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Cavell, Edith Louisafree

  • Claire Daunton

Edith Louisa Cavell (1865–1915)

by unknown photographer, 1915

Cavell, Edith Louisa (1865–1915), nurse and war heroine, was born on 4 December 1865, the first child of the Revd Frederick Cavell (1825–1910), Church of England clergyman, and his wife, Louisa Sophia (1835–1918), née Warming, in Swardeston vicarage, Norfolk. Her father, a graduate of King's College, London, met his future wife in the Islington parish of St Mary, where he was curate. The Cavells had three other children, Florence, Louisa, and Jack. Life at Swardeston was dominated by the family's strict evangelical beliefs. The children were educated at home, taught mostly by their mother: Edith showed a talent for drawing, as is evident in a surviving sketchbook. In her early teens she was sent to boarding-school to prepare her for earning a living. She attended Belgrave House School, Clevedon, Somerset (1883–4), and then schools in the Kensington area of London (1884) and in Peterborough (1884–5). The latter school, Laurel Court, had a good reputation for finding suitable employment for its pupils, and she became governess to the family of the vicar of Steeple Bumpstead, Essex. After a short time money from a legacy offered her the opportunity to travel on the continent. In 1889 Miss Gibson, the headmistress of Laurel Court, provided her with an introduction for the post of governess to the children of the François family in Brussels, with whom she remained for six years. She was liked and appreciated by the family, but religious and cultural differences, and her reserved nature, were always in evidence.

Cavell returned to England in 1895 to help nurse her father, who was seriously ill, and then decided to train as a nurse. After gaining experience at Fountains Fever Hospital, Tooting, she registered at the London Hospital school of nursing on 3 September 1896. The London Hospital was a leading voluntary hospital, situated in the East End, whose matron, Eva Luckes, was later opposed to state registration for nurses, preferring to keep control of training and accreditation in the hands of the matron and governors. After an initial period at the recently opened preliminary training school in Bow, Cavell moved to the hospital in Whitechapel. Reports indicate that, though she had a competent and intelligent approach to her work, she did not adapt easily to the hospital community. She seems to have been most successful when working outside the hospital, caring for wealthy private patients in their homes (the London Hospital had a private nursing staff), or for victims of a typhoid epidemic in Maidstone.

Cavell spent only a brief time as a staff nurse at the London Hospital before moving, in 1901, to be night superintendent at the St Pancras Infirmary, a poor-law hospital. She then moved, in 1903, to be assistant matron of Shoreditch Infirmary, where she took on both training and managerial responsibilities. When she left Shoreditch in 1906 she had a reputation as someone with a great sense of duty, a kind but very reserved person. She left to join her friend, and former Londoner, Eveline Dickinson, on a trip to continental Europe. Not long after their return, Dickinson married and went to live in Ireland, leaving Cavell without a close friend or a job. She took a temporary position as head of the Queen's Nursing Institute (district nurses) in Manchester, but left this after a short time to take up a post, in 1907, as director of a nurses' training school in Brussels.

The school, the first of its kind in Belgium, and one of the first in Europe, was being set up by Dr Antoine De Page, an acquaintance of the François family, one of the leaders of a movement for change among the medical profession in Belgium. De Page and his associates wanted to diminish the influence of the religious orders on the care of the sick. He saw that they had a role to play, but believed that they were too powerful: they distrusted modern medicine, and this was preventing the introduction of new techniques. The institution that Cavell took on was not only a training school, but also a clinic. It was financed by funds raised by De Page and his associates, and was governed by them and a group of their wives. Although Cavell was the director, she was answerable to committees and above all to De Page who, though professionally effective, was arrogant and quick-tempered. She remained in constant contact with Eva Luckes, depending on her for professional advice and personal support, and recruited former Londoners to help her. (Her only constant companion was her dog, Jack, a Jack Russell terrier, later to become an exhibit at the Imperial War Museum.) Her main obstacle was to recruit the right sort of trainee. She required educated middle-class laywomen, in a country where nursing was carried out by members of religious orders, assisted by members of the working class. She had to convince her potential recruits, and members of her committee, that nursing was a respectable profession that required professional training. She showed skill and tact in doing this and in working with the committees. In 1910 the first certificates of competence were awarded; at the same time a new hospital opened in the St Gilles district of Brussels and state registration of nurses was introduced.

Cavell's reputation, and that of the school, spread, and the number of recruits, from Germany as well as France and Belgium, began to grow. In 1912 plans were drawn up for a new building, and a site was found close to the new hospital at St Gilles. The building programme and the expansion of the training programme were, however, halted in late 1914 by the German occupation of Belgium. The work of the clinic continued but Cavell was frustrated in her plans for the school. Her energies, however, were soon redirected towards assisting in the escape of allied soldiers. A network of opposition to the German occupation, and of assistance to prisoners of war, centred on the aristocratic De Croy family. Members of the Brussels bourgeoisie were involved, and through Cavell's contact with them the training school and the clinic came to be part of the network. The organization provided soldiers with hiding places and with false papers, and facilitated their escape into allied territory. Use was made of the clinic, with soldiers often disguised as patients. During this period Edith Cavell was correspondent of the Nursing Mirror and had accounts published of the impact of the war on Belgium.

In a short space of time the work with the escape organization took over Cavell's life. Many of those working for her were uneasy, and aware that they were at risk; the Germans became suspicious and began to pay frequent visits to the clinic. Her arrest on 5 August 1915, together with that of one of her assistants, was not unexpected, coming shortly after that of Philippe Baucq, one of the leaders of the organization. Cavell was detained and on 7 August put in solitary confinement in the prison at St Gilles. Others involved in the escape organization were also arrested and imprisoned, but the Germans were careful to keep them too in solitary confinement while evidence was assembled for their trial. Each prisoner made a statement: Edith Cavell's amounted to a confession, and it named several of her accomplices. It is not known why she agreed to sign this statement; nor is it evident that she was aware of its likely consequences. It was clear from her past, and from her very strong religious belief, that she was unwilling to lie, and it may be that she underestimated the Germans' intentions.

Nine people were court-martialled on 7 October 1915, and the following day five were sentenced to death, the remaining four to periods of hard labour. All were accused of assisting the enemy and of trying to damage the German war effort. Three of those condemned to death had their executions adjourned while pleas of clemency were heard, but Cavell and Baucq were ordered to be executed immediately. Cavell remained outwardly calm, and prepared for her death by praying and reading, and by writing to her family and nurses. In spite of intense diplomatic activity across Europe, particularly on the part of the Americans through the tireless efforts of the US minister in Brussels, Brand Whitlock, and an international outcry against the Germans, she was shot at dawn on 12 October 1915.

Initial shock at Cavell's death was quickly succeeded by international protest, and to many she became, overnight, a heroine and martyr. For the Germans her death provided an opportunity to show how tough they were prepared to be with those judged to be traitors and spies. The fact that Cavell confessed and was not willing to defend herself seemed to justify their actions. A propaganda war followed, leading to increased recruitment for the allies. The Kaiser later ordered no more women to be shot without his permission.

Edith Cavell's memory was immortalized in statues: the most famous, by Sir George Frampton, situated in London at the junction between Charing Cross and Trafalgar Square, in St Martin's Place, was erected in the early 1920s. It was inscribed with the words 'Patriotism is not enough', part of her final message from prison. Roads, bridges, streets, and institutions in Belgium and throughout the British empire were also named after her. Her death was the subject of a famous painting by the American war artist George Wesley Bellows whose Murder of Edith Cavell was the most famous in his War Series of 1918. She clearly showed personal courage and humanity in her willingness to help wounded soldiers in enemy territory. She also undertook pioneering work in establishing the clinic and training school, and in shaping the profession of nursing in Belgium and neighbouring countries. But it was the timing of her death, the manner of it, the reaction to it, and the fact that she was a woman and a nurse that secured her lasting reputation as a heroine. After the war there was a funeral service at Westminster Abbey, and on 15 May 1919 her body was buried just outside Norwich Cathedral.


  • A. E. C. Kennedy, Edith Cavell: pioneer and patriot (1965)
  • R. V. Ryder, Edith Cavell (1975)
  • M. M. Bihet, Histoire de nursing (1947)
  • A. A. Hoehling, Edith Cavell (1958)
  • London Hospital, Edith Cavell: her life and her art (1991)
  • N. Boston, The dutiful Edith Cavell (1962)
  • S. T. Felstead, Edith Cavell: the crime that shook the world (1940)
  • C. Sarolea, The murder of Nurse Cavell (1915)
  • E. Protheroe, A noble woman: the life story of Edith Cavell (1916)
  • parish register (birth), Swardeston, Norfolk, 4 Dec 1865
  • parish register (burial), Swardeston, Norfolk, 10 June 1910 and 17 June 1918
  • London Hospital Archives
  • The Times
  • K. Adie, ‘Nurse heroes of the century’, Nursing Times (17 Nov 1999)
  • ‘Correspondence with the United States ambassador respecting the execution of Miss Cavell at Brussels’, Parl. papers (1915), 84.703, Cd 8013


  • IWM, copies of corresp., diary, and papers relating to her work, arrest, trial, and execution
  • Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel, London, manuscripts


  • photograph, 1915, NPG [see illus.]
  • G. W. Bellows, lithograph, 1918 (Murder of Edith Cavell), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
  • G. Frampton, marble statue, 1920, St Martin's Place, London
  • G. Frampton, bust, IWM
  • photographs, IWM
  • photogravure photograph, postcard, NPG
  • statue, outside Norwich Cathedral