Through Prison Bars: The Lives and Labours of John Howard and Elizabeth Fry

Through Prison Bars: The Lives and Labours of John Howard and Elizabeth Fry

by William H. Render

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A fascinating look—first published in 1894—at two philanthropists known as the “Prisoner’s Friends” and the early history of prison reform.

Prisons in England were once dark, inhumane places lacking any regulations. The facilities were poorly managed and unsanitary, and prisoners were treated like animals. One man and one woman, the “Prisoner’s Friends,” sought to change that.
Through Prison Bars is an in-depth account of John Howard and Elizabeth Fry and their work in the prison reform movement in Great Britain and Europe that began in the eighteenth century and continued into the nineteenth. Author William H. Render explores their childhoods and family lives, deeply spiritual backgrounds—Howard was a Calvinist while Fry was a dedicated Quaker—and early days in prison philanthropy, as well as what motivated them to get involved in the first place: Howard’s early days as the high sheriff of Bedfordshire and Fry’s visit to the women’s prison at Newgate in London.
Neither Howard nor Fry stopped their work with just one jail. They dedicated their lives to serving God and man, and their stories have the power to inspire similar dedication in generations to come.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504045827
Publisher: Road
Publication date: 06/06/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 75,353
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

William H. Render, whose birthdate and death are unknown, was the author of Through Prison Bars, a biography of two prison reformers in nineteenth-century England.

Read an Excerpt

Through Prison Bars

The Lives and Labours of John Howard and Elizabeth Fry

By William H. Render


Copyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-4582-7



STANDING UNDER THE dome of Sir Christopher Wren's famous Cathedral of St. Paul's, in London, near the pulpit the visitor is suddenly attracted by a fine monumental statue. Drawing near, it at once claims attention by its subject and execution. It is seen to be a cenotaph of some remarkable personage. On a pedestal is the life-size figure of a man in classic costume. In his right hand he holds a key, in his left he grasps a roll. At his feet are chains — prison manacles — broken and trampled on. It is a commanding figure, bearing on the face a look of mingled benevolence and firmness. "What does it mean? Whom does it represent?" we ask ourselves. Then we glance lower, and on the front of the pedestal we see a touching scene depicted — a prison scene, in which is represented a man relieving several poor victims bound with chains. Above this are two words — JOHN HOWARD.

Why that monument was placed by the English people in such a world-renowned edifice, who the man thus depicted was, and what he did to merit so splendid a recognition, are questions worth an answer. Let us, then, together seek it by tracing this man's life from its beginning to its close. Surely in doing so we shall find a pleasing study and receive a helpful influence.

According to the St. Paul's inscription, it was on September the 2nd, 1726, at Hackney, that John Howard was born. In the absence of official proof both date and place have been disputed; but there seems little doubt that the facts given on his memorial are correct. Hackney was then, more than a hundred and sixty years ago, a pretty country village, some three miles from London's busy city. Not yet had the long arms of the huge metropolis encircled its many outlying picturesque parishes.

His father was an industrious business man — a partner in a carpet and upholstery concern close to Long Lane, Smithfield. He was evidently a plodding, prosperous tradesman, for he had managed to possess several little properties — one at Hackney, another at Enfield, and a third at Cardington, in Bedfordshire. To all these pleasant retreats from business cares he delighted to repair occasionally, and enjoy therein the sweet recreative influences of Nature.

Howard's mother was presumably a good woman. Her maiden name was Cholmley. Unhappily, she died while her son was very young. Yet Howard always thought and spoke of her with a tender reverence; in fact, he ever deplored her loss, with its consequent lack of gracious love and care which only a true mother can bestow. This is a beautiful trait in Howard's firm character, which has its counterpart in the case of many another hero of history.

No ruddy, robust child was Howard. On the contrary, he appears to have been weak, pale-looking, and even sickly. Consequently his father, fearing for the health of his motherless boy, placed him in the care of a farmer's wife, near his small country house at Cardington, about three miles from Bedford. Here the frail little fellow was at liberty to spend his hours in the green fields, and rambling about in the fresh, pure air. Such natural medicine gradually had a favourable effect upon him. He began to conquer to some extent his extreme delicacy; while his quiet little ways endeared him to all.

By-and-by young Howard commenced school-life. He was sent to a seminary at Hertford, presided over by the Rev. John Worsley. Though a man of some culture and knowledge — he had translated the Greek New Testament into English, was the compiler of a Latin grammar, and the author of several school-books — it would appear that the pupil did not profit as might be expected from such a master. Probably the reverend gentleman had not the faculty for training the young, or Howard was not of a precocious nature. The latter idea is nearer the truth, and only bears out the fact that some of the most renowned men were in their youth "splendid dunces," according to the world's estimate.

Seven years did Howard spend under the care of John Worsley. Then he was sent to a scholastic establishment at Stoke Newington, a suburban parish near London. Mr. John Eames was the principal — a man of great ability, and of some reputation in his day. Besides being a famous tutor, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, was a friend of Sir Isaac Newton, had the great Archbishop Secker at one time as a learner, and assisted Dr. Isaac Watts in his literary work — in fact, the powerful hymn-writer said of him: "He is the most learned man I ever knew." The influence of such a master must have been great upon Howard. True, the pupil did not achieve much in the way of classic proficiency, yet he did acquire much that comprises a wide and good education. It was not the intention of Howard's father that his son should be trained for the ministry, or the learned professions, in which very minute knowledge of Greek and Latin was essential. Nevertheless, we know that the young student was efficient in many practical subjects; he knew several sciences, spoke French fluently, and had thoroughly grasped general and commercial geography.

Howard was a quiet, patient, plodding learner, and not given to those senseless frolics which unhappily disfigure much school-boy life. Hence there is nothing to chronicle of him at this time in the direction of exciting adventure, or unusual conduct. There is one fact, though, of some interest — the friendship he formed with his school-fellow Richard Price. This friendship is singular in that Price was the opposite in nature to Howard. Quick, clever, and even masterful, he presented a strange contrast to the latter. However, these two extremes did agree, and a strong attachment was maintained throughout their lives.

But school-days were all too quickly over, and the time came when the youthful Howard was to go out into life's battle. As may be imagined, Howard senior intended that his son should follow commerce. Hence we learn that, soon after entering his teens, papers were signed which bound him an apprentice to a firm of wholesale grocers, styled Messrs. Newnham and Shepley, whose office was situated in Watling Street, London. What should we now think of paying £700 for such a privilege? Yet such was the substantial sum then paid.

That Howard profited by his short experience in the counting-house is almost certain. There was a method and a perseverance in his philanthropic work afterwards that look very much like the application of real business characteristics which had been gained during his apprenticeship. And to a mind like Howard's, never guilty of excited imprudence, this life of combined routine and energy must have been in many minor ways truly helpful.

But in September, 1742, the business career marked out for him was suddenly terminated. To his deep sorrow his respected father died, leaving him at a most critical period practically his own master. He carefully considered the altered conditions of his life, and, though he was scarcely seventeen years of age, he resolved to become at once free and independent. As a first step, he secured the cancelling of his indentures.

This was not a wild, foolish step, as it may seem. For a frivolous, unthinking youth it might have been: not so for Howard. That his character was formed at that early age we have conclusive proof. The conditions of his father's will indicate all confidence and trust in the son, while the three executors did not hesitate to let the youth have a large share in the management of the property. It was a comfortable fortune that was left — £7,000, besides landed and other property to the son, and a like donation to the only daughter.

Thus provided for, it is scarcely to be wondered at that Howard was not desirous of continuing a business career. The fact is, he was wishful to use his newly-gotten freedom and wealth in the accumulation of knowledge and the advancement of his own culture. Would that such a high purpose filled the minds of many young men who find themselves in the same position as Howard! How often has the savings of a careful parent been madly squandered by a reckless son, and the opportunities which leisure affords for noble Christian service been worse than frittered away! Howard's example, too, is a silent protest against that foolish longing amongst youths and young men for wealth simply for its own sake — for its power to contribute to mere sensual pleasure.

As the most effective means of carrying out his plan for self-improvement, Howard determined to travel for a short while. So, seeing that all things were in order at home, and wisely arranging money matters, he set out. Tourist travel was unknown in the middle of the last century, and it was no mean undertaking to visit even France.

This was the first country that attracted him, and from thence he proceeded to Italy, making a useful continental tour. When he started from England his health was at a somewhat low level, but no doubt owing to the change of scenery, the interest awakened in new surroundings and the different manner of life, combined with the genial influences of a softer air, he rapidly improved. And he was not idle while pleasuring. He had made the journey in order to gain information and to study, consequently every place of note and interest was visited, and all that was historically or architecturally noteworthy gleaned on the spot. The customs and manners of the people did not escape him. All the works of art he met with were enthusiastically examined. He visited the picture galleries, and revelled in the wonderful creations on canvas of the old masters. His love of the fine arts increased, and he brought back with him several beautiful paintings, which afterwards adorned his home. Thus the time spent away from his native country was devoted most profitably to himself, and the trip was the means of broadening his views of men and things, and of imparting some of that culture which goes towards making the perfect gentleman.

This sojourn abroad lasted for more than a year, and then Howard returned. He settled down in Church Street, Stoke Newington. The house — a fine old-fashioned structure — is still pointed out as that which once sheltered the self-sacrificing prisoner's friend. Here he occupied himself chiefly as a student. The science of medicine was of especial delight to him — the marvellous powers of drugs and chemicals, and the wonders of the human body, held for him an intense charm. He was also a deep thinker, and devoted many hours to philosophical reading. Besides this, he had a keen taste for theology, and we know from his memoirs that, although only a young man at this time, his mind and heart were strongly imbued with true religion. These various studies were alternated with horse-riding — an exercise of which he was very fond. Thus his time was quietly spent in an atmosphere of simple living and high thinking.

But complete, unchecked happiness is not the portion of any. Ill-health returned to Howard. Nervousness afflicted him, whilst it seemed as though consumption would claim him as a victim. He struggled manfully against his bodily weakness. Abstemious by nature, he determined to pay the greatest attention to his diet, and by even plainer, more careful living to check disease. To still further ensure his desire, he took up his residence with a lady named Mrs. Sarah Loidore, a respectable, kind-hearted person. It was a change for the better as regards comfort and attention; but with all his care of himself he was unable to avert a most severe illness which presently overtook him.

Day after day Howard was confined to the sickroom, not knowing whether he should ever recover. Fortunately, he found in his landlady a most faithful friend, who ministered to his wants with rare assiduity. From her shone out at this painful time those beautiful traits of devotion and kindness which often characterise the humble in life. Though having none of the brilliant intellectual and personal qualities that are everywhere over-praised and worshipped by the world, she certainly possessed the sterling virtues of a good woman. That it was disinterested kindness which prompted her, can scarcely be doubted; and so struck was Howard with her goodness towards him that, in spite of the disparity in their ages — he was twenty-seven and she in full middle life — and that socially she was much his inferior, out of gratitude and kindly feeling he married her. Some time elapsed before she would consent, but her recovered patient had fully made up his mind on the matter, and the marriage took place.

Unhappily, this union was of short duration. Mrs. Howard had herself suffered somewhat from weak health at various times, and in the autumn of 1755 she became thoroughly prostrate. It was now the turn for the young husband to pay back the kindness which he himself had received. But nothing could avail, and in the early part of November she died. Just as she breathed her last, the country was thrilled with terrible news from abroad. It touched Howard deeply, full of grief though he was — so deeply that the matter may well lead us to begin a new chapter in his life.



THE STORY OF the earthquake and fire of Lisbon, in the year 1755, forms one of the most terrible and pathetic pages in modern history. No such catastrophe has ever occurred in our own beloved England, so that it is somewhat hard for us to realise the awful calamity. Records of the time are full of the subject. All Europe was paralysed with fear. And well it might be. The extent of the natural convulsion was vast; its effects were destructive in the highest degree. In a moment, as it were, a terrific shock was experienced, and instantly the city became a mass of ruins. Whole streets were swallowed up and destroyed. Houses, churches, palaces shared the same fate. In eight minutes, thirty thousand inhabitants perished! The sea rose, too, with giant strength, and swept all before it. Then, in completion of the work of destruction, fire burst out in various parts of the city, and consumed an enormous amount of property.

The result of this unlooked-for visitation to the survivors was lamentable. Thousands of them were rendered absolutely destitute. They took to the open fields, and there many of them died from starvation and cold. They suffered the acutest miseries of mind and body. So intense, indeed, was the distress, that the British Parliament, notwithstanding the urgent call upon it for home liabilities, voted a hundred thousand pounds for Portugal's relief.

As we have seen, the painful news came to Howard just when his heart was filled with grief at the loss of his faithful wife. His own trouble was keen, but the thought of this terrible calamity extinguished all feelings of self. His great, kind nature went out in sincerest pity for the distressed. Could he do anything for them? Could he help to bind up the broken heart, and relieve the famished body? Such were the practical questions that stirred him. An answer came, and that in the affirmative. Accordingly, he disposed of such movable property as he felt he had no need to retain, took leave of his friends, and embarked in the packet Hanover for Lisbon.

This was the first real call to philanthropic work outside his own country, and as such it arrests us. It shows that already, as a young man, the all-embracing love of Christ for humanity had found a true disciple in Howard. His love for, and duty towards his brother was not confined to the narrow limits of his own city or country. And this is saying much, for at that time distrust, and even hatred of foreigners was the common rule amongst Englishmen. Even a slight glance at the state of Europe in the middle of the last century will reveal the fact of this evil feeling. Almost all the nations were participating in, or preparing for war. A deadly conflict, especially, was waging between England and France. In consequence, not a vessel belonging to either great power was safe on the seas. Fighting, capturing, and plundering craft of every description was carried on to a terrible extent.

The Hanover, the ship in which Howard was sailing in order to execute his mission of Christ-like pity and practical love, was overtaken by a French privateer and captured. As the custom then was, she was at once taken into port; but, even before landing, the greatest harshness — nay, barbarity, was inflicted on the hapless crew and passengers. They were herded together in a shocking manner, and the very necessaries of life were denied them. Not so much as a morsel of food or a draught of water could they obtain, so that, besides anxiety as to their fate, they had to endure the keen pangs of hunger and thirst. In fact, they were treated with a callousness which was nothing short of inhuman.

Howard and his fellow-voyagers were landed at the port of Brest, but with no advantage to their condition. They were immediately despatched to the castle of the town, where even greater cruelty was practised upon them. Picture a low, deep dungeon, into which sunlight and purifying air cannot penetrate. The walls and floor are of stone, cold and horribly damp, and filthy beyond description. Occasionally a little straw would be thrown in, on which the wretched prisoners might lie and sleep if they could, for nothing else was provided. Within such a terrible place Howard and his companions were confined for a week at least, whatever food was apportioned to them being thrown in as to caged beasts.


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