Elizabeth Fry - Home Earlham Hall (1786)

In 1786 the family rented Earlham Hall (now part of the University of East Anglia), a beautiful property just outside Norwich, from the Bacon family, remaining there for five generations. Earlham Hall was built in 1580 and extensively renovated in 1682 and 1761.

Catherine enjoyed society, and as a liberal Quaker she was not averse to dancing, drawing and music. She was also not averse to mixing with Unitarians and Roman Catholics. She taught her children from the New Testament, but she allowed them to find their own Christian path. She encouraged them to pray, but advised them never to attempt to pray unless they felt they could give their undivided mind to Him; they should be able to raise to Him their undivided heart and soul in loving adoration.

The house was continually teaming with relatives. The Gurneys had large families and many lived near to Earlham Hall. However, the happiness of the household was shaken by the death of Catherine in 1792, 15 months after the youngest child was born. Betsy was only 12 years old. Betsy?s oldest sister, Catherine became mother to her ten siblings at 16 years old.

Betsy's character as a child is described by her sister Katherine in her later years. "Betsy had more genius than anyone, from her retiring disposition, gave her credit for in her early days. She had tender feelings, especially towards her parents, to whom she was the most loving and obedient of any of their children. She was gentle in look and manner, and pleasing in person; though she had not Rachel's glowing beauty, yet some thought her quite as attractive. She disliked learning languages, and was somewhat obstinate in her temper, except towards her mother. After we were left alone, her aversion to learning was a serious disadvantage to her, and though she was quick in natural talent, her education was very imperfect and defective. Enterprise and benevolence were the two predominant features of her character, and wonderfully did these dispositions afterwards unfold under the influence of religion. In contemplating her remarkable and peculiar gifts, I am struck with the development of her character, and the manner in which the qualities, considered faults when she was a child, became virtues and proved in her case of the most important efficacy in her career of active service. Her natural timidity was, I think, in itself the means of her acquiring the opposite virtue of courage, through the transforming power of Divine grace, which stamped this endowment in her with a holy moderation and nice discretion that never failed to direct it right. Her natural obstinacy, the only failing in her temper as a child, became that finely tempered decision and firmness which enabled her to execute her projects for the good of others. What in childhood was something like cunning, ripened into the most uncommon penetration, long-sightedness, and skill in influencing the mind of others. Her disinclination to the common methods of learning appeared to be connected with much original thought and a mind acting on its own resources. There had always been much more of genius and ready, quick comprehension, than application or argument. The process by which all her natural qualities became moulded into their present form was a striking and instructive instance of the gradual but certain and efficacious progress of religion."

Earlham Hall was a wonderful place to grow up in, both regarding the physical aspect and the atmosphere. Betsy?s father and sister helped create a most extraordinary family. It was a custom of the times to keep a journal, and all but brother John of the Gurney family kept one daily, which give a fascinating insight into this family. It appears that Catherine encouraged her siblings to self-education. Their journals are full of comments about their characters which need improvement. They were always endeavouring to improve themselves and the atmosphere at home was conducive to the growth of their personalities and their minds. Their journals, and in later years their letters, were also full of their love for one another and indeed for others. This must have been very noticeable to visitors; it must have been a lovely thing to have been the focus of the abundant love that came from the family. Thomas Fowell Buxton, the future reformer, spent a few months at Earlham when he was 15, and the experience changed his life. He went from being a boy with no interest at all in learning, to being a man who was always first in his class at university, and who became so single-minded that he achieved great things. Earlham Hall was a nursery for great men and women.

To give an idea of the desire for self-improvement shown in their journals, Betsy wrote, "I am seventeen today. Am I happier or a better creature than I was this time twelve-months? I know I am happier, I think I am better, I hope I shall be much better this day year than I am now. I hope to be quite an altered person, to have more knowledge, to have my mind in greater order; and my heart too, that wants to be put in order as much, if not more, than any part of me, it is such a fly-away state."


Additional Information

As of August 2010 Earlham Hall, which is now part of East Anglian University is empty and boarded up, I just hope it is going to be renovated.