Pen Rhiw Farm

A plaque has been placed on
the wall at the side of the house.

Betsi Plaque

Background

1789

Elizabeth ‘Betsi’ Cadwaladr was born in 1789 at Llanycil, near Bala, Wales, one of 16 children to Methodist preacher Dafydd Cadwaladr. She grew up on Pen Rhiw Farm, Llanycil, and her mother died when she was only five years old. Very soon after this, she was given a copy of the Bible as a present from Thomas Charles (a Welsh Calvinistic Methodist clergyman who had famously also given a copy to Mary Jones), something which Betsi appreciated greatly, and which she felt now gave her some purpose to life.

Early Work

Cadwaladr got employment locally as a maid at Plas yn Dre, where she learned housework, to speak English, and to play the triple harp. She was not happy there, though, and aged 14 she escaped through a bedroom window using tied sheets, and left Bala. She obtained employment as a domestic servant in Liverpool. At some point in her life she changed her surname to Davis because it was easy to pronounce, though some sources state that she was actually born as Elizabeth Davis. She later returned to Wales, but subsequently fled to London to avoid marriage, living with her sister. Here in London she first encountered the theatre, which became a great interest to her. Working as a maid and assistant, she had the opportunity to travel widely around the world, which gave her a taste for travel.

She was in France at the time of the Battle of Waterloo, and she visited the battlefield where she was moved by the plight of the injured. In 1820, aged 31, she again returned to Bala, which she now considered ‘dull’, so she became a maid to a ship’s captain and travelled for years, visiting such places as South America, Africa and Australia. At times she performed Shakespeare on board ship, and met such people as William Carey, the missionary, and Bishop Heber, the hymn-writer. At this time she was not trained in nursing, but during the course of her time on board ship she became involved in the care of the sick, and she also delivered babies. Despite her stubbornness and independence, Cadwaladr herself claimed that in the course of her travels she was proposed to by over 20 men.

Working as a Nurse

On returning to Britain, she decided to train as a nurse at Guy’s, a London hospital. Following her training, at the age of 65 she joined the military nursing service with the intention of working in the Crimea, despite the attempts of her sister Bridget to dissuade her. Florence Nightingale (who came from a privileged background) did not want the Welsh working-class Cadwaladr to go, saying that if Betsi went to the Crimea, it would be against her will, and that Betsi would have to be made over to another superintendent. Betsi responded,

“Do you think I am a dog or an animal to make me over? I have a will of my own.”

Cadwaladr was subsequently posted to a hospital in Scutari, Turkey, a hospital being run by Florence Nightingale. Cadwaladr worked there for some months, but there were frequent clashes between the two; they came from very different social backgrounds and were a generation apart in age (31 years). Nightingale was a stickler for rules and bureaucracy, some of which she set up; indeed, she was also famed as a statistician. Cadwaladr often side-stepped regulations to react more intuitively to the ever-changing needs of the injured soldiers. Whilst Nightingale subsequently acknowledged Cadwaladr’s work and the progress that she made against the unhygienic conditions, the two fell out to such a degree that Cadwaladr, by now aged over 65, moved by choice from the hospital, nearer to the frontline at Balaclava. Here, apart from her nursing work and her supervision of the camp kitchens, she again gained notoriety for her fight with bureaucracy to ensure that necessary supplies got through. Nightingale visited Balaclava twice and, on seeing the changes brought about by Cadwaladr’s methods, gave her the credit she was due.

Death

1860

Conditions in the Crimea eventually took their toll on Cadwaladr’s health, as she was ill with cholera and dysentery when she returned to Britain in 1855, a year before the war ended. She lived in London, again at her sister’s house, during which time she wrote her autobiography. She died in 1860, five years after her return, and was buried in the pauper’s section of Abney Park Cemetery in north London. A new memorial stone was placed on her grave in August 2012.

Betsi Cross

RCN Wales

On Nurses’ Day 2005, as requested by the then RCN Welsh Board Chair, Eirlys Warrington, Professor Donna M Mead OBE OStJ FRCN, addressed the Royal College of Nursing in Wales. The topic was ‘Nursing, Now and Then’. Inevitably, the accomplishments of nursing pioneers such as Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole were mentioned. It was asserted that it was time that Wales acknowledged its own nursing heroine and Professor Mead, supported by the Royal College of Nursing in Wales, became the leading advocate for celebrating Betsi Cadwaladr’s considerable achievements.

Since 2005 there have been many developments, including the RCN Wales biennial Betsi Cadwaladr Lecture which has been presented by:

  • 2006 Sue Essex AM (Assembly member) who delivered the inaugural lecture.

  • 2008 Professor Julian Tudor Hart who in the 1970s wrote the inverse care law.

  • 2010 Julie Morgan MP, now Assembly Member.

  • 2012 Christine Mary Evans MB ChB MD FRCS FRCS Ed, Retired Consultant Urologist.

  • 2014 Roy Lilley, NHS Writer, Broadcaster & Commentator.

  • 2017 Dame Rosemary Butler DBE former Assembly member and Presiding Officer, Welsh Assembly.

  • 2020 lecture reflections from Jean Saunders, RCN Wales Nurse of the Year 2019 and Bryan Wilson, Vice President of the Florence Nightingale Foundation

Searching for the Grave

Written by: Professor Donna Mead

When I gave talks about Betsi’s life, people often asked where she was buried. I didn’t know.

Searching for Betsi Cadwalladr’s grave was problematic. Her father Dafydd Cadwalladr was a well known Methodist preacher. I found his grave in Llanycil church.

The church of Llanycil sits beside Llyn Tegid, Bala Lake, in the old county of Merionethshire, Wales. The Llanycil church is built on an ancient Celtic Christian site. The church was renowned as the destination for 15-year-old Mary Jones in 1800 when she walked 26 miles from Llanfihangel-y-Pennant to buy a bible from Rev Thomas Charles.

Dafydd Cadwalladr’s enigmatic headstone contains details of his daughter and it says:

A’I Ferch (and his daughter)

Elizabeth Davies, nyrs yn y Crimea (Nurse in the Crimea)

Bladdwn yn Llundain (Buried in London)

This was my first clue of the whereabouts of Betsi’s grave

Dafydd Headstone

I knew from the writings of Derek Thorpe that Betsi died a pauper. In the 19th century, London graveyards attached to churches had become very full. So 7 very large cemeteries were established across London. They were referred to as the magnificent seven garden cemeteries. The earliest of these was Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington. I contacted Abney Park and I was informed that they had a record of Betsi Cadwaladr being buried there so I went to Abney Park. They gave me the siting of Betsi’s grave and the names of the individuals buried with her.

It was a long walk to get to the part of the cemetery where she was buried. Her grave is in the oldest part of the cemetery. She was one of the first to be buried there. The area was incredibly overgrown with ivy and brambles.

After removing foliage and getting scratched we came across a small, wooden cross which had been placed there by Emrys Rowlands, a gentleman from Cerigydrudion who only a few months earlier had been looking for her grave. I found out that the cross was placed by Emrys from my brother in Law’s mother who lived in Bangor. She knew both Emrys and myself and put us in touch with each other.

Having found her grave, I visited again with Gill Galvani, the then Director of Nursing at Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, and her colleague Yvonne Harding. They decided to return to their health board and fundraise for a headstone for Betsi.

Eventually, in August 2012 the headstone was in place and a service was held to dedicate the stone and lay Betsi to rest. In Victorian times a pauper’s burial meant that no mourners were allowed (not even Betsi’s sister who lived in London at the time) and no service was held to commit her body and soul to God. 

Those attending are from left to right. Sandra Robinson-Clark (Welsh Board RCN). Gill Galvani (Executive Director of Nursing, Midwifery and patient services Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, Professor Jean White (Chief Nursing Officer for Wales), Rev Kathy Collins Pastoral Care Manager Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, Professor Donna Mead OBE (Welsh Board Member), Tina Donnelly (Director RCN Wales Board), Ann Stevenson (RCN Wales Board Member). Malisa Pierri (winner of the first Chief Nursing Officer for Wales Betsi Cadwaladr scholarship)

Pictured Prof Donna Mead OBE and Tina Donnelly Director RCN Wales Board

The Headstone states simply Betsi Cadwalladr, 1789-1860. The Faithfullest of Her Majesty’s Nurses. This was taken from the testimonial written about Betsi by Margaret Wear, one of the superintendents in the Crimea who wrote of Betsi:

“Nothing that can be said would be more than is justly due to this faithfulest of Her Majesty’s Nurses of this respectable and truly good woman, who has sacrificed her health, almost life, for the good of her suffering countrymen”

Below is the prayer that I read at the site of the headstone during the service.

Note we remembered all those souls buried with Betsi

Heavenly Father, God of all time and of all places we come now to this place, hallowed by the resting of your people.

Although they were brought here unnamed we thank you that they are not un-remembered.

Kept safe by you in your memory for all time, we join with you now in remembering Elizabeth Cadwaladr, Jane Elizabeth Norman, George Harris Pidgeon, Susan Windle, Mary Britton, George Mitchell, and Thomas Guy.

We confess that we have been slow to remember and we thank you for the prompting of the Holy Spirit which has brought us here to restore to these people the dignity of having their life on earth acknowledged. As we remember them in your presence, we pray that they rest forever in your everlasting peace.

Amen

A pop-art collage, by Welsh artist Nathan Wyburn, was commissioned by the Royal College of Nursing Wales to mark 2020 as the ‘International Year of the Nurse and Midwife’ and features Welsh nurse Betsi Cadwaladr.

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