Elizabeth Fry is my nan

See this woman. I’ve just found out that she is my great great great great grandmother.

Earlier this week, as part of a feature I was writing for The Birmingham Post, I went with family historian Paul Wilkins to Birmingham Central Library to trace my family tree and discovered, amongst other great worthiness, that I am a direct descendant of Elizabeth Fry, the woman who reformed prisons in the nineteenth century and is commemorated on the back of a fiver.

Now I’m trying to work out how it makes me feel.

To be honest, it wasn’t a total revelation. I was told this as a child but I had completely forgotten it as it hadn’t been mentioned since. This is the first time I have seriously tried to take it in.

The news broke on same day that Trinity Mirror announced it was looking to axe between 60 and 80 posts in the Midlands, which means that my job, along with those of my fellow journalists, is seriously under threat.

But did I care? No, not that day because my great great great great grandmother was Elizabeth Fry and if she could reform the prison service, then I was damn sure I could work out how to support my family even if I didn’t have a job in the depth of a recession. You can’t touch me Trinity Mirror, I’m made of noble, worthy, heroic, pioneering, life-transforming stuff!

And then the next day I felt stumped because it was raining and I couldn’t work out how to dry the washing…

At a practical level, knowing I have descended from a long line of do-gooders (we will be revealing more in the Post over the next few weeks) makes no difference at all. The difference is at the level of imagination and identity.

But even there, my relationship to the news is complex.

On the one hand, I am glowing – radiating the light from the halos of my ancestors. On the other, I know that I am who I am, regardless of who has gone before me. When I meet people, I want to know them for who they are, not for who their families might or might not be – and that includes myself.

I am very glad to be getting to know my ancestors but I am also very glad I lived for 45 years before I did. I’m glad I was established as a professional feminist before I knew my great great great great grandmother founded the first national women’s organisation. I’m glad I had inquired about working as a writer in residence in prisons before I was aware I am a direct descendant of a prison reformer.

My first reaction to the news is to tell people – have a good old brag. But once it is integrated into my understanding of myself, I think it is something I will want to keep quiet. I will get photographs of the amazing women who have gone before me. I will keep them at home and when life is challenging, I will sit in their presence and silently draw from their strength.

*I wrote this article originally for the Birmingham Post.


Comments: 6

  1. That’s really interesting Jo. I quite agree that you needed to become who you are as a feminist before discovering that it was ancestral, as it were.

  2. Jo Ind says:

    Thanks Maggy. All of this was written very soon after the discovery. It will be interesting to see if it makes any difference to my sense of identity in the long term.

  3. Therese Lord says:

    Hi Jo. I have been told by my mother since I was little that I too am a direct descendant of Elizabeth Fry through her Mother’s side, Not sure how many “Greats” but probably about the same as you. I have no idea of my family tree other than this and being in Australia it is probably a bit too difficult to sort out. However, when visiting the UK I travelled to see the Quaker museum and tapestry to find out more about her. It gave me very much a sense of ancestral “connection” and although as with you I know I am, who I am, because of my own experiences and values, it is kind of nice to know that some of those values started generations before me.

  4. Jo Ind says:

    Hello cousin! That’s really good to hear. It does feel good to have an ancestral connection as you put it and makes me feel more aware of the ancestors that I don’t know anything about but which are there nonetheless. Yes, I guess it is harder to find out more if you are in Australia. My obstacle is time. All my family tree tracing has had to be put on hold because life is too busy. One day in 20 years, maybe…. Thanks for getting in touch.

  5. Jan Bingham says:

    Hi. My twin daughters are also descendants of Elizabeth Fry. Their grandmother Nancy Green(Beagley, I think) was a direct descendant. I saw a programme on the tv the other night, about bankers and Elizabeth was on it, so I decided to look her up and find out more about her

  6. Jo Ind says:

    If you mean Ian Hislop’s When Bankers Were Good, I saw that too. It was excellent. Thanks for letting me know. I hope your daughters enjoy their heritage.

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