Who is this lady with a hospital and a mountain (in Canada) named after her?
Edith Cavell – which should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘gravel’ – is a familiar name around Peterborough but few people know her story. That’s about to change this October when Peterborough Cathedral and Peterborough Museum host a series of events to mark the centenary of her execution in Brussels, at dawn on 12 October 1915 P eterborough’s connection with Edith Cavell goes back to 1884, when she was enrolled as a pupil teacher at Laurel Court School in Peterborough Cathedral Precincts. The school took both day pupils and boarders and was run on a strict regime by Miss Margaret Gibson. Boarders with untidy rooms could expect to have their belongings thrown out of the window as punishment! It was at Laurel Court that Edith Cavell developed her flair for languages.
French and German were the languages of the house and she must have shown promise as a linguist because a couple of years later, when she was back at the family home in Norfolk, Miss Gibson recommended Edith as a governess to a French-speaking family in Brussels. Returning from Brussels in 1895 to nurse her sick father, she decided on a change of direction and trained as a professional nurse. It was a career that would eventually lead her back to Brussels in 1907, as matron of a new training hospital for nurses. She was on holiday in Norfolk when the Great War broke out but hurriedly returned to Brussels where she knew she was needed.
As the fighting intensified, under her leadership the nurses cared for casualties whichever side of the conflict they were from. The occupation of Brussels by German forces caused great suffering and Edith Cavell became involved in the resistance, helping hundreds of allied soldiers to escape into neutral Holland. Her English habit of walking her dog in the evening provided the perfect cover for escapees to follow her until she gave the signal for them to transfer to the waiting guide who would take them to the border.
Once arrested, Edith Cavell was in solitary confinement for ten weeks. She carefully wrote letters putting her affairs in order and she contemplated her Christian faith. As she told the English chaplain, Stirling Gahan, who visited her on the eve of her execution: ‘I have no fear or shrinking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me. Life has always been hurried and full of difficulty. This time of rest has been a great mercy. Everyone here has been very kind. But this I would say, 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.’
There was a public outcry following Edith Cavell’s death, which was used as propaganda to encourage more soldiers to join up and help to defeat the Germans. When her body was returned to the UK in 1919 for a memorial service at Westminster Abbey and reburial at Norwich Cathedral, her family insisted that her tombstone was also used to commemorate soldiers who served in the war.
Information about the Centenary events can be found on the Cathedral website: www.peterborough-cathedral.org.uk