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Who is Edith Cavell? Our tribute an exemplary nurse

Lest we forget. Edith Cavell. 1865 - 1915

Edith Cavell was an English nurse who is commemorated for providing care without any discrimination to soldiers from both Allied and German sides during the first world war.

Besides this humanitarian act, she is also remembered for her patriotism that she exhibited by helping some 200 Allied soldiers in escaping from the German-controlled Belgium to Holland.

Early life

On 4th December 1865, Edith Cavell was born in Swardeston, Norfolk, England. Her father was the reverend Frederick Cavell and mother was Louisa Sophia. She was their eldest child.

During her early years, she did not attend the local school and received education at home. During this time, she became a good artist. In 1881, she attended Norwich High School, and later, went to three boarding schools. She learnt French at Laurel Court school, Peterborough.

In 1886, Edith became a governess to the children of the vicar in Steeple Bumpstead, Essex, and then to the children of the Gurney family at Keswick New Hall. She went to Austria and Bavaria in 1888, where she visited a hospital run by Dr Wolfenberg. This hospital visit sprouted in her an interest in nursing. In 1890, on the recommendation of her Laurel Court school’s former teacher Margaret Gibson, Edith moved to Brussels, Belgium as a governess to the Francois family. Here, she perfected her French and continued her artistic activities. The Francois family described Edith as a kind but strict lady who could never tell a lie.

Edith Cavell’s call to nursing

In 1895, Edith came back home to Swardeston to nurse her sick father. This experience led her to pursue nursing as career. In 1896, she spent a few months at the Fountain Fever Hospital in London, and then got selected for the nursing training at the Royal London Hospital. Next year, Edith received the Maidstone Medal for her outstanding work during a typhoid epidemic in Maidstone, Kent. After completion of her nurse training, Edith took to private nursing. In 1899, she joined as a night supervisor at St. Pancras infirmary, an institution for destitute. After this job, she worked as an assistant matron at Shoreditch infirmary, and then joined Manchester and Salford Sick Poor and Private Nursing Institution.

In 1907, Edith moved to Brussels to nurse a child patient of Dr. Antoine Depage. Dr. Depage, much impressed by the work of Florence Nightingale, opened a nurse training school based in his Berkendael Institute. Edith was made the matron of the school. Edith's school status got a boost when Queen Elisabeth of Belgium took services of one of her school nurse for her broken arm.

World War I

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

In 1914, when first world war broke out, Edith was with her mother in Norfolk. She decided to return to Brussels to perform her duties. She said, "At a time like this, I am more needed than ever." On returning to Brussels, Edith started providing care to soldiers of all nationalities. She told her nurses - “Each man was a father, a husband, a son: the profession of nursing knows no frontiers." Apart from this noble act of saving lives without discrimination on the basis of nationality, Cavell also gave shelter to allied soldiers and helped their escape to neutral Holland.

“Each man was a father, a husband, a son: the profession of nursing knows no frontiers."

Edith Cavell’s Death

On 5th August 1915, Edith was arrested by Germans for her role in the escape of allied soldiers. Edith was found guilty of treason and was punished with death penalty. In the evening before her death, she told reverend H. Stirling Gahan that she desired that all her friends know that she willingly sacrificed her life for her country. She said, “I have no fear nor shrinking; I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me. I thank God for this ten weeks’ quiet before the end. Life has always been hurried and full of difficulty. This time of rest has been a great mercy. They have all been very kind to me here. But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards any one.”

Edith was executed by the German firing squad on 12th October 1915.

Edith Cavell will always be known in the nursing profession as an honest, altruistic, patriotic and heroic English nurse.

A tribute to Edith Cavell

A team from Imperial Medical Staffing, a leading nurse agency, led by our Head of Nursing, along with supporters of the Cavell Nurses' Trust visited Edith Cavell’s memorial on 12th October 2017 in London to commemorate her life, and lay a wreath in her honour.