'The nurse who became a martyr. The martyr who became a legend' - Remembering Edith Cavell 100 years after her reburial in Norwich
PUBLISHED: 16:37 30 April 2019 | UPDATED: 08:30 01 May 2019
To mark 100 years since Edith Cavell'S body was reburied at Norwich Cathedral, ALAN TUTT of Cromer Museum looks back at the life and legacy of the renowned Norfolk nurse who gave her life for the freedom of others.
Some people's names forever echo through history.
They become synonymous with all that is good, all that is positive in humanity. Gandhi, Florence Nightingale, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and so on, spring to mind.
Edith Cavell is worthy of this illustrious company. I first encountered her name as a child in 1970.
Her picture appeared on a Brooke Bond picture card in the series 'Famous People 1869-1969, 50 of the Greatest Britons'.
The cards were free in loose tea, the album cost sixpence - I still have it.
Edith is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides of the conflict in the First World War, without discrimination, and in helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium, for which she was arrested.
She was accused of treason, found guilty of 'assisting men to the enemy', court-martialled and sentenced to death.
The night before her execution, she told the Reverend Stirling Gahan, the Anglican chaplain allowed to see her and to give her holy communion: “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness to anyone. I have no fear nor shrinking; I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.”
Words later inscribed on her statue in St Martin's Place, near Trafalgar Square in London. One of innumerable memorials and plaques dotted around the country dedicated to this heroic figure and testimony to her importance in the eyes of the nation, of the world.
Despite international pressure for clemency, she was shot by a German firing squad on 12th October 1915.
Those shots metaphorically ricocheted round the world; her execution receiving worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage.
Edith Cavell personified courage, self-sacrifice, and dignity and was a pioneering force in nursing; one can only scratch the surface of a unique life.
That is why her name lives on and that is why this year we must commemorate her dramatic reburial at Norwich Cathedral, exactly 100 years ago.
To discover more about Edith and what made her the woman she is, I went to the village of Swardeston, four miles from Norwich, where she was born on the December 4, 1865, and met Nick Miller.
Nick moved to the village 25 years ago and developed a lifelong interest in Edith.
He is passionate and knowledgeable about her; so much so that he has curated an archive of material on her.
Recent additions are the Cavell family piano, unearthed by a builder in North Walsham, and an Edith dress.
Nick takes interested parties on a guide tour of key Edith-related sites in Swardeston. He plays the top-hatted 'persona' of Ezra Parr, philanthropic overseer of the poor here in Edith's time; Parr lived close by Cavell House and managed to keep folk from the workhouse over all his years in post.
We first leave Nick's home, the former village schoolhouse, which Edith would visit, though never attended, and gaze out upon what was, in the 19th Century, common land; where the villagers grazed their cows and sheep.
One gets a sense of what Edith saw, a slice of pastoral England.
There is now another quintessentially English part of the landscape here; Swardeston cricket club square and pavilion.
Next stop is the house where Edith was born.
She was the daughter of the Reverend Frederick Cavell, Vicar of St Mary's, Swardeston for 46 years, and his wife, Louisa Sophia (Warming). Edith had two younger sisters, Florence and Mary, and a brother, John.
The temporary parsonage, now known as Cavell House, on the south side of the Green, was vacated within a year of her birth for a new vicarage beside the church, built at Frederick's own expense.
There is an old vicarage too, belonging to a previous incumbent. Nick is pulling all these locations together into an illustrated walk/trail, assisted by a Heritage Lottery Grant, that the public can follow, unguided.
Visitors to Swardeston mention Edith when signing the book in the church.
Originally Edith's body had been returned to England after the end of the First World War.
There was a state funeral in Westminster Abbey; a massive event of international significance – comparable to the funeral, say, of Winston Churchill or Princess Diana.
Few of the millions who died in the Great War were repatriated for burial. The guide will be ready for Edith's big anniversary on May 19, 2019, to commemorate her reburial at Norwich Cathedral in 1919.
Back in Swardeston, passing by the defunct village shop and 'The Dog' public house, Nick and I have finally reached St Mary's church – originally Saxon - where Edith's father would deliver many a sermon.
We pass a small inconsequential building nearby which Nick says, not without humour, that a determined young Edith and others obtained a grant for from the Norwich diocese to let it be used, as a Sunday school, a kind of respite for young Swardeston children who were, perhaps, a little weary of her father's lengthy homilies. A determination that would show itself on many occasions in her later life of nursing.
A hut next to the church has fascinating displays on Edith's life and even some of the evocative drawings/watercolours she made of the locality.
The church itself has a stained glass window in her honour, donated by 'friends and admirers'. Outside is a memorial to her and 10 Swardeston villagers who died in the First World War; those 10 and 49 more are honoured inside the church; and in the churchyard is the last resting place of her parents, Frederick, and Louisa – also Edith's middle name.
Edith was educated at Norwich High School for Girls, then various boarding schools.
After a period as a governess, including for a family in Brussels from 1890 to 1895, she returned home to care for her father during a serious illness.
The experience led her to become a nurse after her father's recovery.
She worked in various hospitals in England, including Shoreditch Infirmary. In 1907, Cavell was recruited by Dr Antoine Depage to be matron of a newly established nursing school.
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Within a year, she was training nurses for three hospitals, 24 schools, and thirteen kindergartens in Belgium. She was part of a growing body of people in the medical profession who realised that the care being provided by the religious institutions had not been keeping up with medical advances.
When the First World War broke out, she was visiting her widowed mother in Norfolk. She immediately returned to Brussels, with no thought to her own safety. In November 1914, after the German occupation of Brussels, Cavell began sheltering British soldiers and funnelling them out of occupied Belgium to the neutral Netherlands. This was to lead to her tragic death.
The way that Edith Cavell's name has lodged permanently in the public consciousness is a reflection of the human virtues and devout faith that were personified in this brave and pioneering woman. She will never be forgotten.
-Interested in local history? Cromer Museum has a series of Sunday History Walks. They are: Cromer History – Curator Alistair Murphy reveals Cromer's fascinating past; June 23, August 18 and September 15 – 12.45pm to 2.30pm. Cromer at War – Alan Tutt looks at the Second World War bombing of Cromer; May 26, July 21 and August 25– 12.45pm to 2.30pm. Ghosts and Legends of Cromer – Anna Crane and Rebecca Lusher tell spooky tales and legends of Cromer; August 4, 6.45pm to 8.30pm and October 27, 3.30 to 5.30pm. All cost £4 (£3 with museum pass) book on 01263 513543 or firstname.lastname@example.org.