Friends Meeting House Norwich (1800)

None of the children were in any way more than nominal Christians. They went to the Quaker chapel in Norwich each Sunday, but they were all grateful when the service was over, and they even enjoyed being sick as they then did not have to go to the meeting. By all accounts, the services were fairly boring, even to Christians. Betsy was the gayest of the sisters, enjoying dancing and the admiration she received. At seventeen she reveals in her journal something of what she thought of religion, she wrote, “I do not know if I shall not soon be rather religious, because I have thought lately, what a support it is through life…I think anybody who had real faith could never be unhappy…” Five months later she wrote, “…What a comfort must a real faith in religion be, in the hour of death; to have a firm belief of entering into everlasting joy. I have a notion of such a thing, but I am sorry to say I have no real faith in any sort of religion…” Betsy was not happy, “I am a bubble, without reason, without beauty of mind or person; I am a fool. I daily fall lower in my own estimation. What an infinite advantage it would be to me to occupy my time and thoughts well. I am now seventeen, and if some kind and great circumstance does not happen to me, I shall have my talents devoured by moth and rust.” She need not have worried, help was at hand.

Betsy had not been going to church recently because of ill health, but on the 3rd February 1797 her Uncle, who was a dedicated Quaker, put pressure on his brother to get her to attend. The reason was that the speaker was the popular William Savery, a visiting Quaker from America. Betsy wore a new pair of “purple boots laced with scarlet.” Her sister, Richenda, wrote, “At last, he began to preach. His voice and manner were arresting, and we all liked the sound, but Betsy's attention became fixed, and at last I saw her begin to weep, and she became a good deal agitated. As soon as Meeting was over, she made her way to the men's side of the Meeting, and having found my father, she asked him if she might dine at the Grove, our Uncle Joseph's, where William Savery was staying. He consented, though rather surprised by the request. We others went home as usual, and, for a wonder, we wished to go again in the afternoon. As we returned in the carriage, Betsy sat in the middle, and astonished us all by weeping most of the way home…”

Betsy wrote in her journal, “Today much has passed of a very serious nature. I have had a faint light spread over my mind…It has caused me to feel a little religion…I have felt there is a GOD.I have been devotional and my mind has been led away from the follies that it is mostly wrapped up in. I loved the man as if almost he were sent from heaven.”

Savery’s own journal describes his thoughts on the family, “JG is a widower. His children seem very kind and attentive to him, and he is very indulgent to them; has provided them with an extensive library and every indulgence that nature within the bounds of mere mortality can desire…They are a family very capable of distinguishing, the grace, what the truth is and leads to, but whether, with all the alluring things of this world about them, they will any of them choose to walk in it, time only must determine.”

One immediate result of what had happened to her was that her regular, terrifying dream, of being washed out to sea and drowned, stopped. “I dreamed the sea as usual was coming to wash me away, but I was beyond its reach; beyond its power to wash me away.” She never had the nightmare again.

It was thought a good idea to send Betsy to London for a while to experience ‘society’. She went to dances, theatre and opera. The first two she really did not like, but she loved the opera. She also was able to spend time with Savery, asking him questions to try and understand more about what was happening to her. After a few months she returned home, and her sisters noticed that she was a better person for the trip. Richenda wrote that she had changed from being a complete sceptic to having an entire faith in a Supreme Being. She started to dress more plainly and she took up some of the Quaker principles.

At the beginning of July one of Betsy’s new friends from London came to visit. He was a shy man who had a hearty laugh. He was a committed Quaker from a banking family called Fry. The banking business came out of their trade in tea and spices. He was a good potential match for Betsy. Betsy had an understanding of marriage when she was 15, with James Lloyd, the son of the Quaker who founded the bank, but it was broken off. It was an episode which must have left its mark on her.

That same month Betsy’s father took the family on a tour of the South and West of England. In September they came to Coalbrookdale where she became close friends with her cousin Priscilla Gurney (not to be confused with her sister of the same name) and Deborah Darby. The next day she went to a meeting where she was prophesied over, “…after sitting a time in awful silence, Rebecca Young did speak most beautifully. She did reach my heart. Deborah Darby then spoke. I only fear she says too much of what I am to be – a light to the blind, speech to the dumb and feet to the lame. Can it be?” Then she wrote, “After the meeting my moulded really light and as I walked home by starlight I looked through nature up to nature’s God. Here I am now in Cousin Prissy’s little room – never to forget this day while life is in my body. I know now what the mountain is I have to climb. I am to be a Quaker.”

Joseph Fry, who had often asked Betsy to marry him, bought a gold watch and gave it to Betsy on the evening of the 24th May 1800. “I went down to breakfast, my heart was full. I could hardly keep from crying before them all. I was so oppressed with the weight of the subject before me, natural inclination seemed to long to put the hour of decision afar off, but he gave me the watch last night with this engagement. If I give it back to him by nine o’clock this morning he never more would renew the affair. If I kept it after that hour he never would receive it back…I did not feel at liberty to return the watch. I cried heartily. Joseph felt much for me,” So the decision was made, and from that time Joseph became her confident Four days later she wrote, “My feelings towards Joseph are so calm and pleasant, and I can look forward with so much cheerfulness to a connection with him.”

Betsy made a tearful goodbye to her 86 children and was married at the Quaker chapel in Goats Lane, Norwich on the 19th August 1800. She must have had mixed emotions in leaving her much loved Earlham Hall, and the family she adored. However, she had a new life ahead of her; Joseph had promised to help her in fulfilling God’s call on her life, and he had promised to allow her to make long annual visits to Earlham, and her brother Samuel was to live with her at St Mildred’s Court in the City of London as he was articled in business to Joseph. Her brother being with her and the many visits of her sisters ensured that her separation from her family was as painless as possible.

Additional Information

This church is much as it would have been in Betsy's day.