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Life and work of nurse Edith Cavell remembered

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The centenary of the death of a national nursing hero, Edith Cavell, was celebrated at ceremonies around the country yesterday.

On 12 October 1915 Ms Cavell was shot at dawn for helping Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during World War I.

“Edith set an extremely high benchmark with her expectation of high standards for compassionate care”

Tosh Denholm

Ms Cavell, a vicar’s daughter from the Norfolk village of Swardesdon, was widely credited with treating wounded soldiers from both sides in the conflict.

Before the start of war, she had helped set up a pioneering nurse training school in Belgium and was instrumental in modernising the profession in the country.

News of her execution led to a wave of public outrage, which was whipped up by the government and national newspapers.

Yesterday, a remembrance service and wreath-laying ceremony took place in Norwich Cathedral, where she is buried.

A similar wreath-laying ceremony took place at St-Martin-in-the-Fields church near Trafalgar Square in London, where there is a statue of Ms Cavell.

A contemporary bust of the British nurse was also unveiled in Montjoie park in the Brussels suburb of Uccle by the Princess Royal.

Meanwhile, in Peterborough a blanket of handmade poppies was laid at the city’s war memorial in remembrance of Ms Cavell.

She received part of her education at Peterborough Cathedral and the city was the former site of the Edith Cavell Hospital, which was built in 1988 but closed in 2010.

“By showing extraordinary courage in caring for wounded soldiers and helping them to safety, Edith epitomises our code as nurses”

Jan Stevens

Janice Stevens, chief nurse of Barts Health NHS Trust, attended the ceremony in London.

She said: “For Barts Health the centenary of Edith Cavell’s death is especially poignant as it was at The Royal London Hospital that she trained as a nurse from 1896.

“By showing extraordinary courage in caring for wounded soldiers and helping them to safety, Edith epitomises our code as nurses,” she said.

“Today, we can all learn and take strength from her unrelenting bravery and devotion to helping others,” said Ms Stevens.

Tosh Denholm, outpatient matron at The Royal London Hospital, added: “Edith Cavell’s legacy to the nursing profession is her inspirational example to truly go that extra mile to help people.

“It was long ago, but every day I see nurses that I work with doing that little bit more and going beyond what is expected,” she said. “I would like to think that I would have been as brave as Edith; she must have been very courageous.

 “It is a privilege to look after our patients and Edith set an extremely high benchmark with her expectation of high standards for compassionate care,” she said.

The Cavell Nurses’ Trust, the charity set up in her name with donations given after her death, has launched a campaign to mark the centenary.

The Moment of Thanks campaign aims to gather at least 1,000 “thank yous” from people who have benefitted from the care and support of nurses.

Biography of Edith Cavell

Edith Louisa Cavell was born in a vicarage in Swardeston, Norfolk on 4 December 1865 to a Parson and his wife, followed by siblings Florence, Lillian and John. 

In 1895 Edith nursed her father back to health following a brief illness and this instilled a desire and determination in Edith to become a nurse and her training commenced in 1896.

In Belgium, in 1912, Edith Cavell was busy managing one nursing school, three hospitals, three private nursing homes, 24 communal schools for nurses, 13 private kindergartens, private duty cases, a clinic and was giving four lectures a week to doctors and nurses.

Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell

Three years later, in 1915, she was arrested for helping 200 allied soldiers to freedom. She was subsequently court-martialled, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Despite international pressure for mercy she was shot to death by a German firing squad.  Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage.

The first part of her burial service took place at Westminster Abbey on 15 May 1919. She was then transported by train to Norwich station followed by a procession to Norwich Cathedral. She lays at peace outside the Cathedral in a spot named ‘Life’s Green’.

 (source: University of East Anglia)


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