14 August 2019

‘Patriotism is not enough.
I must have no hatred or
bitterness for anyone’

‘Patriotism is not enough’ … the Edith Cavell Memorial in Saint Martin’s Place, London, this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

One monument in London that constantly attracts my attention is the Edith Cavell Memorial in Saint Martin’s Place, close to the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square. It stands beside the Church of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, where I had lunch on Monday afternoon, and is close the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery.

Edith Cavell (1865-1915) was a nurse from Norfolk and was matron at Berkendael Medical Institute in Brussels when World War I broke out in 1914. She nursed soldiers from both sides without distinction and also helped 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. She was arrested in August 1915, court-martialled, found guilty of treason, and shot by a German firing squad on 12 October 1915.

At first she was buried in Belgium, but were brought back to Britain in May 1919 for a state funeral at Westminster Abbey before she was finally buried at Norwich Cathedral 100 years ago.

Although Edith Cavell’s sister, Lilian Wainwright, wanted no public monuments, funds for a public memorial were raised by a committee chaired by Harry Levy-Lawson, Viscount Burnham, proprietor of the Daily Telegraph. Other committee members included the Lord Mayor of London, the Bishop of London, and the chairman of London County Council.

The sculptor Sir George James Frampton (1860-1928) accepted the commission, but declined any fee. He adopted a distinctively Modernist style for the memorial, which comprises a 3 metre high statue of Cavell in her nurse’s uniform, sculpted from white Carrara marble, standing on a grey Cornish granite pedestal. The statue stands in front of the south side of a larger grey granite pylon that is 12 metres high. The top of the block is carved into a cross and a statue of a mother and child, sometimes interpreted as the Virgin and Child. The whole memorial is elevated on three steps.

The inscription on the pedestal beneath the statue of Cavell reads:

Edith Cavell
October 12th 1915
Patriotism is not enough
I must have no hatred or
bitterness for anyone

The last three lines quote her comment to the Revd Stirling Gahan (1870-1958), the Irish-born Anglican chaplain in Brussels, who gave her Holy Communion on the night before her execution. These words were initially left off, and added in 1924 at the request of the National Council of Women.

The face of the granite block behind the statue of Cavell bears the inscription ‘Humanity,’ and higher up, below the Virgin and Child, ‘For King and Country.’ Other faces of the block bear the inscriptions, ‘Devotion,’ ‘Fortitude’ and ‘Sacrifice.’ On the rear face of the block is a carving of a lion crushing a serpent, and higher up, the inscription, ‘Faithful until death.’

The memorial was unveiled by Queen Alexandra on 17 March 1920. It received a Grade II listing in 1970, and was upgraded to a Grade I listing in 2014.

The site was chosen because it is beside the first headquarters of the British Red Cross at 7 Saint Martin’s Place.

The Edith Cavell Memorial is the work of the sculptor Sir George Frampton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Edith Cavell was born on 4 December 1865 in Swardeston, a village near Norwich, where her father was the vicar for 45 years. She was the eldest of the four children of the Revd Frederick Cavell (1824-1910) and his wife Louisa Sophia Warming (1835-1918), and her maternal grandmother was Irish and she had two sisters and a brother.

She was educated at Norwich High School for Girls, and then went to boarding schools at Clevedon in Somerset, and Laurel Court in Peterborough.

She was recruited by Dr Antoine Depage in 1907 as the matron of a new nursing school in Brussels. She was visiting her widowed mother in Norfolk when World War I broke out. She returned to Brussels, where her clinic and nursing school were taken over by the Red Cross.

After the German occupation of Brussels in November 1914, Edith began sheltering British soldiers, helping them to escape to the neutral Netherlands, and hiding wounded British and French soldiers and Belgian and French civilians of military age.

She was arrested on 3 August 1915, charged with harbouring allied soldiers and war treason, despite not being a German national, and was sentenced to death. The First Geneva Convention guaranteed the protection of medical personnel, but this was forfeit if used as cover for belligerent action. At her trial, she made no attempt to defend herself.

The British government said it could do nothing to help her. But Hugh S Gibson, First Secretary of the US legation at Brussels, made clear to the German government that executing her would further harm Germany’s already damaged reputation. He reminded the Germans of the burning of Louvain and the sinking of the Lusitania.

The sentence of death by firing squad was confirmed at 4.30 pm on 11th October 1915, to be carried out before dawn the next day. Her final words to the German Lutheran prison chaplain, the Revd Paul Le Seur, were, ‘Ask Father Gahan to tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country.’

Pastor Le Soeur realised that Edith could not receive spiritual help from someone in a German uniform. He hurriedly called for Horace Gahan who was not at home, but eventually the message reached him to meet the chaplain at his lodgings. Learning of Edith’s fate was a very shocking moment for him.

Gahan arrived at Saint Gilles Prison that evening after 8.30 p.m. with a pass and went to Edith’s cell. There he found her calm and resigned. He recalled her words, ‘I have no fear or shrinking; I have seen death so often it is not strange, or fearful to me!’

They shared Holy Communion together and he stayed for an hour. She spoke kindly of her treatment in prison and said, ‘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.’

The meeting ended after they softly recited the hymn Abide with Me together. On leaving, he said ‘God Bless’; she smiled and replied tenderly, ‘We shall meet again.’

Sixteen men, forming two firing squads, carried out the death sentence on her and four Belgian men in Schaerbeek at 7 a.m. on 12 October 1915. News reports after her execution were found to be only true in part. Even the American Journal of Nursing repeated the fictional account of her execution in which she fainted and fell because of her refusal to wear a blindfold in front of the firing squad. Allegedly, while she lay unconscious, the German commanding officer shot her dead with a revolver.

Pastor Le Seur, the German army chaplain, recalled at the time of her execution, ‘I do not believe that Miss Cavell wanted to be a martyr ... but she was ready to die for her country ... Miss Cavell was a very brave woman and a faithful Christian.’

Immediately after her execution, Horace Gahan wrote an important and moving account of their meeting. It was sent through the US Legation to the Foreign Office in London, where it was released. Her story was used in war-time propaganda as an example of German barbarism and moral depravity.

Edith Cavell became the most prominent British female casualty of World War I, and many memorials were created around the world to remember her.

The Edith Cavell Health Care Campus is on the site of the former Edith Cavell Hospital in Peterborough, and there is a memorial to Edith Cavell in Peterborough Cathedral, which I visited yesterday.

She was also honoured in Peterborough with the naming of the Cavell car park, one of four car parks at the Queensgate shopping centre. During the refurbishment of Queensgate in 2011, there were plans to drop the names of all four car parks and refer only to them by colour, with the Cavell car park becoming the Blue car park. But the plans stirred in a public backlash and the names have been retained.

As for the Revd Horace Sterling Townsend Gahan (1870-1959), he continued to live in Brussels for a few years after World War I, and there he was sometimes known affectionately as ‘Father Pat’ because of his Irish origins.

Gahan was born in Lurganboy in the parish of Donegal on 11 November 1870, a son of Frederick Beresford Gahan, a civil engineer, and his wife, Katherine Janes (née Townsend). He was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Worcester (1894) and priest by the Bishop of Coventry (1895), and worked in parishes in the Church of England until 1905, when he returned to Ireland.

He was a curate in Tullamore (1905-1907) in the Diocese of Meath, the Baggotrath Chapel (1907-1909), on Upper Baggot Street, Dublin, and the Rector of Templeharry (1909-1910), in the Diocese of Killaloe.

After a brief time in the Diocese of Rochester, Horace Gahan moved to Brussels as the Anglican chaplain of Christ Church, just as World War I was about to break out. He returned to England in 1923 as the rector of a parish in Leicester, and died 60 years ago in February 1959.

Incidentally, Horace Gahan’s immediate successor as Rector of Templeharry was Canon Robert Neill (1883-1951), whose great-grandson, Canon Stephen Neill, located the parish registers that record the baptisms of President Barack Obama’s ancestors in the parish records.

Edith Louisa Cavell was 49 at the time of her execution. The Church of England commemorates her in the Calendar of Saints on 12 October.

The Cavell Blue Car Park at Queensgate Shopping Centre in Peterborough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Peterborough owes its
prosperity to a monastery
and the modern railways

Peterborough’s 17th-century Guildhall was built by John Lovin in 1671 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I spent much of yesterday [13 August 2019] in the cathedral city of Peterborough. Although I had passed through Peterborough before on train journeys between Cambridge and Birmingham, this was my first time to visit the city and its cathedral.

Peterborough, with a population of about 200,000, was historically part of Northamptonshire, but is now in Cambridgeshire. It is about 110 km east of Birmingham, about 63 km north-west of Cambridge, and 120 km north of London. It stands on the banks of the River Nene which flows into the North Sea about 50 km to the north-east. in some parts of the surrounding countryside, the land lies below sea level, and parts of the Fens are to the east of Peterborough.

There is archaeological evidence of an early Roman presence here. The Romans established a fortified garrison town at Durobrivae on Ermine Street, 8 km to the west in Water Newton, in the mid-1st century AD. There was also a large 1st century Roman fort at Longthorpe, designed to house half a legion, or about 3,000 soldiers, and it may have been set up as early as AD 44-48.

But the city really dates from the Anglo-Saxon period, when a monastery was established at Medeshamstede, which would later become Peterborough. Medeshamstede may have been an Anglian settlement before AD 655, when Sexwulf founded a monastery on land he had been granted to him by Peada of Mercia, who converted to Christianity.

The name of Medeshamstede was changed to Burgh from the late 10th century, possibly after Abbot Kenulf had built a defensive wall around the abbey.

In the Anglo-Saxon resistance to the Norman conquest of England after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Hereward the Wake rampaged through this town in 1069 or 1070. But the Abbot, Turold, fought back and built a fort or castle outside the deanery garden, now called Tout Hill.

The abbey church was rebuilt and greatly enlarged in the 12th century and the town eventually developed into the Peterborough, although it did not become a borough until the 12th century. The Monastery of Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint Andrew was rebuilt in its present form between 1118 and 1238. The burgesses received their first charter from Abbot Robert – probably Robert of Sutton (1262–1273).

With the dissolution of the monastic houses during the reign of Henry VIII, the abbey church became the cathedral at the centre of the new Diocese of Peterborough in 1541, when the last abbot was made the first bishop and the abbot’s house became the episcopal palace. The first of Henry’s six wives, Katharine of Aragon, was buried in this cathedral when she died in 1536.

Later, Mary Queen of Scots was also buried here after her execution in 1587, but her son, James I, later moved her body to Westminster Abbey, which I visited again on Monday afternoon.

During the English Civil War, Peterborough was divided between the Royalist supporters of King Charles I and the Parliamentarians, and the war reached Peterborough in 1643 when soldiers arrived in the city to attack Royalist strongholds at Stamford and Crowland.

While Peterborough was in the Parliamentarian hands, the Puritan soldiers ransacked the cathedral and destroyed the Lady Chapel, the chapter house, the cloisters, the high altar and the choir stalls, as well as mediaeval decorations, tombs, monuments and records.

The Manor House, Peterborough … the Dean and Chapter of Peterborough succeeded the abbot as lords of the manor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Peterborough’s 17th-century Guildhall, facing the west end of the cathedral, was built in 1671 by John Lovin, who also restored the bishop’s palace shortly after the restoration of King Charles II. The Guildhall stands on columns, providing an open ground floor for the butter and poultry markets that were once held there.

The Dean and Chapter of Peterborough Cathedral, who had succeeded the abbot as lords of the manor after the dissolution, retained their own court leet until the municipal borough was incorporated in 1874 with a mayor, six aldermen and 18 councillors.

Peterborough became a modern city with the arrival of the railways in the 19th century, and became an industrial centre known for brick manufacture. The railway enabled large-scale brick-making and distribution to develop, and the area remained Britain’s leading producer of bricks for much of the 20th century.

Perkins Engines was established in Peterborough in 1932 by Frank Perkins, creator of the Perkins diesel engine.

The Market Place was renamed Cathedral Square and the adjacent Gates Memorial Fountain moved to Bishop’s Road Gardens in 1963, when the then weekly market was moved to the site of the old cattle market.

Peterborough was designated a New Town in 1967, and the city’s population grew by almost 50% the two decades between 1971 and 1991. Queensgate shopping centre was opened by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1982, Thomas Cook and Pearl Assurance moved to Peterborough an urban regeneration company was put in place, with a £1 billion redevelopment of the city centre.

Below the cathedral, Peterscourt on City Road was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1864, housing Saint Peter’s Teacher Training College for men until 1938. The building is mainly listed for the 18th century doorway, which was brought from the Guildhall in London following war damage.

The Diocese of Peterborough covers about 3,100 sq km (1,200 square miles), including the Northamptonshire, Rutland and Peterborough, but parts of the city south of the river, which were once in Huntingdonshire, are in the Diocese of Ely, which includes the rest of Cambridgeshire and much of west Norfolk.

Peterborough Cathedral is one of the most intact large Norman buildings in England and is renowned for its imposing early English Gothic West Front which, with its three enormous arches, is without architectural precedent and with no direct successor.

But more about Peterborough Cathedral later this week, hopefully, and some of the other buildings I visited in Peterborough this week.

The 18th century doorway of Peterscourt was brought from the Guildhall in London following war damage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)