Three remarkable women of the twentieth century: Joan Mary Fry, Elizabeth Fox Howard and Francesca Wilson

For Women’s History Month, we look at the lives of three remarkable women of the 20th  century – Joan Mary Fry, Elizabeth Fox Howard and Francesca Wilson. Each of them in their own way responded to the challenges of world war, testified to their belief in international friendship and worked to relieve suffering.

Joan Mary Fry (1862-1955) is probably the most well-known of the three (you may remember her face on the “Britons of distinction” postage stamp). She was one of a large family with a strong interest in questions of political justice, several of whom went on to devote their life to public service (her sister Margery was a penal reformer, and principal of Somerville College, Oxford; another, Ruth, was a prominent peace campaigner).

Joan Mary Fry

Joan Mary Fry (1862-1955) (Library ref. F91)


In her Swarthmore Lecture (1910) Joan Mary Fry spoke of the way that spirit and action are not separate in Quakerism, saying that “Quakerism is nothing unless it be … a practical showing that the spiritual and material spheres are not divided… the whole of life is sacramental and incarnational”. Her own life demonstrated her belief in that of God in all people, and the importance of acting on our beliefs.

During World War I she was a prison chaplain, visiting conscientious objectors in prison, and attending military tribunals and courts martial to support them. After the war she travelled to Germany to investigate famine and help organise food relief programmes. You can read about the work in her book In downcast Germany 1919-1933 (1945), and in the journal letters she sent back from Germany between 1919 and 1933, as well as other unpublished papers.

In the 1920s, as unemployment soared in Britain, Joan Mary Fry became deeply involved in work to alleviate distress in mining communities, including self-help schemes and allotment projects. She acted as Clerk of the Friends Allotments Committee from 1931 to 1951, and wrote about the work in Friends lend a hand in alleviating unemployment: the story of a social experiment extending over 20 years, 1926-1946 (1947).

Allotments for the unemployed: what an allotment can give you!

Friends Allotments Committee poster. Allotments for the unemployed: what an allotment can give you! (Library ref. PO Allot. Com. 4)


Elizabeth Fox Howard (1873-1957) was not brought up as a Quaker, though she had Quaker family connections. She joined the Society of Friends as an adult in 1903 and was soon recognised as one of the Quaker leaders of her generation. She attended the Scarborough Conference of 1905, and travelled to visit American Friends in 1912.

Like Joan Mary Fry, she acted as a Quaker chaplain during World War I, visiting absolutist conscientious objectors who were imprisoned for their refusal to support militarism in any way. And, also like her, she formed strong links with Germany and Germans after the war, visiting the country again and again, returning after the Second World War to work with displaced persons in her seventies. As she wrote in Barriers down, the second of her two books on work with Germany, “for twenty-five years my connections with Germany had been closer than with any other country except my own, and I had spent months each year on some form or other of relief or reconciliation work, leaving Frankfurt, indeed, only a couple of weeks before war broke out in 1939”. When English Friends had opened the Quaker rest home at Falkenstein and then at Bad Pyrmont in 1933, to care for victims of the Nazi regime, Elizabeth Fox Howard served as one of the hosts. During the six years the rest home was in operation, it offered recuperation to some 800 people, Jews, Catholics, Lutherans, Communists and other victims of the regime.

Bad Pyrmont edit2

Quaker House at Bad Pyrmont (Library ref. Album 7)


Extract from Elizabeth Fox Howard's account of her arrest in Germany 1935

Elizabeth Fox Howard’s account of her arrest in Germany 1935 – extract (Library ref. Temp MSS 83/3)

Elizabeth Fox Howard also worked tirelessly in her own local community and her international interests were wide. Gandhi visited her home in Buckhurst Hill during his 1931 visit to London, for a quiet day away from public affairs. She published many articles, poetry, books about relief work in Germany, and memoirs, and continued to make friendships with people of all nations throughout her life.

Elizabeth Fox Howard, Midstream (1945)

Elizabeth Fox Howard, Midstream: a record of many years (1945)



Francesca Wilson (1888-1981) was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, some years later than Joan Mary Fry and Elizabeth Fox Howard. Unlike them she went to university (Newnham College, Cambridge), to study history. With her interest in travel and languages she was led into relief work with Friends in 1916, and worked with French refugees at Samoens, later becoming involved in caring for wounded Serbian troops in Corsica and North Africa under the auspices of the Serbian Relief Fund. After some time working as Hilda Clark’s interpreter in Vienna where Quakers and Save the Children Fund were organising a child feeding programme, she went in 1922 to work for famine relief in the Buzuluk region of Russia.

Francesca Wilson

Francesca Wilson (Library ref. MSS 1006/8)

As a teacher in Birmingham in the 1930s she obtained leave to go to Spain during the Spanish Civil War, visiting three times to organise housing and medical care for children. During the Second World War and afterwards she worked with Spanish refugees in the south of France, with Polish refugees in Hungary, and after the war worked with displaced persons in Germany under UNRRA. Her home was open to all sorts of lodgers, including refugees from Nazi Germany and Russia, and she adopted several young people, providing them with a home and opportunity for education.

She was a prolific writer, including contributions to The Friend and the Manchester Guardian, made radio broadcasts and television appearances. She wrote a best-selling account of her experiences, In the margins of chaos (1944).

Francesca WIlson, In the margins of chaos

Francesca Wilson, In the margins of chaos: recollections of relief work in and between three wars (1944)


The Library holds books, articles and unpublished papers of all three women, as well as the archives of the Quaker organisations for which they worked.



Further reading

Joan Mary Fry

 Published sources

Oldfield, Sybil, ‘Joan Mary Fry (1862–1955), relief worker and social reformer’ in Oxford Dictionary of national biography (2004)  (log in using most local public library cards)

Fawell, Ruth, Joan Mary Fry (Friends Home Service Committee, 1959)

Moore, Katharine, Cordial relations: the maiden aunt in fact and fiction (Heinemann, 1966. Chapter 19 includes transcript of interview with Pamela Diamand about her childhood and her aunts, Joan, Isabel & Margery Fry.

Diamand, Pamela, Joan as she was to us children (Undated typescript. Library reference: Box L27/25)

Johnson, Dale A., ‘From pilgrimage to discipleship: Quaker women’s ministries in nineteenth century England’ in Quaker history, Vol.91, no.2 (Fall 2002), p.18-32

Morgan, Nigel, ‘Joan Mary Fry and The Communion of Life’ in The Friend (14 December 2010)

Obituary in The Friend (2 December 1955)

Manuscripts and archives

Joan Mary Fry Journal letters from Germany and America (Library reference: Temp MSS 66)

Joan Mary Fry Papers, concerning work in Germany 1919-1954 (Library reference: Temp MSS 87/7)

Joan Mary Fry Papers, including report on a visit to German prisons (Library reference: Temp MSS 99/2)

Allotments Committee records (


Elizabeth Fox Howard

Published sources

Howard, Elizabeth Fox, Upstream: a family scrapbook (privately published, 1944)

Howard, Elizabeth Fox, Midstream: a record of many years (privately published, 1945)

Howard, Elizabeth Fox, Downstream: records of several generations (privately published, 1955)

Haseldine-Jones, Lynn, ‘Elizabeth Fox Howard’ in Loughton and District Historical Society Newsletter (Jan-Feb 2013)

Manuscripts and archives

Elizabeth Fox Howard Papers – including World War I relief work, letters written while a prison chaplain at Dartmoor Prison, description of a day spent with Gandhi, journal and letters about her arrest in Germany in 1935 (Library reference: Temp MSS 83)


Francesca Wilson

Published sources

Roberts, Siân. ‘Wilson, Francesca Mary (1888–1981), schoolteacher and refugee relief worker’ in Oxford Dictionary of national biography (2013) (log in using most local public library cards)

Wilson, Francesca, In the margins of chaos: recollections of relief work in and between three wars (John Murray, 1944)

Wilson, Francesca, Aftermath: France, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, 1945 and 1946 (Penguin, 1947)

Horder, June (ed.), Francesca Wilson: a life of service and adventure (privately published, 1993)

Manuscripts and archives

Francesca Wilson Papers – including correspondence, diary extracts, articles and talks (Library reference: MSS 1006)

Friends Emergency & War Victims Relief Committee records of relief missions (Library reference: YM/MfS/FEWVRC/MISSIONS/)

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3 Responses to Three remarkable women of the twentieth century: Joan Mary Fry, Elizabeth Fox Howard and Francesca Wilson

  1. Pingback: War and social order | Quaker Strongrooms

  2. Pingback: Women’s History Month | Quaker Strongrooms

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