LECTURE REVIEW: Norfolk’s own ‘Lady of the Lamp’ leaves lasting epitaph on humanity

Edith Cavell was the subject of the second January lecture in the 2016-17 series organised by Spalding Gentlemen's Society. Photo from Spalding Gentlemen's Society.
Edith Cavell was the subject of the second January lecture in the 2016-17 series organised by Spalding Gentlemen's Society. Photo from Spalding Gentlemen's Society.
  • ‘The Wonderful Lady of the Chateau de Bellignies’
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Spalding Gentlemen’s Society 2016/17 Lecture Season: Edith Cavell: Professional Nurse, Humanitarian and Resistance Worker by Professor Christine Hallett at Spalding Grammar School

The thought of a professional nurse being put before a firing squad and executed at dawn for subversion seems hard to comprehend in the 21st century.

But the life and legacy of Edith Cavell was written forever at 7am at the National Rifle Range in Belgium on October 12, 1915.

Spalding Gentlemen’s Society’s series of lectures featured Cavell’s astonishing story, as told last Friday by nursing historian, Professor Christine Hallett of the University of Manchester.

Of greatest importance to her was Cavell’s contribution to nursing, from her training at the prestigious London Hospital School of Nursing in 1896 to training nurses in Belgium from 1907 onwards.

Professor Hallett said: “Edith Cavell was a very complex woman and her life was a very complex one.

Nurse Edith Cavell
, "The Wonderful Lady of the Chateau de Bellignies", 1865 - 1915
.  Photo supplied.

Nurse Edith Cavell , "The Wonderful Lady of the Chateau de Bellignies", 1865 - 1915 . Photo supplied.

“But the complexity of her life, her work and her behaviour is very important, a serious, reserved woman with a puritanical honesty and a desire to serve other people.”

Ultimately, it was Cavell’s sense of justice in resisting the German invasion of Belgium during World War I that sealed her fate.

As Professor Hallett said: “Edith Cavell curried favour with no one, having an unswerving sense of duty as a district nurse.

“Her importance as a nurse should not be underestimated, but very few people remember the important nursing she did.

Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.

Edith Cavell, Professional Nurse, Humanitarian, Resistance Worker and Social Reformer

“Edith was a great reformer who was regarded as someone who had a very important influence on nursing in Europe.

“She also had a strong sense of identification with her adopted country (of Belgium) and she a very strong opinion about the German invasion (of 1914).

“It was in her capacity as a private person that she helped the network of resistance workers and she became known as “The Wonderful Lady of the Chateau de Bellignies”.

“Edith Cavell was willing to get involved with the Belgian resistance of Germany and she assisted 200 British soldiers to escape from Belgium.

“But her puritanical honesty condemned her as she refused to lie and she was too pure to herself to defend herself from the police.”

Towards the end of the lecture, Professor Hallett revealed that Cavell’s death was greeted with outrage across the world which she described as “a massive propaganda coup for the Allies, with thousands of British men enlisting in the week after Edith Cavell’s execution”.

Professor Hallett added: “They didn’t have to elaborate as they had this nurse who had never really done anything wrong, but was executed in cold blood.

“This shifted opinion in the USA as well where a lot of money was raised to assist the war effort.

“Edith Cavell’s body was exhumed from the burial plot where she was executed and brought back to the UK.

“There was a huge service at Westminster Abbey and a great outpouring of national grief.

“But Edith Cavell was buried in Swardeston, Norfolk, in the graveyard of her local church (St Mary the Virgin).”

There are a number of statues of Edith Cavell in the UK, including one in St Martin’s Place, London, and another outside Norwich Cathedral.

Both statues are a monument to perhaps her most quote: “I have no fear nor shrinking; I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.

“But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. “I must have no hatred or bitterness towards any one.”

Review by Winston Brown