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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell

If you travel four miles south of Norwich, you will find the small village of Swardeston, birthplace of one of Norfolk's heroines. Edith Louisa Cavell did not live her life to be a martyr; yet her actions during the First World War verify that she was a woman of great courage and tenacity.

Early life and education

Edith's life began in the December of 1865 when she was born to Swardeston's Vicar, Frederick, and his wife, Louisa. Over the years, the Cavell parents insisted that Edith and her three younger siblings, Florence, Lillian and John, were to give generously to the poor, although Frederick's earnings were barely enough to cover the family's expenses. Even during her younger years, Edith proved herself to be a resourceful child, using her artistic talents to help raise funds for her father's Sunday school. Along with her brother and sisters, the £300 was soon donated by locals who adored Edith's sketches of birds and flowers.

Edith's academic career began at home alongside her siblings before she temporarily attended the Norwich High School in 1881, moving elsewhere to board at Kensington and near Bristol at a later date. But Edith's education in the Cambridgeshire city of Peterborough proved that the young lady not only had a talent for painting: Edith also showed a flair for the French language, a skill which would prove to be very useful over the next two to three decades of her life.   

Brussels and her vocation in life

In 1890, Edith left her homeland for Brussels where she became a governess to the adoring Francois family. Over the next five years, she became fluent in French and also began a courtship with her cousin Eddie, a man whom she loved until the day of her death. The couple never married however due to Eddie's inherent nervousness making him uncertain of commitment.

The real love of Edith's life however had been found a few years earlier during a trip abroad; as she stayed in Bavaria and Austria, she was impressed by a free hospital run by Dr. Wolfenberg where she discovered a passion for nursing. Edith's willingness to look after the sick became particularly important to her in 1895 when her father became ill; she returned to England where she would nurse Frederick back to health and take the first steps towards her life's vocation.

When Frederick health's returned, Edith began a stretch at Tooting's Fountains Fever Hospital before accepting a place under the eagle-eyed supervision of Eva Lückes at the London Hospital during the spring of 1896. Despite her constant struggle with punctuality, Edith's abilities as a nurse did not go unnoticed, earning her the Maidstone Medal in 1897 after assisting with the typhoid outbreak. Following several spells in other hospitals, Edith served as the Assistant Matron at Shoreditch Infirmary in 1903 before beginning a brief stint at the Manchester and Salford Sick Poor and Private Hospital three years later.

In 1907, Edith returned to her beloved Brussels to assist in revolutionising the country's medical system. Prior to the opening of Dr. Antoine Depage's Belgium School of Registered Nurses, nuns had typically taken care of the sick. During her time spent in Brussels, Cavell became a valued member of the Red Cross and five years later helped train other nurses to work in hospitals, schools and kindergartens across the country. In fact, Edith would soon be giving lectures to doctors and nurses alike, establishing herself as a woman who was both passionate and knowledgeable about her life's work.

"At a time like this, I am needed more than ever."

Yet 1914 would mark a turning point within the forty-nine year old nurse's life. Whilst holidaying with her now widowed mother in the north of Norfolk, news broke that England was at war with Germany. Edith instantly made the decision to return overseas to help in her own way: to nurse soldiers back to health. Upon her to return to Brussels in early August, Edith encouraged other nurses to put the care of their patients first, regardless of the soldier's nationality.

However, Edith's efforts were to exceed expectations and the call of duty.

In late 1914, Prince and Princess de Croy and Philippe Baucq had an underground passage build underneath Edith's nurses' station, helping Allied soldiers to escape via neutral Holland. Although Edith herself knew about the passage, she refused to inform other nurses of the escape route, fearing she would put their lives in jeopardy. By the summer of 1915, Edith was sure that the suspicions of the German authorities had been aroused after a Belgium collaborator passed through the tunnel, prompting her to sew her diary into a cushion. Even though she remained calm, Edith was soon detained and questioned in the late July of 1915, nearly twelve months after her return to Brussels.

Imprisonment and death

Keen to incriminate Edith, the German authorities reportedly lied to the nurse, stating that her accomplices had confessed to building the underground passage and helping soldiers escape. Believing this to be true, Edith confessed her role within the scheme and was charged with harbouring Allied soldiers on the 5th August. The penalty was death, issued in light of the German Military Code: treason for helping the hostile power and conducting soldiers to the enemy. Edith viewed her punishment as fair but there were many political figures willing to intercede. The British themselves were powerless but the Americans, who were yet to enter the war, tried to bargain with the Germans. The First Secretary Hugh. S. Gibson warned authorities that Edith's execution would further harm the country's already shattered image. Baron von der Lancken also felt that Edith should be released because of her confession and previous dedication to helping wounded German soldiers.

However, neither mans intercession worked: after a two day trial, Edith's sentence was to be carried out the very next day. The night before her death, Edith was given the Sacrament by the English Chaplain, Stirling Gahan, where her famous statement - that patriotism is never enough - was declared.

At 6am on the 12th October 1915, after ten weeks in prison, two of which were in solitary confinement, Edith Cavell was killed by firing squad at the Tir National shooting range in Schaerbeek. Reportedly, eight men fired at Edith as another eight men shot four others trialled with espionage and treason. Edith was just a few months shy of fifty.

Legacy and the aftermath

Edith's story does not end in Schaerbeek. At first, the nurse was quickly buried inside the grounds of the rifle range but after the war, her body was exhumed and returned to Britain. Edith was first granted a memorial service at Westminster Abbey before being laid to rest on the 19th May 1919 in the Life's Green of Norwich Cathedral.

In the years following her death, Edith's story has been the focus of films and even songs commemorating and chronicling her actions. Memorials can also be found in Brussels, Peterborough and Norwich.

Yet the most poignant reminder of the nurse's work takes place bi-annually at Swardeston's St. Mary's Church. This year, the event takes place on the 8th and the 9th of October and the celebrations include a flower festival, displays of Edith's letters and artwork as well as crafts and food stalls. The festivities accumulate in a memorial service on the Sunday night which can be attended by anybody willing to keep the memory of Edith Cavell's extraordinary life alive.

Sources/Further Reading:

Eleanor Brown

May 2011