Elizabeth Fry is an unlikely yet important hero in the history behind Australia Day. The Quaker reformer, along with her army of volunteers, helped nearly 12,000 of the 25,000 convict women who were transported to Australia beginning in 1788 with the arrival of the First Fleet.
Fry is about to be eliminated from Britain’s history courses by the Education Secretary Michael Gove.
One in five Australians has convict ancestry, and many of their ancestors survived thanks to Fry’s help.
Two hundred years ago this month, Fry dared to enter Newgate jail, known then as London’s “prototype of hell”. It was the start of 30 years of visionary reforms by one of history’s most effective and hands-on social activists.
Fry is more relevant today than ever: the first woman to testify before Parliament, a persuasive abolitionist and humanitarian lobbyist before world leaders, a pioneer in forging new roles for women.
Yet, in an effort to go “back to basics,” Mr Gove intends to axe this ground-breaking crusader from the national school curriculum. A recently leaked government report proposes the elimination of significant social history to allow more emphasis on people such as Winston Churchill, Oliver Cromwell and Lord Nelson.
What is more fundamental to history than highlighting heroes who shift a society’s conscience? And why should an American care about a 19th-century British woman? I learnt about Fry during the six years I spent researching my last book. My introduction began when I asked the question: from 1788-1868, did anyone in the world care about the 25,000 lower-class women who were targeted as “tamers and breeders”, transported in chains to Australia, and deemed free labour for Britain’s imperial expansion? The answer is a definitive “yes”, and her name is Elizabeth Fry.