in Elizabeth Gurney’s life was caused by the deep impression made upon her by the sermons of William Savery. It is rather strange to find the girl who had such a terror of enthusiasm, weeping passionately while William Savery was preaching. Her sister has described what took place. “Betsy astonished us all by the great feeling she showed. She wept most of the way home… What she went through in her own mind I cannot say; but the results were most powerful and most evident” (p. 11, Elizabeth Fry. By Mrs. E. R. Pitman). Her emotion was not of the kind that passes away and leaves no trace behind. The whole course of her life and tenor of her thoughts were changed. She became a strict Quakeress, not, however, without some conflict with herself. There are pleasant little touches of human nature in the facts that she found it a trial to say “thee” and “thou,” and to give up her scarlet riding habit. Soon after this, at the age of twenty, she became the wife of Mr. Joseph Fry, and removed to London, where she lived in St. Mildred’s Court, in the City. The family into which she married were Quakers, like her own, but of a much more severe and strict kind. Her marriage was, however, in every respect a fortunate one. Her husband sympathised deeply with her in all her efforts for the good of others, and encouraged her in her public work, although many in the Society of Friends did not scruple to protest that a married woman has no duties except to her husband and children. Her journal shows how anxiously she guarded herself against any temptation to neglect her home duties. She was a tender and devoted mother to her twelve children, and it was through her knowledge of the strength of a mother’s love that she was able to reach the hearts of many of the poor prisoners whom she afterwards helped out of the wretchedness into which they had fallen.

Her study of the problem, how to help the poor, began in this way. A beggar-woman with a child in her arms stopped her in the street. Mrs. Fry, seeing that the child had whooping-cough and was dangerously ill, offered to go with the woman to her home in order more effectually to assist her. To Mrs. Fry’s surprise, the woman immediately tried to make off; it was evident what she wanted was a gift of money, not any help to the suffering child. Mrs. Fry followed her, and found that her rooms were filled with a crowd of farmed-out children in every stage of sickness and misery; the more pitiable the appearance of one of these poor mites, the more useful an implement was it in the beggar’s stock-in-trade. From this time onwards the condition of women and children in the lowest and most degraded of the criminal classes became the study of Mrs. Fry’s life. She had the gift of speech on any subject which deeply moved her. From about 1809 she began to speak at the Friends’ meeting-house. This power of speaking, as well as working, enabled her to draw about her an active band of co-workers. When she first began visiting the female prisoners in Newgate it is probable that she could not have supported all that she had to go through if it had not been for the sympathy and companionship of Anna Buxton and other Quaker ladies whom she had roused through her power of speech, just as she had herself been roused when a girl by the preaching of William Savery.

The condition of the women and children in Newgate Prison, when Mrs. Fry first began visiting them in 1813, was more horrible than anything that can be easily imagined. Three hundred poor wretches were herded together in two wards and two cells, with no furniture, no bedding of any kind, and no arrangements for decency or privacy. Cursing and swearing, foul language, and personal filthiness, made the dens in which the women were confined equally offensive to ear, eye, nose, and sense of modesty. The punishment of death at that time existed for 300 different offences, and though there were many mitigations of the sentence in the case of those who had only committed minor breaches of the law, yet the fact that nearly all had by law incurred the penalty of death, gave an apparent justification for herding the prisoners indiscriminately together. It thus happened that many a poor girl who had committed a comparatively trivial offence, became absolutely ruined in body and mind through her contact in prison with the vilest and most degraded of women. No attempt whatever was made to reform or discipline the prisoners, or to teach them any trade whereby, on leaving the gaol, they might earn an honest livelihood. Add to this that there were no female warders nor female officers of any kind in the prison, and that the male warders were frequently men of depraved life, and it is not difficult to see that no element of degradation was wanting to make the female wards of Newgate what they were often called – a hell on earth.

When Elizabeth Fry and Anna Buxton first visited this Inferno, there was so little pretence at any kind of control over the prisoners, that the Governor of Newgate advised the ladies to leave their watches behind them at home. Mrs. Fry, with a wise instinct, felt that the best way of influencing the poor, wild, rough women was to show her care for their children. Many of the prisoners had their children with them in gaol, and there were very few even of the worst who could not be reached by care for their little ones. Even those who had no children were often not without the motherly instinct, and could be roused to some measure of self-restraint and decency for the sake of the children who were being corrupted by their example. So Mrs. Fry’s first step towards reforming the women took the form of starting a school for the children in the prison. As usual in all good work of a novel kind, those who knew nothing about it were quite sure that Mrs. Fry would have been much more usefully employed if she had turned her energies in a different direction. People who have never stirred a finger to lighten the misery of mankind always know, so much better than the workers, what to do and how to do it. They would probably tell a fireman who is entering a burning house at the risk of his life, that he would be more usefully employed in studying the chemical action of fire, or in pondering over the indestructibility of matter. The popular feeling with regard to Mrs. Fry’s work in Newgate was embodied by Thomas Hood in a ballad which is preserved in his collected works, and serves now to show how wrong a good and tender-hearted man may be in passing judgment on a work of the value of which he was entirely unqualified to form an opinion. The refrain of the poem is “Keep your school out of Newgate, Mrs. Fry” —

I like the pity in your full-brimmed eye.
I like your carriage and your silken gray,
Your dove-like habits and your silent preaching,
But I don’t like your Newgatory teaching.

· · · · ·

No, I’ll be your friend, and like a friend
Point out your very worst defect. Nay, never
Start at that word! But I must ask you why
You keep your school in Newgate, Mrs. Fry.

Mrs. Fry’s philanthropy was not of a kind to be checked by a ballad, and she went on perseveringly with her work; the school was formed, and a prisoner, named Mary Cormor, was the first schoolmistress. A wonderful change gradually became apparent in the demeanour, language, and appearance of the women in prison. In 1817 an association was formed for carrying on the work Mrs. Fry had begun. It was called “An Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners in Newgate.” Its first members were eleven Quakeresses and one clergyman’s wife. Public attention was now alive to the importance of the work; and in the following year a Select Committee of the House of Commons was appointed to inquire and report upon the condition of the London prisons. Mrs. Fry was examined before this committee. Her chief recommendations were that the prisoners should be employed in some industry, and be paid for their work, and that good conduct should be encouraged by rewards; she was also most urgent that the women prisoners should be in the charge of women warders. Her work in the prison naturally led her to consider the condition and ultimate fate of women who were transported. Transportation was then carried out upon a large scale, and all the evils of the prison existed in an intensified form on board the transport ships. The horrors of the voyage were followed by a brutal and licentious distribution of the women on their arrival to colonists, soldiers, and convicts, who went on board and took their choice of the human cargo. Mrs. Fry’s efforts resulted in a check being placed on these shameful barbarities. The women were, owing to her exertions, sent out in charge of female warders, and they were provided with decent accommodation on their arrival.

Like Howard, Mrs. Fry did not confine her efforts to the poor and wretched of her own country. She visited foreign countries in order thoroughly to study various methods of prison work and discipline. On one occasion she found in Paris a congenial task in bringing the force of public opinion to bear on the treatment of children in the Foundling Hospital there. The poor babies were done up in swaddling clothes that were only unwrapped once in twelve hours. There was no healthy screaming in the wards, only a sound that a hearer compared to the faint and pitiful bleating of lambs. A lady who visited the hospital said she never made the round of the spotlessly clean white cots, without finding at least one dead baby! Everything in the hospital was regulated by clockwork; its outward appearance was clean and orderly in the extreme, but the babies died like flies! The Archbishop of Paris was vastly annoyed with Mrs. Fry for pointing out this drawback to the perfect organisation of the institution; but when once the light was let in, improvement followed.

There were many other classes of neglected or unfortunate people whose circumstances were improved by Mrs. Fry’s exertions. The lonely shepherds of Salisbury Plain were provided with a library after she had visited the desolate region where they lived. She also organised a lending library for coastguardsmen and for domestic servants. There was no end to her active exertions for the good of others except that of her life.

She died at Ramsgate in 1845, and was buried at Barking.

Her private life was not without deep sorrows and anxieties. She lost a passionately beloved child in 1815; in 1828 her husband was unfortunate in his business affairs. They suffered from a great diminution of fortune, and were obliged to remove to a smaller house and adopt a less expensive style of living. She did not pretend to any indifference she was far from feeling under these trials; but they were powerless to turn her from the duties which she had marked out for herself. The work which she had undertaken for the good of others probably became, in its turn, her own solace and support in the hour of trial and affliction. In helping others she had unconsciously built up a strong refuge for herself, thus giving a new illustration to the truth of the words: “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life, for my sake, shall find it.”



“That it may please Thee … to show Thy pity upon all prisoners and captives.”

Mary Carpenter was thirty-eight years old when Mrs. Fry died in 1845. We do not hear, in reading the lives of either, that the two women ever met, or that the elder directly stimulated the activity of the younger. Yet the one most surely prepared the way for the other; their work was upon the same lines, and Miss Carpenter, the Unitarian, of Bristol, was the spiritual heir and successor of Mrs. Fry, the Quaker, of Norwich.

There is, it is true, a contrast in the manner in which the two women approached their work in life. The aim of both was the rescue of what Mary Carpenter called “the perishing and dangerous classes.” But while Mrs. Fry was led, through her efforts on behalf of convicts, to establish schools for them and their children, Mary Carpenter’s first object was the school for neglected children, and through the knowledge gained there she was led to form schemes for the reformation of criminals and for a new system of prison discipline. Mrs. Fry worked through convicts to schools; Mary Carpenter through schools to convicts.

It will not therefore be imagined that there is any want of appreciation of Mrs. Fry when it is said that Mary Carpenter’s labours were more effective, inasmuch as they were directed to the cause of the evil, rather than to its results. By establishing reformatory and industrial schools, and by obtaining, after long years of patient effort, the sanction and support of Parliament for them, she virtually did more than had up to that time ever been done in England, to stop the supply of criminals. Children who were on the brink of crime, and those who had actually fallen into criminal courses, were, through her efforts, snatched away from their evil surroundings, and helped to become respectable and industrious men and women. Before her time, magistrates and judges had no choice, when a child criminal stood convicted before them, but to sentence him to prison, whence he would probably come out hopelessly corrupted and condemned for life to the existence of a beast of prey. She says, in one of her letters, dated 1850: “A Bristol magistrate told me that for twenty years he had felt quite unhappy at going on committing these young culprits. And yet he had done nothing!” The worse than uselessness of prisons for juvenile offenders was a fact that was burnt into Mary Carpenter’s mind and heart by the experience of her life. She was absolutely incapable of recognising the evil and at the same time calmly acquiescing in it. Her magisterial friend is the type of the common run of humanity, who satisfy their consciences by saying, “Very grievous! very wrong!” and who do nothing to remove the grievance and the wrong; she is the type of the knights-errant of humanity, who never see a wrong without assailing it, and endeavouring to remove the causes which produce it.

Mary Carpenter was born at Exeter in 1807, the eldest of five children, several of whom have left their mark on the intellectual and moral history of this century. There was all through her life a great deal of the elder sister – one may almost say, of the mother – in Mary Carpenter. In an early letter her mother speaks of the wonderfully tranquillising influence of dolls on her little Mary. She never shrank from responsibility, and she had a special capacity for protecting love – a capacity that stood her in good stead in reclaiming the little waifs and strays to whom she afterwards devoted herself. Her motherliness comes out in a hundred ways in the story of her life. Her endless patience with the truant and naughty children was such as many a real mother might envy. She was especially proud of the title of “the old mother” which the Indian women, whom she visited towards the close of her life, gave her. In writing to a friend, she once said: “There is a verse in the prophecies, ‘I have given thee children whom thou hast not borne,’ and the motherly love of my heart has been given to many who have never known before a mother’s love.” She adopted a child in 1858 to be a daughter to her, and writes gleefully: “Just think of me with a little girl of my own! about five years old, ready-made to my hand, without the trouble of marrying – a darling little thing, an orphan,” etc. etc. Her friends spoke of her eager delight in buying the baby’s outfit.

It was her motherliness that made her so successful with the children in the reformatories and industrial schools; moreover, the children believed in her love for them. One little ragged urchin told a clergyman that Miss Carpenter was a lady who gave away all her money for naughty boys, and only kept enough to make herself clean and decent. On one occasion she heard that two of her ex-pupils had “got into trouble,” and were in prison at Winchester. She quickly found an opportunity of visiting them, and one of them exclaimed, directly he saw her, “Oh! Miss Carpenter, I knew you would not desert us!”

Another secret of her power, and also of her elasticity of spirit, was her sense of humour. It was like a silver thread running through her laborious life, saving her from dulness and despondency. In one of her reports, which has to record the return of a runaway, she said: “He came back resembling the prodigal in everything except his repentance!”

The motto which she especially made her own was Dum doceo disco – While I teach, I learn. Her father had a school for boys in Bristol, and Mary and her sister were educated in it. They were among the best of their father’s pupils, one of whom, the Rev. James Martineau, has left a record of the great impression Mary’s learning made upon him. She was indeed very proficient in many branches of knowledge. Her education included Latin, Greek, mathematics, and natural history; and the exactness which her father and the nature of her studies demanded of her, formed a most invaluable training for her after career. For many years the acquisition of knowledge, for its own sake, was the chief joy of her life; but a time came when it ceased to satisfy her. She was rudely awakened from the delightful dreams of a student’s life by a severe visitation of cholera at Bristol in 1832. From this period, and indeed from a special day – that set apart as a fast-day in consequence of the cholera – dates a solemn dedication of herself to the service of her fellow-creatures. She wrote in her journal 31st March 1832, what her resolution was, and concluded: “These things I have written to be a witness against me, if ever I should forget what ought to be the object of all my active exertions in life.” These solemn self-dedications are seldom or never spoken of by those who make them. Records of them are found sometimes in journals long after the hand that has written them is cold. But, either written or unwritten, they are probably the rule rather than the exception on the part of those who devote themselves to the good of others. The world has recently learned that this was the case with Lord Shaftesbury. There is a time when the knight-errant consciously enrols himself a member of the noble band of warriors against wrong and oppression, and takes upon himself his baptismal vow – manfully to fight against sin, the world, and the devil, and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant to his life’s end.

It must be remembered that when Mary Carpenter first began to exert herself for the benefit of neglected children, there were no reformatory or industrial schools, except those which had been established by the voluntary efforts of philanthropists like herself. Aided by a band of fellow-workers and wise advisers, chief of whom were Mr. Matthew Davenport Hill, the Recorder of Birmingham, and his daughters; Dr. Tuckerman, of the U.S.A.; Mr. Russell Scott, of Bath; Mr. Sheriff Watson, of Aberdeen; and Lady Byron, Mary Carpenter set to work to establish a voluntary reformatory school at Kingswood, near Bristol. Her principle was that by surrounding children, who would otherwise be criminals, with all the influences of a wholesome home life, there was a better chance than by any other course, of reclaiming these children, and making them useful members of society. To herd children together in large, unhomelike institutions, was always, in Mary Carpenter’s view, undesirable; the effect on character is bad; the more perfectly such places are managed, the more nearly do the children in them become part of a huge machine, and the less are their faculties, as responsible human beings, developed. Over and over again, in books, in addresses, and by the example of the institutions which she managed herself, Mary Carpenter reiterated the lesson that if a child is to be rescued and reformed, he must be placed in a family; and that where it is necessary, for the good of society, to separate children on account of their own viciousness, or that of their parents, from their own homes, the institutions receiving them should be based on the family ideal so far as possible. With this end in view, the children at Kingswood were surrounded by as many home influences as possible. Miss Carpenter at one time thought of living there herself, but this scheme was given up, in deference to her mother’s wishes. She was, however, a constant visitor, and a little room, which had once been John Wesley’s study, was fitted up as a resting-place for her. On a pane of one of the windows of this room her predecessor had written the words, “God is here.” She taught the children herself, and provided them with rabbits, fowls, and pigs, the care of which she felt would exercise a humanising influence upon them. The whole discipline of the place was directed by her; one of her chief difficulties was to get a staff of assistants with sufficient faith in her methods to give them an honest trial. She did not believe in a physical force morality. “We must not attempt,” she wrote, “to break the will, but to train it to govern itself wisely; and it must be our great aim to call out the good, which exists even in the most degraded, and make it conquer the bad.” After a year’s work at Kingswood in this spirit, she writes very hopefully of the improvement already visible in the sixteen boys and thirteen girls in her charge. The boys could be trusted to go into Bristol on messages, and even “thievish girls” could be sent out to shops with money, which they never thought of appropriating.

But although the success of the institution was so gratifying, it had no legal sanction; it had consequently no power to deal with runaways, and the great mass of juvenile delinquents were still sentenced to prisons, from which they emerged, like the man into whom seven devils entered, in a state far worse than their first. Mary Carpenter’s work was not only to prove the success of her methods of dealing with young criminals, but, secondly, to convince the Government that the established system was a bad one, and thirdly, and most difficult of all, to get them to legislate on the subject. A long history of her efforts to obtain satisfactory legislation for children of the perishing and dangerous classes is given in her life, written by her nephew, Mr. J. Estlin Carpenter. It is enough here to say that in the House of Lords, Lord Shaftesbury, and in the House of Commons, Sir Stafford Northcote and Mr. Adderley (afterwards Lord Iddesleigh and Lord Norton), were her chief supporters. Mr. Lowe (now Lord Sherbrooke) was her chief opposer. Liberal as she was, born and bred, as well as by heart’s conviction, she confessed with some feeling of shame, that the Tories “are best in this work.” At last, in 1854, her efforts were crowned with success, and the Royal Assent was given to the Youthful Offenders Bill, which authorised the establishment of reformatory schools, under the sanction of the Home Secretary.