She was born Elizabeth Gurney at Earlham in Norfolk, England to an old Quaker family. Motivated by the gospel she took an interest in her teenage years in the poor, the sick, prisoners and in education. She married Joseph Fry at age 20.
In 1817 she was a key member of an organisation working on behalf of female prisoners and their children and she became well known in society. She made efforts to improve the treatment of prisoners deported to Australia. Her influence extended as far as France, Prussia and Russia. She also helped the homeless, establishing a "nightly shelter" in London after seeing the body of a young boy in the winter of 1819/1820. Her work was restricted after her husband became bankrupt in 1828. She died at Ramsgate in 1845 and was buried in the Friends's burial ground at Barking.