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A tale of several Ediths - all of them remarkable

PUBLISHED: 10:05 13 June 2018

Mount Edith Cavell in Canada.

Mount Edith Cavell in Canada.

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Mary Dorrell of Norfolk WI visits the world’s largest reminder of the bravery of Edith Cavell... a mountain.

I often see Edith Cavell (the building) at the NNUH on my journey to Norfolk WI’s House in Norwich, but I was not expecting to “meet” her when I travelled to Canada, earlier this year.

Edith Cavell, a formidable Norfolk woman, might well have become celebrated for pioneering modern nursing at the Berkendael Institute in Brussels where she worked from 1907. Instead she was arrested for treason against the German administration under which she found herself working in August 1915 for helping 200 soldiers (allied and others) to escape. She immediately became internationally famous as a heroine after her execution in October 1915, when she faced a firing squad with great bravery, saying: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”

The British immediately used her death as part of WW1 propaganda effort, throughout the Empire. Many of us will be familiar with the Essex County recruitment poster “Murdered by the Huns”. It was only when I came face to face with Mount Edith Cavell, that I realised the poster was recruiting for the war effort in Essex County, Ontario.

The Government of Canada had immediately sought to commemorate her sacrifice by renaming a mountain. Finding a suitable one turned out not to be that straightforward. Should they simply rename Mount Robson in her honour? After all, no one was entirely sure after whom the mountain was named? After considerable controversy against the renaming of such a prominent landmark, the Prime Minister of Canada instructed the Geographic Board to think again. This time the suggestion was to simply add the word “Cavell” to a mountain near Banff already named Mount Edith, a suggestion accepted by the Board in December 1916. This unleashed considerable protest from the four families who argued that Mount Edith had been named after ‘their’ Ediths. So by January 1916 the Geographic Board was again reconsidering. Mountains from the Yukon to Quebec were variously rejected for being too remote or not majestic enough.

Eventually they settled (one can imagine, with relief) on the renaming of La Montagne de la Grande Traverse, sometimes known as Mount Geike, and also known as “White Ghost” by First Nation Americans, one of the most imposing in Jasper National Park and visible both from Alberta and British Columbia.

Surely the issue was resolved, when in March 1916 it was officially named Mount Cavell? But more letters arrived, this time arguing that for people to truly understand Edith Cavell’s sacrifice (and the “depravity” of her executioners) it was essential for her sex or profession to be explicit in the name. Finally, in June 1916 the mountain officially became known as Mount Edith Cavell.

Nowadays, Canadians know the area for its outstanding beauty and its hiking trails. Two base trails go to Angel Glacier, the longer of the two goes on to the Cavell Meadows. The intrepid can climb up to its 11,034 feet (3,363m) peak.

There are many Ediths in this story: not surprising as it was then a very popular name.

I wonder if Madge Watts, that redoubtable Canadian WI member from British Columbia, who brought the whole idea of the WI to Wales in 1914, ever met Edith Rigby? This Edith was not so far over the border from Llanfair PG WI (Anglesey) in Lancashire. She was languishing in prison having burnt to the ground the holiday home of Sir William Lever, the soap magnate. As a suffragette and friend of the Pankhursts she had been setting “a beacon lighted to King and country to see here are some intolerable grievances for women”. Strong-minded women, these Ediths, which is probably how Edith Rigby became founding member and first President of Hutton & Howick WI, near Preston.

Formidable and inspiring ladies I think, and a lot to live up to, as I continue my journey past the Edith Cavell Building and on to Evelyn Suffield House.

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