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Edith Cavell's application for assistant nurse at Fountain Fever Hospital, 1946

Part of Edith Cavell's application for the appointment of assistant nurse at Fountain Fever Hospital


​Patriotism is not enough: Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell, a British nurse, was executed by the German Army in 1915 for helping allied soldiers to escape from Belgium. She was born in Norfolk and is buried in Norwich Cathedral, but she and her family had strong links with London where both her parents were born. Bridget Howlett tells her remarkable story illuminated by records held at LMA.

Her father, Frederick, was born on 10 August 1824, son of John Cavell, a law stationer. He was baptised on 22 March 1827 at St Andrew, Holborn, when the family were living in Gray’s Inn Place. After graduating at King’s College London, he was ordained at Norwich Cathedral in 1852. According to Crockford’s Clerical Directory, he became chaplain to the Royal Sea Bathing Infirmary at Margate. On 9 July 1861 he was licensed as assistant curate in the parish of St Mary, Islington, where he was paid £120 a year (DL/A/B/053/MS10300/015 p.4). In November 1862 he became assistant curate at St Mark, Tollington Park, Islington, with a salary of £100 a year (DL/A/B/053/MS10300/015 p.112). It was while he was a curate in Islington that he met his future wife, Louisa Sophia Warming. Her father, Charles Warming, was a captain and the family lived in Great Percy Street in Clerkenwell. Frederick Cavell became Vicar of Swardeston in Norfolk in 1863 and married Louisa on 1 June 1864 at St Mark’s Church, Myddelton Square.

Edith Louisa, their first child, was born at Swardeston on 4 December 1865. She and her brother and sisters were educated at home. In her early teens she was sent to boarding schools in Somerset, Kensington, and Peterborough. She then found employment as a governess, first with a family in Essex, then for six years in Brussels. In 1895 she returned home to help nurse her father through a serious illness. When he recovered, she applied for the post of assistant nurse at the Fountain Fever Hospital in Tooting. The Fountain was one of the Metropolitan Asylums Board’s hospitals for patients suffering from infectious diseases. St George’s Hospital now stands on its site. Her application can be viewed on the Collage website. In answer to the question 'Where educated', Edith answered 'Kensington'. She explained 'I have had no hospital training nor any nursing engagement whatsoever'. She was employed as a second assistant nurse on probation from December 1895 until July 1896 when she resigned to train as a nurse at the London Hospital in Whitechapel, a leading London teaching hospital (MAB/0922 18/12/1895, 1/7/1896).

After completing her training and working briefly at the London (now the Royal London) Hospital, in January 1901 Edith was appointed one of the Superintendents of Night Nurses at St Pancras Infirmary at Dartmouth Park Hill in Highgate earning a salary of £30 a year 'with the usual residential allowance' (STPBG/087/003 28/12/1900; STPBG/039 3/1/1901). Then a Poor Law hospital run by St Pancras Board of Guardians, it is now part of the Whittington Hospital.

Edith was one of five candidates for the post of assistant matron of Shoreditch Infirmary who appeared before Shoreditch Board of Guardians on 4 November 1903. She received the most votes and was duly appointed to commence her duties on 25 November. Her salary was £40 a year with increments of £2 a year with board, lodging, washing and uniform (SHBG/062 p.146, SHBG/208/003). Situated in Hoxton Street adjoining Shoreditch Workhouse, Shoreditch Infirmary later became St Leonard’s Hospital. In May 1904 Edith was joined by the Home Sister, Miss Ellen Hailey, in applying for an increase of their salaries. Though similar applications by six ward nurses, the head attendant on female lunatics, and the hall porter of the workhouse were successful, Miss Cavell and Miss Hailey were turned down (SHBG/064 p.71, p.95). She resigned her post in February 1906. The Infirmary Visiting Committee reported that 'She was an excellent officer and your Committee recommend That a Testimonial in satisfactory terms be granted to her' (SHBG/065 p.408, p.447).

Edith joined a friend who had also been a nurse at the London Hospital on a visit to Europe. On returning to England, she became head of the Queen’s Nursing Institute in Manchester in charge of district nursing services. In 1907 she accepted the post of director of a nurses’ training school in Brussels, the first of its kind in Belgium where nursing had been the preserve of the religious orders. She proved highly successful in recruiting educated middle class laywomen and making nursing a respectable occupation requiring professional training. A new hospital was built, but plans for further expansion were frustrated by the outbreak of war in August 1914 when the German Army invaded Belgium and occupied Brussels.

Edith became heavily involved in a network of Belgians who assisted allied soldiers to escape. Soldiers disguised as patients were hidden in the clinic associated with her training school. She was arrested by the Germans on 5 August 1915. She and eight others were court-martialled on 7 October. Despite diplomatic protests, she was shot at dawn on 12 October 1915. Shoreditch Infirmary Visiting Committee reported on 20 October 'Your Board will hear with abhorrence that Miss Edith Cavell, who was Assistant Matron at the Infirmary from the 25th November, 1903, to the 26th March, 1906, and is remembered as a lady devoted to her work, in which she was eminently successful, has died at the hands of the German Army, in Brussels. As would be expected by those who had the privilege of her acquaintance, she sacrificed her life in the service of her country which she refused to betray to the enemy' (SHBG/076 p.256).

After the war, Edith Cavell’s funeral service was held in Westminster Abbey followed by her burial in Norwich Cathedral. Many people including school children watched the procession as the coffin was carried through the streets of London. Her statue stands in St Martin’s Place near Trafalgar Square inscribed with her words from prison 'Patriotism is not enough'. Her application for a nursing post at the Fountain Hospital was framed as a memorial and now forms part of the GLC Heritage Collection in the care of London Metropolitan Archives.

For further information see Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Peter Higginbotham's  website.

23 July 2015
Last Modified:
04 October 2018