“Someday, somehow, I am going to do something useful...something for people. They are, most of them, so helpless, so hurt and so unhappy.”1
Edith Cavell is probably best remembered for her death during the First World War, executed by the Germans for suspected espionage activities in Belgium where she helped many Allied soldiers to cross back home.
Celebrated as a martyr, used as an example of patriotism for the War propaganda and, more recently, revalued as an intelligence agent, Cavell had a great impact as a nurse both in London and in Brussels before the War broke out, implementing new practices and working in close contact with local communities. Her work, particularly in the East End, is exemplary of the role women had in reforming nursing in the Victorian and Edwardian periods.
Edith Cavell was born in Swardeston, near Norwich, in 1865, the first of four children born to the local vicar, Reverend Fredrick Cavell and his wife Louisa Sophia. Life at the vicarage of St Mary the Virgin was frugal and simple, but the family deeply cared for their parishioners, sharing Sunday lunches with the poorest ones. As a young girl, Edith enjoyed ice skating and painting, often choosing nature as her favourite subject and putting her art to good use to raise funds for the Sunday school.2
After completing her education, Edith worked as a governess in various households, both in England and in Brussels, where she worked for the François family between 1890-95, although she had already developed an interest in nursing by visiting a free hospital managed by Dr. Wolfenberg in Bavaria.3
Training in London
“I have no hospital training nor any nursing engagements whatever”4
Her interest in nursing was reawakened in 1895, when she went back home to care for her ailing father. She then decided to train as a nurse. Both her younger sisters, Florence and Lilian, were nurses. The latter had trained at St Thomas's under Florence Nightingale, one of the main innovators during the Victorian period. Before Nightingale, nurses were usually older women who had had smallpox, typhus or other contagious diseases so that they were immune to them.5 This profession was not highly regarded in society and poorly paid.6
Nightingale managed to reform nursing practices through her efforts during the Crimean War and then through the nursing school she founded at St Thomas' in 1860, guaranteeing a better care for patients and stricter hygienic measures on the ward, where trainees followed more experienced colleagues to learn.7
In December 1895, aged 30, Cavell started to work at the Fountains Fever Hospital in Tooting, South London, which had been built two years prior to deal with a burst of scarlet fever. Edith worked there for 7 months, living in the nurses' quarters and carrying on mostly unskilled tasks on the ward.8 She then applied at the Royal London Hospital to formally train as a nurse.
Opened in 1740 as an infirmary and later converted in a hospital in 1748, the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel mainly catered to the population of sailors and factory workers of the East End.9 The institution's nursing school, inspired by Nightingale, opened in 1873, initially offering a 3-years course to probationers (the students), who had a chance to work in many different departments and learn alongside other students.
The training programme was reduced to 2 years under Eva Lückes, who was the matron there between 1880 and 1919. Lückes went on to redesign the syllabus, introduce exams, and reform nursing practices similarly to what her friend Nightingale had done at St Thomas'.10 Probationers had long hours, working from early morning to late at night, caring for patients, praying with them, making sure that the ward was always clean, and attending lessons during breaks.11 Edith made good friends with some of the other trainees like Eveline Dickinson, who later published an article on how to cure lupus based on her experience in Copenhagen.12
When a typhoid epidemic broke out in Maidstone in 1897, Lückes chose Cavell and other 5 nurses to help in an effort to contain the disease that had affected about 1700 people.13 Edith mostly worked with children and frequently during night shifts for 8 weeks. The epidemic was successfully dealt with and Edith was awarded a silver medal for her services. She then returned to the Royal London Hospital to complete her training. In her final report in 1898, Lückes criticised some traits of Edith's personality while recognising her strengths:
"Edith Cavell has plenty of capability when she choose to exert herself, but she is not much in earnest, not at all punctual […] She did good work during the typhoid epidemic in Maidstone, and had sufficient ability to become a fairly good nurse by the end of her training. Her theoretical work was superior to her practical work."14
The matron recommended Edith for work as a private nurse, something that disappointed Cavell, even though she still looked up to Lückes and often confided in her about her career in the following years.
St Pancras and the Shoreditch Infirmaries
In 1901, Cavell started to work at St Pancras Infirmary, an institution that welcomed the poor from the borough, guaranteeing a bed to everyone and cleaner conditions than workhouses, even though still very crowded with more than 1000 paupers to take care of, particularly pregnant women, and those suffering from diarrhoea and respiratory diseases.15 Edith was night superintendent with Emma Berridge there.
She went back to the East End in 1903, when she started as Assistant Matron to Miss Inglis at the Shoreditch Infirmary (St Leonard's Hospital in Hackney now). Cavell began to visit patients at home in follow-up visits after discharge, an innovative practice, and introduced a 4-years course in maternity nursing.16 Miss Inglis, despite a quite cold relationship between the two, praised her qualities as a nurse, writing: “I admired her unswerving sense of duty.”17
Innovating nursing in Belgium
Cavell moved to different institutions in other parts of the country in the following years, until she moved back to Brussels in 1907 upon a request by Dr Antoine Depage. In Belgium, Edith opened a pioneering nursing school, L’Ecole Belge d’Infirmieres Diplomees, working alongside Marie Depage, Antoine's wife. Up to that moment, nursing in Belgium was mostly done by nuns, while now Edith offered a chance to young women to enter the profession through a curriculum she designed and a diploma, drawing from her previous experiences, especially in Manchester.18
At first, qualified nurses from London taught the trainees, who went on to work in 3 local hospitals, 24 communal schools and 13 kindergartens. It was a great improvement, as Cavell noticed:
“The old idea that it is a disgrace for women to work is still held in Belgium and women of good birth and education still think they lose caste by earning their own living.”19
In 1910, Edith founded a nursing journal, L'infiermière, and by 1914 a new building had been built for the school, where she gave lectures to doctors and nurses alike.
Death and commemorations
When the First World War broke out, Cavell was back in Norfolk to visit her mother, but instantly decided to go back to Brussels, remaining even after the Germans occupied the city and caring for soldiers regardless of their nationality.20 She soon began to hide British and allied soldiers and civilians, providing means for a safe return home. Growing suspicions from the Germans led to searches and ultimately her arrest for treason in August 1915. The court martial sentenced her to death. A firing squad executed her on 12th October 1915.
Cavell's death caused an immediate outcry and celebration of her patriotism. A memorial service took place at St Paul on 30th October 1915. As reported by The Guardian, the church was crowded, with nurses from all of London sharing the pews with dignitaries and politicians like the Prime Minister Asquith, Lord Robert Cecil, the Lord Mayor, and foreign representatives:
Often before has the glorious elegiac ritual of St. Paul’s expressed a national emotion, but never has there been a memorial service so touched with strangeness in tragedy as the nation’s tribute of pity and indignation to Miss Cavell’s memory this morning.21
Her body was then transported and buried at Norwich Cathedral. On that same day, an article in the Cologne Gazette reported the German response to her death in the words of the undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, Alfred Zimmermann:
“Miss Cavell in her actions displayed a thoroughly masculine force of mind and decision. It was therefore only her just due if she were treated no differently than a man.”22
To this day, Cavell is still remembered through many memorials all over the world. Just in London, among others, her statue in St Martin's Place, the street named after her running along the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, a plaque at St Leonard's Hospital.
Her image was also widely used during the rest of the War for propaganda as in leaflets and postcards.23 Many films and plays immortalised her patriotism. While some silent features are now lost, Dawn, a 1928 film with Lady Sybil Thorndike playing Cavell is still available as well as the later 1939 movie Nurse Edith Cavell with Anna Neagle.
Perhaps more significantly, it is her work as a nurse before the War that is still highly valued both at home and abroad with associations like the Edith Cavell Trust, founded in 1917 to help nurses in their financial struggles, that carry on her legacy.
Thank you Eleonora Sammartino for contributing this article!
- Butcher, Catherine. Edith Cavell: Faith Before the Firing Squad. Oxford: Monarch Books, 2015.
- “Edith Cavell: Carve Her Name with Pride. A Life Well Lived”. The Economist, October 7, 2010. http://www.economist.com/node/17199528
- “Edith Cavell's Memorial Service at St Paul's”. The Guardian (Archive), October 30, 1915. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/30/edith-cavell-st-pauls-memorial-service
- “Edith Cavell's Life and Legacy”. https://edithcavell.org.uk/edith-cavells-life/
- London Royal Hospital Museum
- Heggie, Vanessa. “Edith Cavell: Nurse, Marty, and Spy?”. The Guardian, October 12, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/science/the-h-word/2015/oct/12/edith-cavell-nurse-martyr-and-spy
- Pickles, Katie. Transnational Outrage: The Death and Commemoration of Edith Cavell. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
- Souhami, Diana. Edith Cavell: Nurse, Martyr, Heroine. London: Hachette, 2011.
- “World War I Postcards”. https://www.worldwar1postcards.com/edith-cavell.php
1 As quoted in “Edith Cavell: Carve Her Name with Pride. A Life Well Lived”, in The Economist, October 7, 2010. http://www.economist.com/node/17199528
2 “Edith Cavell's Life and Legacy”, https://edithcavell.org.uk/edith-cavells-life/
4 As quoted in Catherine Butcher, Edith Cavell: Faith Before the Firing Squad (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2015), 72.
5 London Royal Hospital Museum
6 Diana Souhami, Edith Cavell: Nurse, Martyr, Heroine (London: Hachette, 2011). GoogleBooks. https://books.google.it/books?id=_qphBQAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&hl=it#v=onepage&q&f=false
9 London Royal Hospital Museum
11 Butcher, 79.
13 Butcher, 80.
14 Ibid., 81.
16 Katie Pickles, Transnational Outrage: The Death and Commemoration of Edith Cavell (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 96.
17 As quoted in Butcher, 86.
18 Vanessa Heggie, “Edith Cavell: Nurse, Marty, and Spy?”, in The Guardian, October 12, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/science/the-h-word/2015/oct/12/edith-cavell-nurse-martyr-and-spy
19 “Edith Cavell's Life and Legacy”, https://edithcavell.org.uk/edith-cavells-life/
21“Edith Cavell's Memorial Service at St Paul's”, in The Guardian (Archive), October 30, 1915. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/30/edith-cavell-st-pauls-memorial-service