edith cavell


I suppose that it was not surprising that mother wanted to be a nurse. She told me that she had spent so much of her early childhood in hospital, so much so that she got to think of it as home and as a place of safety. As a child mother suffered both physical and mental abuse as at the hands of her stepfather and mother. She and her elder brother were regularly beaten by grandmother’s second husband both when he was in a drunken stupor and when sober and without money. Once he married my grandmother, he apparently never did a day’s work again. My mother and her elder brother were also starved of food, which eventually brought about their removal from their , if you can call it that, with my mother being sent to a hospital at Herne Bay in Kent in order to be fattened up. It needs to be remembered that at this time there was no such thing as Social and for the authorities to actively remove my mother from her proves that the harsh treatment she had received and the condition that she was in had reached a critical point. It took almost a year to get her to a reasonable weight and another six months after that for her to get over her fear of going home upon discharge. Little changed once she returned home. My mother said that she lost count of the number of times she woke up in the hospital bed next to that of her mother following a rampage by her stepfather.


As I said, my mother spent much of her early childhood at the Royal London Hospital on Whitechapel Road, so much so that she was allowed to help the nurses in their duties. At first, this meant helping the nurses with the care of the aged women that were on the wards. My mother said that she helped wash and dress those that were unable to do so themselves. She also was given the job of brushing and combing their hair. My mother spoke of one particular old lady that she was fond of and who would love to sit in a chair and have my mother comb her hair. My mother could not but think of this lady as a grandmother and indeed the old lady obviously thought kindly of her as she always shared the little gifts of sweetmeats that her family brought with her. Tragically, one day while my mother was grooming the lady’s hair, my mother said that she failed to answer a question when asked. My mother said that she stopped brushing and turned to look at the old lady only to discover that she had passed away. Since my mother was very young, this was a shock to her and she was very upset at the loss of this old lady. It took my mother a good while to come to terms with her death.


Sadly this was not the only death that my mother was to experience at first hand. While at the rehabilitation hospital at Herne Bay, she became friendly with a little girl close to her own age. This poor child suffered with epilepsy and was subject to sudden convulsions. Seemingly one evening, the two children were sitting on the inner ledge of one of the windows of their ward when suddenly the little girl began to have a convulsion. My mother says that before she could grab her friend and pull her off the ledge, the little girl fell out of the window and onto the stone patio below. The little girl died instantly. Again my mother was very upset by the death of a friend.

Fortunately, my mother learned to cope with the passing of friends despite her young age and gained solace in her nursing duties.  With time, she graduated from helping with patient ablutions to helping the nurses dress wounds and with other care. My mother said that despite the sadness caused by illness, she was happy to help and enjoyed being a part of the team. She said that she was often complimented by the sisters and doctors for her work.


My mother was made to leave school when she reached eleven years of age and sent out to work. Since her stepfather did not work, she and her brother were required to supplement the various handouts that were given to help the family survive. As a result, her formal education came to an abrupt and painful end, as did her dreams of becoming a nurse. My mother left school unable to read and write well. Despite these inabilities, she had a remarkable ability to add up huge sums of money without the use of paper and pencil – and I am talking about old British moneypounds, shillings & pence. This ability served her well when she and my father had a pie ‘n’ mash shop and she served the customs. She was able to tot up the cost of the purchases with speed and quickly calculate the necessary change in her head without making an error. At the end of the day, what was sold equaled exactly the money in the till. It was a rare day when she was a penny or two short. My mother always maintained that when such a mismatch occurred, it was the result of an error of my father who took over for the time my mother needed to attend to me.

Edith Cavell




Despite my mother’s unfulfilled wish to become a nurse, she maintained an interest in medicine and was always interested in any radio or television programme that presented important medical or scientific advancements.

When I was older and began to study the sciences, she was always interested to listen to me tell her about my studies and once I went to college, whenever I came home to visit, she remained eager to hear about what I had learned. I remember that she had a remarkable quick and agile mind despite her lack of formal education. However her interest truly blossomed once I entered medical research. I had just started working with patients suffering from von Willebrand’s Disease and Haemophilia A.

Von Willebrand’s disease is a bleeding disorder where patients demonstrate prolonged bleeding and clotting times when tested (what is meant by the clotting time is in actuality, the partial thromboplastin time or aPTT) and is inherited by an autosomal (i.e. not sex-linked) dominant route. Although Haemophilia A is also a bleeding disorder, it is sex-linked and recessive and finds expression in males while females act as carriers. Patients with Haemophilia A demonstrate a normal bleeding time, but demonstrate a prolonged clotting time (i.e. aPTT) when tested in the laboratory.

I recall explaining the characteristics of each condition and noting how quickly she came to grasp the characteristics of each malady. However what really surprised me was her ability to understand how to distinguish von Willebrand’s Disease from Haemophilia A in the laboratory setting. I soon realised that she not only appreciated what I was saying, but was able to ask well thought out questions on the subject. I have met medical students who found such the distinction taxing.

Edith Cavellvon Willebrand’s Disease and Haemophilia A

Top Left: von Willebrand; Top Right: Inheritance of Haemophilia
Bottom Left: The Russian Royal Family; Bottom Right: World Haemophilia Federation Logo

Haemophilia is often called the disease of kings because it was carried by many members of Europe’s royal family. Queen Victoria of England was a carrier of Haemophilia and passed the disease to many of her descendants (including the Russian Czar’s Family and the Spanish Royal Family). Many people say that this played a small role in the downfall of the Russian royal family during the Russian Revolution.

I remember an occasion in Paris when I accompanied my parents on a visit to the laboratory of Louis Pasteur. While my father spent the whole visit with a glazed look over his eyes, my mother was enthralled by the laboratory and was fascinated to learn how he had confirmed the importance of bacteria in Fermentation and in many illnesses. She was also fascinated to learn that he is considered the father of Stereochemistry, which led to the understanding and significance of the arrangement of atoms about a carbon atom in space.

Edith CavellTop Left: Louis Pasteur; Top Right: Experiment to show growth of organisms

Bottom Left: Scientists who led to the understanding of stereochemistry
(Biot, discovered optical activity; Pasteur, separated enantiomers; van’t Hoff (and Le Bel) who proposed the tetrahedral carbon atom; Fischer, who identified 16 aldohexoses; & Prelog)

Bottom Right: An example of a compound with the same formula but with two distinct forms

The importance of this concept is clearly illustrated with the two structural forms of the drug Thalidomide: although both forms are chemically identical, the arrangement of the atoms in space allows one form to appear when taken by pregnant women, while causing the second form to induce birth defects in the fetus (foetus). Tragically when the form was given to human subjects, it was converted into a mixture of the two forms and so proved to be also unsafe.

Edith CavellThalidomide – Structure & Capsules

And so it is perhaps not surprising that my mother was a great admirer of those involved in scientific and medical research and their applications. And one of the people that she most admired was Nurse Cavell.



Edith Louisa Cavell was born in 1865 in the village of Swardeston, near Norwich where her father was a vicar. After being employed as a governess both in England and Belgium, she entered training to be a nurse at the Royal London Hospital (1900-1905) under the direction of Matron Eva Luckes. In 1907, she became the matron of L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées, a newly established nursing school in Brussels and in 1908 she launched the nursing journal, L’Infirmiere. Once the First World War was declared in 1914, the nursing school and associated clinics were commandeered by the Red Cross.

Edith CavellEdith Cavel as Nurse (left, Graduation from Nursing School), Sister (middle) and Matron (right)

Once the German occupation of Brussels began in November 1914, Nurse Cavell began sheltering British troops and helping them escape to The Netherlands. This service was extended to allied troops and to Belgian and French boys of military age. The German authorities became suspicious of her activities, which was fueled by her outspoken opinions and led to her arrest in August 1915 and being charged with the harbouring of Allied soldiers. According to records, she admitted to helping 60 English and 15 French soldiers along with some 100 French and Belgians of military age to escape and was prosecuted for these actions at her court-martial.

Nurse Cavell was found guilty of the charges laid against her. According to German Military Code, which was applicable to both Germans and foreigners in times of war, guilt of treason was to be punished by death. She is well known for making the statement, Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone and for her strong Christian ideals. Her beliefs led her to help anyone in need, which included both German and Allied soldiers. She is also known for stating, I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.

Although Baron von der Lancken, the German civil governor at the time, stated that Nurse Cavell should be pardoned because of her complete honesty and because she had helped save so many lives including both German and Allied, General von Sauberzweig, the military governor of Brussels, ordered the immediate execution of the death penalty.

Edith CavellBaron, General von Sauberzweig

Once Nurse Cavell was sentenced to death, the British Foreign Office said that it was powerless to intervene on her behalf. However, the Americans who were not at present at war with Germany tried to apply diplomatic pressure on her behalf. In addition, not all German officials were in favour of her execution since she had been known to help German soldiers as well.

Despite these and the efforts of others, Nurse Cavell was executed on the 12th October, 1915, at 6 o’clock in the morning at Tir National Shooting Range in Schaerbeek by a German firing squad. Her last words to the prison chaplain were: Ask Father Gahan to tell my loved ones later that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country. Her execution was greeted by condemnation throughout the world along with extensive press coverage.

Following the execution a group of Belgian women buried Nurse Cavell in a grave adjacent to St. Gilles Prison. Once the war ended, her body was returned to England and a memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey. After this, it was then transported to Norwich and finally to Life’s Green where she was laid to rest.

Edith CavellLeft: The wagon that transported Nurse Cavell remains; Right: Arrival at Westminster Abbey

Nurse Cavell is remembered by the memorials built in her memory throughout the world. In addition there are numerous medical and nursing facilities named in her honour including a wing of Homerton Hospital in Hackney and the School of Nursing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. There are also a number of streets, schools, gardens and bridges named in her honour in Britain and other countries. It is said that Edith Piaf, the famed singer, was named after her and in fact it is believed that Nurse Cavell is responsible for the name Edith becoming popular in France.


Edith Cavell

Since my mother admired Nurse Cavell, it is not surprising that she liked to visit her memorial at St. Martin’s Place, close to the North-East corner of Trafalgar Square. Whenever we went to the West End, at some time we seemed to find ourselves standing in front of the memorial. My mother would stop and linger there for a while. She always gave me the impression that each time she came across the memorial it was as if it was for the first time. At each visit, she used to stop, look at the plinth and mouth the words of the inscription and shake her head and complain bitterly about those that had Nurse Cavell shot. Next, she mentioned her half-brother, George whom she loved very much and who had been killed in the Second World War. Her eyes always filled with tears as she remembered him. Once she wiped them away, she sighed deeply and turned to the statue and made the same comment regarding Nurse Cavell’s height. When I was young, I had the habit of reminding my mother that she followed this routine each time she came to the memorial. She always denied it and told me that I was too smart for my own good. As I got older, I developed more compassion and understanding, as well as the habit of standing beside her and shaking my head in agreeing with her feelings.

In the meantime, my father was disappearing in the distance. He had the habit of walking a head and seemed oblivious most of the time that he had left home with us. Eventually it must have dawned on him that he had a wife and son and would stop and smoke a cigarette while he waited for us to catch up. And once we did, he grumbled for a while telling us how slow we were and then take off again.


Edith CavellUnveiling of the Memorial in 1920

The Nurse Cavell Memorial was one of the first of such Memorials that I remember seeing in London as a child. Naturally I was very impressed and remembered the austerity associated with the lady. I remember my mother telling who the lady was and how she had been a heroine and had been shot for helping soldiers escape. I was greatly affected by what I was told. Throughout my childhood, I visited the memorial numerous times and it became a great favourite of mine along with The Gladstone Memorial at the Aldwych.

Edith CavellThe Gladstone Memorial

A point aside, I remember the first time that I saw The Gladstone Memorial. I was being taken to the Stoll Theatre in Kingsway. I was being taken to my first West End theatre and about to see the original London production of Oklahoma! I was especially taken with the smaller statues around the central one of Gladstone and really liked the curved sword held by one of the figures who was about to kill a snake.

Edith Cavell

The Nurse Cavell Memorial was the work of Sir George Frampton R.A., P.R.B.S. (1860-1928) and is of white marble and was unveiled in 1920. I have read that it is 7.6 metres high and of grey granite. The statue of Nurse Cavell stands on a plinth before a cross in the nursing uniform that she wore as she stood before the firing squad at her execution. The representation of Nurse Cavell shows her exactly as I believe she was: serene, stoic and without fear. Who could not but admire her? A woman and child appears at the top of the cross and symbolizes Humanity and in particular to symbolise the allies coming to the aid of Belgium during the First World War.

The memorial was not well received at the time of its unveiling. It differed greatly from Sir George’s other works. The major criticism was not of the figure of Nurse Cavell, but that it was dwarfed by the mass of granite behind it. In addition, the figures representing Humanity did not escape critique. Many found such criticism to be unwarranted especially since Sir George did not charge for his work and time.

Edith Cavell


Edith Cavell

At the end of the First World War, Nurse Cavell’s remains were brought to London for a state funeral at Westminster Abbey. The railway van that carried that transported her remains from Dover to London is maintained as a memorial to her and is open for viewing at Bodiam Railway Station in East Sussex. Following the state funeral, her remains were taken to Norwich and finally laid to rest on the 19th May, 1919 on the east side of Norwich Cathedral where a graveside service is held in remembrance each October.

Edith CavellOne of the first memorials to Nurse Cavell was by Henry Alfred Pegrmin, which is found in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral. It was unveiled by Queen Alexandra in October 1918.

Edith Cavell

Norwich is an interesting city with a long history. I lived there at one time and used to enjoy going to the cathedral and visiting Nurse Cavell’s grave and memorial. What I always liked about Nurse Cavell grave was its simplicity, which is where its charm and grace lies.

Norwich Cathedral is a beautiful structure with fine cloisters and is constructed from flint and mortar and faced with a Caen limestone. Building began in 1096 and was completed in 1145 and the original wooden Norman tower can still be seen with the stone spire being erected in 1480. The cloisters is the second largest in England, those of Salisbury Cathedral being the largest.

Edith Cavell

Unfortunately the cathedral was partially in ruins in the early 17th century and in 1643 an angry Puritan mob invaded the building and destroyed all everything associated with the Catholic Church. During the Civil War, the cathedral was left to decay and was abandoned for almost twenty years. It was not until after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 that plans began to be put together to return the cathedral to its former glory. Norwich is one of only three English cathedrals to lack a ring of bells, the others being Salisbury and Ely Cathedrals.

I enjoyed exploring the cathedral and especially liked to sit and admire the remarkable fan-vaulted ceiling. I used to walk around the cloisters and always spent some time at the grave of Nurse Cavell before making my way out into the cathedral grounds. The cathedral grounds house a number of fine buildings, some of which were covered with creeper that were especially colourful during the autumn months. The cathedral also has a fine organ and I remember attending a number of recitals during my time in Norwich.

The area surrounding the cathedral has great charm. Elm Hill is especially delightful. It is a winding cobbled street filled with the usual bookshops, curio establishments and tea rooms to attract visitors. However, at certain times of the year and at particular times of the day, the area is relatively free of people and it was at such times that I liked to walk here and allow my information to run wild.

Edith CavellElm Hill, named for the Elm Trees that grew there
The last Elm died of Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970s.

Close to the cathedral is another wonderful treasure of Norwich, the Maddermarket Theatre. The theatre stands on the site of the medieval market where the scarlet dye called madder was sold during the days when Norwich was the centre of the wool trade. As a result, the area became known as the Maddermarket in the 13th Century. The theatre building was originally a Roman Catholic Chapel and later became a hostel and finally a warehouse. Eventually, it was abandoned and became derelict. It was rediscovered by Walter Nugent Bligh Monck who was impressed by the domed vaulted ceiling and appreciated the acoustic quality that it gave to the building. Mr. Monck purchased the building and after its restoration made it the home to his band of amateur actors known as The Norwich Players who are still in residence today. I attended a number of productions at the theatre during my stay in Norwich and enjoyed them immensely.

Edith CavellNorwich
Top Left: Maddermarket Theatre;
Top Right: Norwich Castle;
Bottom Left: Cathedral of St. John the Evangalist;
Bottom Right: Ziggurats (Halls of Residence) at the University of East Anglia

There are numerous other memorials to Nurse Cavell in various parts of the world. One that I especially like is close to The Shrine of Remembrance, the War Memorial in Melbourne. The memorial is of a marble bust with bronze panels mounted on a granite pedestal and was executed in 1926. It was produced by Margaret Baskerville who studied sculpture at the Royal College of Art in London and who became one of Australia’s most accomplished sculptors. Money for the memorial was raised by , which proved to be so well-patronised that the additional monies was used to inaugurate the Edith Cavell Trust Fund and used to help injured war nurses. The Trust remained active until 1974.

Edith CavellThe Shrine, Melbourne

Edith CavellMemorial close to The Shrine

There is a monument to Edith Cavell and Marie Depage in Brussels and an inscription on a war memorial in the German municipality of Schaerbeek at Tir National naming the 35 people executed by the German army during the First World War. There are also memorials in Peterborough Cathedral and at the U.S. Headquarters of the Red Cross in Washington, D.C. and a dedication on the war memorial on the grounds of Sacred Trinity Church in Salford in Lancashire.

It is some consolation to know that her name continues to live on and that her sacrifice is not forgotten.


One last memory is associated with a less than happy time of my life. I remember that it was about 10 p.m. on an early spring evening in 1953 and my mother and I were making our way to the Nurse Cavell Memorial in Trafalgar Square before getting a bus home. We were walking along Charing Cross Road and were in a sad state. We were on the verge of having to move home and had been up until then unsuccessful in finding a new place to live. Our plight was of great concern to my mother, as it was not a time when there were many vacant places available.

I remember we were walking along and had reached the point where the Garrick Theatre was on the opposite side of the street. We were about to walk by a little garden and come to the entrance of the National Portrait Gallery when my mother suddenly stopped and looked down at the ground. I did too and as she moved her right foot, there beneath it was a pound note. My mother quickly picked it up. In those days, a pound was indeed still worth a pound and was able to buy a reasonable amount. My mother looked around to see if anyone was looking for their lost money, but the street was practically empty. My mother said that we were lucky to have found the note, as we were in dire need of it at that precise moment. We then continued our walk and made our way to the Nurse Cavell Memorial. As we did, I noticed that we had an added spring in our step.

Edith CavellBottom Left: Entrance to the National Portrait Gallery; Bottom Right: The Garrick Theatre


Edith Cavell


Final Note: whenever I go to London, I never fail to visit the Nurse Cavell Memorial and, just like my mother, I linger there a while. I am happy to see that there are always others there no matter what the hour although sadly there are never as many as in the past.  I like to think that they are fully aware of who the tall woman with the austere look was and what she did.

Edith CavellEdith Cavellwith Anna Neagle as Nurse Edith Cavell and directed by Herbert Wilcox


Although not relating to Nurse Cavell, the Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital for Children in Hackney Road was a hospital near and dear to the residents of the East End.  I received care there often as a child and on one occasion underwent an emergency operation in the middle of the night that certainly saved me from suffering permanent brain damage.

For 150 years, the hospital offered excellent service to children.  It was closed in 1997 and since then has sat empty and the building has been left to rot away.  One is surprised that the Council seemed unable to devise a plan whereby such a large building could have found a use that would serve society.

Now it seems that the facade is to be kept and the remainder demolished to make way for ……….. (drum roll!) …….. luxury apartments.  One wonders who is going to live in them!

The link below is to an article written for East London Lines about the hospital.  I was kindly interviewed during the preparation of this article:

The Queen Elizabeth: 150 Years of Hackney History


The 12th October, 2015 marked the Centenary of Nurse Cavell’s execution.

BBC Radio marked the occasion by airing the special service held at Norwich Cathedral where her grave is close by.

BBC Radio 4 Sunday Service from Norwich Cathedral to mark the Centenary of Nurse Cavell’s death


BBC Radio 4 – Prayer for The Day: 12th October, 2017

The Anniversary of the death of Nurse Edith Cavell


A Nurse who tried to do her duty


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