Thomas Fowell Buxton

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In 1818 Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845) entered Parliament as MP for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, a seat he would hold until 1837. His parliamentary career spanned almost 20 years, during which he became a prominent campaigner for penal reform, criminal law policy, and abolition.

Portrait of Thomas Fowell Buxton WOA 4588 Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, M.P., Stipple with engraving by Henry Robinson, 1850, WOA 4588

Portrait of Elizabeth Fry from the House of Lords Library Portrait of Elizabeth Fry, Copyright House of Lords Library

Born in Essex in 1786, Buxton was raised by his mother Anna Hanbury following the early death of his father. Buxton studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and after graduating in 1807 he accepted an offer of employment at his uncle’s brewery Truman, Hanbury & Company, in Spitalfields, London.

That same year, aged 21, he married Hannah Gurney, a member of an influential Quaker family which included his close friend John Gurney and prison reformer Elizabeth Fry.

In Spitalifelds Buxton became a prominent philanthropist and vocal supporter of the local community of weavers. It was during his time in Spitalfields that he first became interested in criminal law and prison reform, influenced by his sister-in-law Elizabeth Fry.

By the mid-1810s Elizabeth Fry was a prominent and vocal campaigner for prison reform. During 1813 she had first encountered the poor conditions female prisoners were subjected to in Newgate Prison. Shocked by what she had witnessed, Fry undertook a tour of British institutions and published her findings in Prisons in Scotland and the North of England (1819).

Buxton, influenced by Fry’s work, also undertook a series of visits to Newgate and was similarly appalled by the conditions. Buxton gathered reports on prisons and jails across Britain, Europe, and America and compiled his findings into An Enquiry, Whether Crime and Misery are produced or prevented by our present system of Prison Discipline (1818).