CAVELL, Edith (1865-1915)
Plaque erected in 1988 by English Heritage at London Hospital, Whitechapel Road, Whitechapel, London, E1 1BB, London Borough of Tower Hamlets
EDITH CAVELL 1865-1915 Pioneer of Modern Nursing in Belgium and Heroine of the Great War trained and worked here 1896-1901
Plaque re-erected in 2006
Edith Cavell was a pioneer of modern nursing in Belgium and a heroine of the First World War.
Cavell came to nursing at the age of 30, having been brought up comfortably as the daughter of a Norfolk clergyman. She enrolled at ‘the London’ – the London Hospital – on 3 September 1896, training initially at Bow and soon moving to the hospital itself in Whitechapel where her plaque now rests. This hospital was founded in 1740, with the front block dating from the 1750s when it was built to a design by Boulton Mainwaring. The plaque was moved to this position in 2006 following the demolition of a late Victorian nurses’ home to the hospital’s rear.
Cavell spent the next four and a half years hard at work. Nurses were on duty for around twelve hours a day, and had few holidays and ‘little or no social life’. Initially, Cavell was a probationer on the wards, attending lectures by the eminent surgeon Frederick Treves, among others. By the end of her two years’ training, she was not spoken of especially highly by the Matron, Miss Eva Lückes, who recommended that she join the Private Nursing Staff. So her third year was spent outside ‘the London’, though she returned in autumn 1899 as a junior staff nurse before leaving for a post at the St Pancras Infirmary in January 1901.
FIRST WORLD WAR
Cavell entered the most vital period of her career in 1907, when she went to Brussels to help introduce modern nursing practice as director of a nurses’ training school and clinic. In 1914 she took sole charge of the St Gilles hospital, which became a centre of resistance to Belgium’s German occupiers. Allied soldiers were hidden inside the hospital, given false papers and helped to escape into allied territory.
The Germans soon grew suspicious of the hospital’s activities, and Cavell was arrested and court-martialled along with eight others on 7 October 1915. She signed a statement confessing her actions and was executed on 12 October, causing international outrage. Cavell became a heroine, a martyr, and an instrument of propaganda for military recruitment.