Elizabeth Fry was fortunate enough to have a mostly happy childhood. She was born at Magdalen Street in Norwich where she lived until she was five. Then her father, John Gurney moved his family a few miles out of Norwich to the beautiful Earlham estate which they all grew to love.
It was entailed to the Bacon family but the Gurneys had such a long lease that generations of the family lived there. It was large and rambling and had wonderful grounds across which meandered the Wensum river. Now it houses the University of East Anglia’s Law School and is a very different place.
I went to visit it when I was exploring all of Elizabeth’s haunts. It was not as my imagination wanted, but I was very moved by some of the old trees, so mature and undoubtedly witnesses to Gurney family life. I sat under one, looking at the house, and wondering if Elizabeth had sat in this same spot so many years ago.
Death of their mother
Their mother Catherine Bell died in November 1792 much to the heartbreak of her family. She came from the Barclay banking family [her great-grandfather Robert Barclay wrote the famous definitive study of Quakerism, ‘Apology’]. John and Catherine had been a love match; they adored one another and he never re-married.
For Elizabeth, her mother’s departure when she was only 12 confirmed her terror of death. She used to creep into her parents’ room at night and check that her mother was still breathing, such was her fear of losing her.
So the 11 siblings closed ranks in order to cope with their loss and their eldest sister, Catherine became ‘mother’, a responsibility which weighed upon her all her life. Nonetheless they had fun; they explored the house and grounds, rode their ponies, visited Norwich, sang, danced and got up to lots of mischief.
They were home schooled with a governess and tutors although the boys eventually went away to school. Elizabeth was a delicate child and suffered from a form of neuralgia which often confined her to bed. This might have been a welcome release from school work at which she did not excel.
She was the third of John Gurney’s first three children [a son had died in infancy] and as such felt slightly out of the girlish confidences – two’s company, three’s a crowd. Her younger sister, Louisa, was fearful of Elizabeth’s bouts of illness and full of love: ‘…her ill-health and sweetness draw my heart to her entirely”.
It was testament to their happy childhood that each daughter as she married was brought home to Earlham by her new husband at the end of their honeymoon to be reassured that their old home was still there to comfort them.