On 4 December this year, we again laid flowers at the monument in St Martin’s Place, London to mark the birthday of Edith Cavell. (Flowers are also laid every 12 October by the Royal London Hospital to mark the day of her execution in 1915).
It was eerily quiet in London’s West End and as Edith’s favourite hymn, Abide With Me was sung, we remembered her contribution to nursing, her faith and her bravery.
Lil Warren was invited to write a short biography of Edith Cavell as part of a collection of 100+ women from Hackney’s history being compiled for a future Hackney Society/Hackney History publication. (see below).
Edith Cavell 1865 – 1915
WWI nursing pioneer and iconic woman of courage
“Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.”
These are the last words of Edith Cavell before she was executed in Brussels, 12 October 1915. The striking George Frampton monument to her in St Martin’s Place, London (adjoining Trafalgar Square) also bears this simple but powerful statement.
Edith Louisa Cavell was born in Swardeston, Norfolk 4 December 1865. (The family name is pronounced to rhyme with travel not hell). A religious, Victorian, middle class upbringing included attendance at the progressive Laurel Court school in Peterborough where Edith began working with children and became fluent in French.
At that time opportunities of employment for “gentlewomen” were scarce and Edith took a series of governess posts, lastly with the Francois family in Brussels. She returned to England to nurse her seriously ill father and when he recovered, decided her vocation was to be a nurse.
Her training began at the London Hospital, Whitechapel (now known as The Royal London Hospital) under the formidable Matron and contemporary of Florence Nightingale, Miss Eva Lückes. Edith qualified in September 1898. By November 1903 she was appointed Assistant Matron at Shoreditich Infirmary (now St Leonard’s Hospital in Hackney) where she had a great deal of supervision of wards and opportunities to teach the nurses training there.
Still looking for promotion to Matron in a British hospital in 1907 she had the good fortune to be recommended by the Francois family to a Belgian surgeon, Dr Antoine Depage. She became Matron and teacher at the Berkendael Institute in Brussels and pioneered professional nursing, previously tasked by nuns. One of her nurses, Mademoiselle Boheme wrote of Edith:
‘Her clear, grey eyes were direct and searching in their gaze. Her voice was low, agreeable and cultured; her French was fluent….I formed the impression that everything around Edith Cavell, the atmosphere of her room, the neatness of her attire, her attitude and poise, and the words she used, all conveyed her characteristic efficiency, thoroughness, serenity, kindness.’
On 3 August 1914 Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium. Britain declared war on Germany for attacking Belgium’s neutrality. In September 1914 Edith could have returned to England. She chose to stay. She nursed the wounded of all nationalities and surprisingly the German authorities did not intern her as an enemy alien.
For the next year, unbeknownst to her nurses, she became part of the escape network which helped Allied soldiers to safety via Holland. She was closely watched by the secret police and on 5 August 1915 was arrested. On 10 August she was accused of war treason. At her court martial on 9 October she was condemned to death.
At dawn, 12 October she was taken to the Tir National and tied, blindfolded, to the execution post. At 0700 the firing squad opened fire. She died instantly.
Her legacy to nursing will endure as will her qualities of humour, unselfishness, commitment to duty, faith, bravery and her love of others. We will not forget.
A downloadable BRUSSELS AT DAWN PDF (with foreword by Jonathan Evans from the Royal London Hospital Museum) available on our Resources page. https://unityartslondon.wordpress.com/Resources/
Featured image at the top of post by Michael Cheetham of the stained glass window at St Olave’s Church, Hart Street, London.