Biography, Women's History

Women’s History Month: S. Margery Fry (1874-1958) ‘Women Champion of the Underdog’

Margery Fry was born on 11th March 1874 into a prominent and well-connected Quaker family.  She was the eighth child of Edward and Mariabella Fry, whose family was later completed by the birth of Margery’s younger sister, Ruth.  Margery’s father was a judge and her uncle ran the eponymous cocoa and chocolate manufacturing company based in Bristol.  Although she is not very well-known today, at the time of her death in 1958 she was a household name, thanks to regular appearances on a radio and TV panel discussion programme called The Brains Trust.  In political circles she was renowned as a campaigner for reform in the criminal justice system, an activity she took up at the end of the First World War when she became secretary of the Penal Reform League (later the Howard League for Penal Reform) and was appointed to be one of the first women magistrates. She participated in – indeed, often initiated and ran – campaigns for prison reform, for the abolition of corporal and capital punishment, and for victims’ compensation.  She was also an educationalist, university administrator, governor of the BBC, and broadcaster.  Margery Fry also had a ‘hinterland’: a love of travel, art, music, theatre, and bird-watching.  At times in her life there were family duties too: playing hostess when her brother, Roger Fry’s Bloomsbury and art acquaintances (including Picasso) called, caring for Roger’s children, and looking after other family members from time to time.  Yet for Margery her work was a constant stimulus and motivator.  Even on holiday no city could be visited without a tour of the local prison and university campus.

With such a varied career, it is not surprising that, on the news of her death in 1958 at the age of eighty-four, the obituary writers struggled to describe her fully.  The Times went for ‘a passionate reformer’, while Lord Templewood’s tribute in the same paper was headed ‘a Pervasive Influence for Good’, and that of Dame Janet Vaughan (one of Margery’s successors as principal of Somerville College, Oxford) was under the title ‘Understanding the Young’.  Most obituaries emphasised her penal reform work – which admittedly was the dominant theme of the second half of her life – or, with less justification – highlighted her role as principal of Somerville College, a position she held for no more than four years and never felt particularly comfortable in.  The Manchester Guardian observed that ‘her public life was spent mainly in the two fields of penal reform and education, and in the public eye she stood for penal reform’.  But the obituary in the Daily Herald most successfully captured the essence of her public work. Under the heading ‘Woman Champion of the Underdog’ its writer summed her up most accurately as a ‘humanitarian, penal reformer and fighter for social justice’.

Having initially researched Margery Fry’s career for my PhD thesis and my book, Feminism and Criminal Justice: a Historical Perspective, I am now working on a biography of her.  Surprisingly, there is to date only one published, full length biography of Margery Fry, which appeared over forty-five years ago.  This work, written by a former Somerville student and friend of Margery’s family, Enid Huws Jones, was subtitled The Essential Amateur , after a term that Margery had self-deprecatingly  used to describe her role and that of the other women who, like her, populated the government’s policy advisory committees in the early and mid-twentieth century.  Jones’ work was based mainly on Fry’s private papers, supplemented by limited publications and – of course – personal knowledge and the family’s recollections.   I, on the other hand, had been examining a range of official & unofficial sources that were not available to Jones, including government archives and the records of the many organisations that Margery Fry belonged to or participated in. The Essential Amateur was a good title, but one which underplays her career and those of a great many other women of her generation who took such a professional stance towards voluntary work.  Perhaps the phrase of the Daily Herald obituary writer – ‘Woman Champion of the Underdog’ – might be a suitable title for this reappraisal of the life and work of Margery Fry?

Anne Logan is a historian at the University of Kent. She is the author of Feminism and Criminal Justice: a Historical Perspective.

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