Norfolk war heroine's final letter returns home
A letter written by Norfolk nurse and First World War heroine Edith Cavell just days before she was captured by the Germans has been returned to her home county.
The four-page letter, written in Nurse Cavell’s hand to her mother Louisa, is dated 26 July 1915. It was the final letter the Swardeston-born nurse wrote home before she was taken by the Germans from her hospital in occupied Belgium on 5 August 1915.
“My dearest love to you & all the family. I am looking forward to a happy meeting later on. Ever your affectionate daughter,” writes Nurse Cavell as she signs off her letter that covers many different aspects of her life in Brussels.
Tragically though, Nurse Cavell was never to return home alive, as she was shot on 12 October 1915, for her part in helping several hundred Allied soldiers reach safety. After the war, her body was returned to Norfolk and she was laid to rest at Life’s Green at Norwich Cathedral.
Her letter to her mother offers a unique window into her life in 1915, and it has been gifted to Norwich Cathedral by Greg Stewart, who was given the correspondence by the late poet and playwright Roger Frith.
Mr Stewart, who grew up in the same Essex village as Roger Frith but now lives in Ontario, Canada, said: “We had a common interest in the history of World War One and I admired Roger's poetry, some of which was inspired by the trauma suffered by his father, Arthur Frith, during his four years with the London Rifle Brigade in France.
“After I left for Canada in 1968, Roger and I corresponded for many years and whenever I was back in England I spent time with him. On one such visit, we went to Norwich Cathedral and I learned of its connection to Edith Cavell whose family came from nearby Swardeston. Roger lived alone and, sometime around 2003, gave me the letter for safekeeping and as a mark of our friendship when he began to sense that his health was failing.
“Roger told me that Edith's letter was originally gifted to his mother, Gladys, by the Cavell family. However, I do not know how the families were connected. Roger's parents were talented musicians and both sang in church choirs. Between 1920-35, Arthur Frith held the position of vicar-choral at St Paul's Cathedral. I wonder if it was through the Church that the Cavell and Frith families became acquainted.”
Nurse Cavell’s strong Christian faith is well documented and reflected in some of her final words, which are etched on her grave at Norwich Cathedral: “In the light of God and eternity, I have realised that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
Her father, Rev Frederick Cavell, had been the vicar of Swardeston Church for some 46 years until 1909, when he retired and moved to Norwich with Edith’s mother. Along with the newly-gifted letter, Norwich Cathedral is also the custodian of two of Nurse Cavell’s Bibles and her copy of Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, which she was annotating until the day of her death.
Mr Stewart said: “The more I considered Edith's letter and the spirit in which it had been passed on to me, the more I felt it belonged to part of the larger public record. Having visited Norwich Cathedral that time with Roger, I had no doubt that this is where the letter should permanently reside. I am sure Roger would have felt the same. I was so pleased when I heard that Norwich Cathedral would welcome the letter home and treasure it. Only recently have I come to fully understand how great an example Edith Cavell is to us all.”
Rev Dr Peter Doll, Canon Librarian and Vice Dean at Norwich Cathedral, said: “Nurse Cavell’s letter is a wonderful gift that will be treasured by Norwich Cathedral. It gives real insight into her life and activities just prior to her arrest, revealing her professional concern for her patients and for the completion of the new building for the nursing school and clinic she directed.
“Here also is Edith the loving daughter, ensuring that her mother is the beneficiary of the pension she has established, and reminding her of happy family holidays in West Runton, Norfolk. Edith the dog-lover shares her concern about her aging sheepdog Jack.
“Nurse Cavell’s letter is of immense historical value and our intention is for the letter to go on public display in the Cathedral at some point in the near future and to ensure that it is safely preserved for generations to come.”
At the time that Nurse Cavell wrote this letter, she would have been fully aware of the risks she was taking in helping Allied soldiers escape occupied Belgium, although she perhaps could not have imagined what would happen just days later.
“Although she is trying to remain positive for her mother’s sake, there are in retrospect indications of the turmoil in which she was living,” Dr Doll said.
“Edith at this time was living a double life. On the one hand she was the respected Matron of the École Belge des Infirmières Diplomées in Brussels, caring for war wounded and preparing to move the school and its patients to new purpose-built premises. On the other hand, she was also part of an underground network of Belgian patriots, sheltering hundreds of fugitive Allied soldiers in the cellar of her clinic until they could be guided to the neutral country of the Netherlands. The Germans were fully aware of this activity, and were biding their time until they could arrest the whole network.”
Pictured above is Rev Dr Peter Doll in the Norwich Cathedral library with Edith Cavell’s final letter. Picture © Bill Smith/Norwich Cathedral.