The Reverend Frederick Cavell came to Swardeston soon after he was ordained. He evidently knew what he was taking on as he had spent some years as the curate of neighbouring East Carleton. He liked Swardeston so much that he remained there for the rest of his ministry some 46 years. Frederick Cavell was trained for the ministry at Kings College, London and his certificate is to be found hanging at the back of Swardeston Church. While he was training in London, he fell in love with his housekeeper's daughter but they were not to be married until she had completed some extra education and thought fitted to the role of a parson's wife. In 1863, after twelve years at East Carleton, Frederick Cavell accepted the living at Swardeston. Two years later, Edith Louisa Cavell was born, on December 4th, 1865.
At first the Cavells lived in a temporary parsonage some distance from the Church at the bottom of Swardeston's beautiful common.
This fine Georgian farmhouse is still standing and is known as 'Cavell House' as it was here that Edith was born in 1865. In that same year, a new Vicarage was built next to the Church.
This was the house in which Edith grew up and knew as her home. It was here that the three younger children, Florence, Lilian and John, were born. The Vicarage was built at Frederick Cavell's own expense and local people say that it nearly ruined him. He was always a 'poor parson' from that time. Although the family lived frugally, they had to employ staff to help run such a large house and keep up appearances. The staff were evidently paid a subsistence wage as scratched on an attic bedroom wall are these words pencilled by a maid in 1876: "The pay is small, The food is bad, I wonder why I don't go mad." Obviously an intelligent and discerning maid, as most girls in service would not be so literate. Even if the family were poor and the food not very appetising, they were concerned to share what they had with their poorer parishioners. Sunday lunch was a great family affair and whatever was cut from the Sunday joint, an equal amount was taken out to hungry cottagers nearby.
Sundays in a Victorian Vicarage could be gloomy by today's standards. No cards, no books allowed except the Bible. Frederick Cavell was something of a Puritan and would want to keep a strict Sabbath. Edith wrote to her favourite cousin Eddie, "Do come and stay again soon, but not for a weekend. Father's sermons are so long and dull". It is said that the Cavell children did occasionally sneak a game of cards in the study when Father was in Church. They certainly were not dour and sour Victorians that many biographies suggest. The Vicar could easily be tempted to disguise himself as a bear and cause the Cavell children to shriek with delight.
One of Edith's favourite winter pastimes was ice skating. A 96 year-old member of the Unthank family who lived at Intwood Hall can recall seeing her skating down by the ford at Intwood and obviously enjoying herself. Nearer at home, the moat at the Old Rectory behind the Church would often freeze in winter and this was a favourite haunt of the Cavell children. Spring in Swardeston is still a spectacle of wild flowers around the common, although many species are disappearing (there were some 200 in her day). Edith had a great respect and love of nature and she seems always to have surrounded herself with plants and animals. Many of her photographs show her with her dogs and the Church has two chalk drawings of reindeer dated 10.10.82, showing the influence of the favourite Victorian painter, Landseer. Flowers were a fascination to her and she would collect and draw them as they grew on the common. She soon became a very accomplished artist and one or two village folk treasure examples of her work. A powder box given to Mrs. Emma Burgess at the birth of her baby was beautifully painted with flowers by Edith.
When Edith was a girl, she was aware that her father badly needed a Church room to house the growing Sunday School for the children of the village. She determined to do something about it. She wrote to the Bishop of Norwich, John Thomas Pelham, a grand but kindly man whose impressive tomb can be seen in the North transept of the Cathedral. She told him of the problem and he agreed to help, provided the village would raise some of the cash. Within a short time, Edith and her sister were making good use of their artistic talents and had painted cards which they sold to help raise some £300 for the Church room. Edith wrote to the Bishop reminding him of his promise and so the Church room was built adjoining the Vicarage and to all accounts, very well used. Both Mrs. Cavell and Edith taught in the Sunday School and acted as godmothers to a number of local babies, who in later years still treasure their signed copies of the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress. Sadly, this Church room was sold by the diocese at the time of the sale of the Vicarage and the parish was again without its Church room. However, in recent years, a new Church room has been provided in the Churchyard adjacent to the North door of the Church, of an imaginative wooden design, and is known as the 'Cavell Room' in honour of Edith, who worked so hard for the village and its children. The East window in Swardeston Church is a memorial to Edith, please click here for more details. The Church always has a fine show of flowers and the Cavell Festival weekend nearest to the date of her execution (12th October) has become a biennial Flower Festival, when the village gives thanks for Edith's memory and invite people to share in her appreciation of God's creation.
Edith could never have known she was to become a heroine and martyr but she is said to have confided in a lighthearted way to a friend that she would like to be buried in Westminster Abbey. The first part of her impressive funeral took place there, attended by Queen Alexandra, Princess Victoria and many others from all walks of life with military and nursing representatives from many parts of the world. By popular demand, her body was brought back to her native Norfolk and lies at Life's Green in the Cathedral Close. The grave is well tended and nearly always covered in flowers. Among Edith's most treasured possessions were the roses sent by her nurses, which she kept in her cell long after they were spent, as a comfort and a reminder of the roses at the Vicarage in Swardeston.
Edith and her two younger sisters, Florence and Lilian, had their early education not at the recently opened village school but at home. Later in 1881, Edith is thought to have spent a few months at Norwich High School, when it was housed at the Assembly House in Theatre Street, Norwich. She would have walked there, dropping off her brother 'Jack' (eight years old), at Miss Brewer's school in Lime Tree Road. From sixteen to nineteen years old, Edith went to three boarding schools; Kensington (possibly St. Margaret's, Bushey - a school for poor clergy families), Clevedon, near Bristol, where she was confirmed (15th March 1884, probably in Christ Church, Clevedon) and finally Laurel Court, Peterborough, in the Cathedral precincts where she learnt to become a pupil teacher. There were many such establishments at this time, unashamedly providing what was boasted as 'a high moral training.' Laurel Court was fairly typical, ruled by a 'fearsome dragon' and the place smelt of 'cats, margarine and treacle' (according to one ex-pupil). However, French was well taught here, with ten minutes conversation as part of the daily curriculum. Edith showed a flair for it and as a result was recommended for a post in Brussels in 1890. Prior to this, she took several jobs as a governess. Her first job was to look after a clergy household in Steeple Bumpstead. Despite the demands of her job, she still found time to keep up her hobbies of tennis and dancing. She once danced till her feet bled, which ruined her new shoes but cured her chilblains! She is remembered as being full of fun, always smiling and wonderfully kind to the children in her charge. She was, for a short time, governess to some of the Gurney children at Keswick New Hall in the next village and was affectionately remembered. At about this time, Edith was left a small legacy and decided to spend it on a Continental holiday. She spent some weeks in Austria and Bavaria, and was deeply impressed with a free hospital run by a Dr. Wolfenberg. She endowed the hospital with some of her legacy and returned with a growing interest in nursing.
1895 saw Edith's return to Swardeston to nurse her
father through a brief illness. He remained Vicar until
his retirement in 1909. Helping to restore her father to
health made Edith resolve to take up nursing as a career.
After testing her vocation for a few months at the
Fountains Fever Hospital, Tooting, Edith (Aged 30) was
accepted for training at the London Hospital under Eva
Lückes in April 1896.
In September 1906, Edith went to work for the Manchester and Salford Sick Poor and Private Nursing Institution as a nurse at one of the Queen's District Nursing Homes, in a temporary position for three months. However, since the Matron, Miss Hall, became ill, she filled in as Matron. In a letter dated 12th March 1907, she wrote to Miss Lückes at London Hospital, saying that it was a heavy responsibility, and she knew little of the work of the Queen's District Nurses. She asked if there were any trained nurses willing to fill in a three months post for pay of £30 per annum. Edith's work in Manchester was commemorated by a splendid brass plaque, which was found in a Manchester scrapyard in April 2002.
Edith rose to the responsibility immediately; despite her own early record of unpunctuality, she kept a watch before her at breakfast and any unfortunate woman more than two minutes late would forfeit two hours of her spare time. The work was quickly established, despite some resistance from the middle classes. Edith writes home .... "The old idea that it is a disgrace for women to work is still held in Belgium and women of good birth and education still think they lose caste by earning their own living." However, when the Queen of the Belgians broke her arm and sent to the school for a trained nurse, suddenly the status of the school was assured. By 1912, Edith was providing nurses for three hospitals, 24 communal schools and 13 kindergartens. In 1914 she was giving four lectures a week to doctors and nurses alike, and finding time to care for a friend's daughter who was a morphia addict, and a runaway girl, as well as her two dogs, Don and Jack.
Edith often returned to Norfolk to visit her mother, who since her husband's death was living at College Road, Norwich. They also had holidays together on the North Norfolk coast. She was weeding her mother's garden when she heard the news of the German invasion of Belgium. She would not be persuaded to stay in England. "At a time like this", she said, "I am more needed then ever".
By August 3rd 1914, she was back in
Brussels despatching the Dutch and German nurses home and
impressing on the others that their first duty was to
care for the wounded irrespective of nationality. The
clinic became a Red Cross Hospital, German soldiers
receiving the same attention as Belgian. When Brussels
fell, the Germans commandeered the Royal Palace for their
own wounded and 60 English nurses were sent home. Edith
Cavell and her chief assistant, Miss Wilkins remained.
The German military authorities, having sentenced Edith and four others to death, were determined to carry out the executions immediately. Despite the intervention of neutral American and Spanish embassies, Miss Cavell and Baucq were ordered to be shot the next day, October 12th, at the National Rifle Range (The Tir Nationale). A German Lutheran prison chaplain obtained permission for the English Chaplain, Stirling Gahan, to visit her on the night before she died. His account of her last hours is very moving. They repeated the words of 'Abide with me', and Edith received the Sacrament.
Edith was magnanimous in her death, forgiving her executioners, even willing to admit the justice of their sentence. This sentence was carried out hurriedly and furtively in the early hours of October 12th. Two firing squads, each of eight men, fired at their victims from six paces. Stories were told that the men fired wide of Edith, that she fainted and was finally despatched by a German officer with a pistol. Reliable witnesses report nothing of this and it seems the executions were carried out without incident. For an eye-witness account of the executions, by the prison Chaplain, please click here. However there has recently come to light a collection of press cuttings dating from 1919 to 1974 compiled by a J.F. Randerson of Canterbury. This devotee of Edith's memory records what he calls a 'strange confirmation' of Arthur Mee's story that one of the firing squad refused to take part in the execution. Private Rimmel is said to have thrown down his rifle when ordered to fire at Nurse Cavell and to have been shot by a German officer for refusing to obey orders. A near neighbour of Randerson testified to being present at a secret exhumation of a German soldier who had been hastily buried near the grave of Edith. There may be some truth in the story that the firing squad were reticent and that one of them may have been shot with the brave British nurse.
Edith had been hurriedly buried at the rifle range where she was shot and a plain wooden cross put over her grave. The shaft of this cross can be seen preserved at the back of Swardeston Church. When the war was over, arrangements were made for Edith's reburial.
At first, Westminister Abbey was considered but the family preferred Norfolk. Her remains were escorted with great ceremony to Dover and from there to Westminister Abbey for the first part of the burial service on May 15th, 1919.
A special train took the remains to Norwich Thorpe Station and from there, a great procession to the Cathedral. Bishop Pollock described her as 'alive in God' and as someone who taught us that our patriotism must be examined in the light of something higher. She was laid to rest outside the Cathedral in a spot called Life's Green. Here services are held annually on the Saturday nearest the anniversary of her death.
Her character continues to fascinate today. Mount Edith Cavell in the Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada is a tribute to her. For photographs of a memorial service to Edith Cavell, held on the slopes of the Mountain in 1931 click here. Anna Neagle made a film of her and Joan Plowright appeared in a a very successful play called 'Cavell'. Sadly there was a time when her name was associated with an extreme form of patriotism, despite her words that this is 'not enough'. As a result, some have shied from her memory. A truer assessment of her would be to recognise her as she saw herself - simply 'a nurse who tried to do her duty'. Her perception of duty challenges us today; in achieving the greater good (or the lesser evil), we may compromise our reputation and even endanger our good name. Edith, in doing what she considered her duty, was prepared to go further and surrender her life and liberty to relieve suffering and help others achieve freedom.
In the light of recent releases of British Secret Service files from the Great War period, we have a better idea of how much Edith knew of the personal danger she faced in carrying on with helping soldiers to escape. From this we can see that she was not as naïve as some commentators would have us believe. She was a very brave woman, driven by a sense of duty, of patriotism, and by the practical living out of her personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. She would have wanted all the glory to go to Him.