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Nursing at the Front: Who was Edith Cavell?

Posted on 4 December 2018

On this day in 1865, wartime nursing hero Edith Cavell was born in the village of Swardeston near Norwich, 153 years before becoming the inspiration for the character of “Eddie the Escapologist” in our 2018 alternative Christmas production, Over the Top.

In the show, Eddie’s skills as an escape artist are a nod to the almost 200 soldiers and civilians that Cavell helped escape from German-occupied Belgium during the First World War. Over the Top is by no means the first creative tribute paid to her – easily the most famous of the four real-life women who inspired the show, Cavell became an overnight emblem of patriotic duty for the Allied cause following her death in 1915, her bravery in the face of capture and execution used to spur on British men to join the fighting. But who exactly was Edith Cavell before she became the poster girl of British wartime propaganda?

Interestingly, Cavell actually began both her career and her European travels in a rather different profession. After finishing school, Cavell first worked as a governess, living with a family in Brussels from 1890-1895.

But her teaching time was cut short when her father was taken ill and she returned home to assist with his recovery. It was while caring for him that she discovered her true calling, and in 1896, at the age of 30, she applied to become a probationary nurse at the London Hospital in Whitechapel, under the tutelage of Matron Eva Lückes, a great reformer who made substantial improvements to training and conditions for nurses, as well as establishing a more rigorous selection process for new recruits.

Cavell went on to work in hospitals around the country, as well as travelling around to deliver private treatment to patients in their homes. In 1907, she returned to Brussels, where she combined her nursing and teaching skills as matron of a newly established nursing school, L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées (aka the Berkendael Medical Institute). Dr Antoine Depage, who recruited her to the position, later appointed her matron of a new secular hospital in 1910, specifically set up to keep abreast of the latest medical advances at a time when many hospitals were still essentially religious institutions. The same year, she established a nursing journal in Belgium, titled L’Infirmière.

After the outbreak of World War I and German occupation of Belgium, the country’s hospitals were soon filled with wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict. Not only did Cavell treat troops of all nationalities without discrimination, she also used her position to help French and British soldiers and civilians to escape to Britain via the neutral Netherlands.

Kimisha Lewis as Edith Cavell

Betrayed to the German authorities by a French collaborator, Cavell was arrested in August 1915, and held in prison for ten weeks, the final two of which were spent in solitary confinement. Ever outspoken, Cavell made little attempt to defend herself during her trial, but confessed to conveying around 60 British and 15 French soldiers to safety over the border, as well as around 100 French and Belgian civilians of military age.

Although the First Geneva Convention generally protected medical personnel in conflict, such protection was forfeit when used as a front for other under-cover activities, so there was little the British authorities could do to intervene. At 7am on 12 October 1915, she was executed for treason by firing squad.

The night before her death, Cavell received Communion from an Anglican chaplain, the Reverend Stirling Gahan, reportedly telling him, “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone” – words now inscribed on her statue in St. Martin’s Place, near Trafalgar Square in London. Gahan also recalled her saying, “I have no fear or shrinking; I have seen death so often it is not strange, or fearful to me!”

As well as statues, plaques, music, pamphlets, posters and newspaper articles (some more truthful than others!), Cavell’s death also inspired the establishment of what became known as the Nation’s Fund for Nurses (later the Cavell Nurses’ Trust), launched by The Daily Telegraph and The Mirror in 1917 to support nurses “shattered mentally and physically” by their experiences. In 2015, the centenary of her death also saw the creation of new memorials and a commemorative £5 coin in her honour.

Our production of Over the Top is happily a little more light-hearted than the true stories that inspired it, framed by a variety performance held at the “Coventry Music Hall”, but amidst all the slapstick and silliness that characterise our annual alternative pantomimes, we hope that something of their power and poignancy remains.

Over the Top shows at the Belgrade Theatre until Saturday 29 December. Tickets are available to book now.

You can also find out more about other inspirations for the show elsewhere on our blog, including Lottie Meade and Lena Ashwell.