From Brussels to Norwich

LIKE FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE, Edith Cavell (1865-1915) was a heroine of the nursing profession. In fact, Edith, who was born in the county of Norfolk, was martyred because of her compassion and goodwill.

Recently, we spent four nights at an excellent bed and breakfast place in Norfolk. It is located in the village of Swardeston, which is only 4.7 miles southeast of Norwich Cathedral. After leaving our accommodation in Swardeston, we spent several hours in central Norwich. At least one hour of our visit to the city was taken up by exploring the interior and exterior of the cathedral. We attended part of a Sunday service, which was held in the part of the church east of the nave. The cathedral’s choir sounded magnificent. The reason the congregation was not in the nave is that part of the cathedral is currently being used to display ‘Dippy the Dinosaur’ from London’s Natural History Museum. On Sundays, Dippy is allowed a day’s rest from being gawped at by crowds of visitors, so we did not get to see this prehistoric skeletal attraction, apart from a short section of its backbone, which could be glimpsed through the window of a locked door leading from the magnificent cloisters to the nave. You might be beginning to wonder why I began this piece by telling you a little about Edith Cavell. Well, now I will tell you more.

Grave of Edith Cavell next to Norwich Cathedral

After the service and a wander around the cloisters and the east half of the cathedral, we walked around to the outside of the southeast corner of the building, where we were told that we would find the burial place of Edith Cavell. The original gravestone surmounted by a cross stands close to a newer monument, which does not bear a cross, but resembles the kind of gravestones often found in Commonwealth war cemeteries but has a circular inscription that reads: “ECOLE BELGE D’INFIRMIERES DIPLOMEES”. While we were looking at these two memorials, we chatted with a lady who was passing by. When we asked her why Edith Cavell was buried in Norwich, she told us that the nurse had been born in the village where we had been staying, Swardeston. When she was born, her father was the vicar of the village’s church, which we would have visited had we known about its connection to the famous nurse.

Close to the cathedral, next to the western wall of the Cathedral Close, there is yet another monument to Cavell. A bronze bust of Cavell tops a rectangular based column with a bas-relief showing a soldier attaching a wreath to the monument. Erected in 1918, the bust’s sculptor was Henry Pegram (www.racns.co.uk/sculptures.asp?action=getsurvey&id=289), who lived from 1862 to 1937. The monument was commissioned by the physician John Gordon Gordon-Munn (1863-1949), who was Mayor of Norwich between 1914 and 1915.

After finishing school, Edith Cavell first became a governess, including for a family in Brussels. Then, after caring for her ailing father, she trained to become a nurse. She worked in various English hospitals until 1907 when she was recruited by Antoine Depage to become the matron of a recently opened nursing school in Brussels, L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées. This helps explain the inscription on the newer of the two memorials next to the cathedral.

When WW1 broke out, Edith was visiting her widowed mother in Norfolk. The Red Cross took over her clinic and the nursing school, to which she returned after seeing her mother. It was in Brussels, after it had been occupied by the Germans, that she began helping British soldiers to escape from German-occupied Belgium to then neutral Holland. Harbouring and helping soldiers who were in armies fighting the Germans was against German military law. In August 1915, after being betrayed by a collaborator, she was arrested by the Germans, tried at a court-marshal, and found guilty of aiding a hostile power. She was executed by firing squad at Schaerbeek, a district of Brussels.

Cavell was first buried next to St Gilles prison in Brussels. Then in 1919, her body was shipped to England. At first, it lay in state on Dover pier for one night before it was transferred by train to London, where there was a state funeral in Westminster Abbey.  On the 19th of May 1919, Edith was buried at the spot next to Norwich Cathedral, where she ‘rests’ now.

Next time that we are in Norfolk, we will try to visit the church in Swardeston, where Edith’s father officiated. As the bed and breakfast accommodation was so excellent in Swardeston and we fell in love with Norwich, I hope it will not be long before we return to Norwich and its environs.

PS: there is a large memorial to Edith Cavell in London, near the south end of St Martins Lane and just north of St Martin-in-the-Fields church.