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Emlyn Davies - Betsi Cadwaladr (English)

(December 01, 2015)


Betsi Cadwaladr (1789-1860)

Betsi Cadwaladr

When Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board was formed six years ago, the name chosen was a source of pride to many admirers of the nurse from Llanycil. At last, after years of neglect, there was an opportunity to pay homage to her glowing service. There was joy in the thought that future generations would remember her dedication on the field of battle in the Crimea.

Nowadays, with the Health Board constantly in the news for all its flaws and failings, one feels remorse that her name has been tarnished by its connection to an organisation that attracts so much criticism and anger. There may be more reason than ever for us to seize every possible opportunity to recount the story of the woman who should have had much of the credit for the achievements of Florence Nightingale.

It may be no surprise that the press and the establishment chose to glorify the image of Florence Nightingale in her day at the expense of other nurses like Betsi Cadwaladr. Nightingale was part of a myth, and that myth was created for political expedience which attracted the full force of the English establishment behind it.

One hundred and sixty years ago, in 1855, much of the coverage in the daily newspapers concentrated on the conflict in the Crimea. On 24 February of that year, the Illustrated London News published a story about a nurse in the Crimea, and showed a picture of her. She was shown walking through a row of wounded soldiers, carrying a lamp. Her name was Florence Nightingale.

A ward of the hospital at Scutari where Cadwaladr & Nightingale worked
One of the wards at Scutari Hospital,
  lithograph by William Simpson, 1856

And that is how the myth was born. This was the first war ever to be documented in detail in words and pictures by the press, and it is one of the earliest examples of media hype. Up to now, the coverage of the war in the Crimea had been quite negative, and the public was rapidly losing faith in the leaders as they read accounts of the losses. But here we have a story about a gentle nurse showing concern and compassion. She appeared like an angel at work: exactly what was required to win people over to support the war. This was a picture that changed attitudes, an omen of the power of the image, and an early sign of the influence of the press. This was 'Florence mania'.

Pictures of her were sold, often created by artists who had never met her, and small porcelain models were produced together with posters and embroidered placemats. Songs and poems were written, and all this indicated, perhaps, that the first star to be created by the press had appeared on the horizon.

Apparently, she did not enjoy this new fame, and she lived for half a century after her moment of fame, suffering from depression, confined to her bed for most of the time. Yet the myth lived on.

The reality is that Florence Nightingale was a manager, responsible for administration and organization, and although she would sometimes go round the wards at night, this was not her real responsibility. It is true to say that she made a huge contribution, and it would be churlish to belittle her efforts, but the true nature of her work does not match the hype which swept through Britain. Her great contribution was to improve hospital sanitation, improve facilities for patients, and place a greater emphasis on diet, and eventually making nursing a respectable profession.

But there is reason to believe that many of these changes in the sphere of nursing which were credited to Florence Nightingale came from ideas put forward by Betsi Cadwaladr. She was the true instigator of many of these reforms.

Unlike Florence, Betsi was a nurse working on the wards, dedicated to long hours, day and night, in the midst of the wounded, very close to the fighting on the front line. Betsi and Florence did not see eye to eye. They were two completely different personalities; Florence believed in adhering to the rule-book and upholding structures and guidelines, whereas Betsi was more pragmatic, insisting on making immediate changes where necessity demanded such a course of action, even if that was contrary to the rules. The welfare of the soldiers was uppermost in her book, and she had no respect for red tape. And that is why the two of them clashed so often.

Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale, known as "The Lady with the Lamp"

Eventually, Florence came to see that Betsi Cadwaladr was right in many of the reforms she proposed, and she admitted as much by accepting many ideas put forward by the woman from Wales.

She was baptised as Elizabeth Cadwaladr, one of 16 children born to Dafydd and his wife Judith Erasmus from Pen Rhiw farm in Llanycil, Y Bala. Her mother died when Betsi was five, and so the responsibility of caring for the family fell on her sister’s shoulders. Her father, a minister, was a very strict disciplinarian, and much to the relief of the little girl, at nine years old she was sent to be a maid at Plas-yn-Dre, Y Bala, to be employed by a man named Simon Lloyd. She loved her work, and was given the opportunity to learn to read and write in English and Welsh, and to play the triple harp. She was given a bible by the famous Thomas Charles, and this remained with her all her life, wherever she travelled all over the world, until her dying day.

At 14, she decided she would like to see the world, and went to Liverpool, where she found work as a maid, and she changed her name to Betsi Davis because the people of Liverpool found it difficult to pronounce 'Cadwaladr'. She was fortunate to work for different families who travelled extensively, both in Britain and on the continent, and she became interested in the theatre. She moved to London in 1820 and became a nanny for the family of a wealthy sea captain.

Eventually, she turned to nursing, and secured a position at Guy's Hospital, looking after private patients.

She was incensed by newspaper reports of the fighting in the Crimea, and so in 1854, she applied to go to the battlefield as a member of the medical team. Her request was accepted, and she found herself answerable to Florence Nightingale in Scutari Hospital, the main British hospital in Crimea.

Betsi was now 65, and she and Florence were worlds apart. They were two formidable women with strong wills, who could never see eye to eye, and so conflict was inevitable. Betsi was livid because Florence forced her to sew shirts and repair old rotting blankets. She left the hospital and travelled to another field hospital in Balaclava, close to the front line, where she cared for newly-wounded soldiers. At that point, it became clear that she had a special talent for cooking good, nourishing food, and she was put in charge of the soldiers’ diet, particularly those with special needs. She had made a big impression on everyone, not only for her hard work, but because she regarded the well-being of the soldiers to be more important than any trivial red tape. Betsi was the one who could achieve things where everyone else had failed. On seeing her success, Florence Nightingale admitted that the methods employed by Betsi were effective.

Unfortunately, due to fatigue and declining health, Betsi had to return to Britain, but Florence insisted she received a state pension for her sterling efforts. In fact, Florence was always full of admiration and praise for Betsi, but Betsi never spoke well of Florence. She was full of scathing criticism of her.

When she returned to London, she went to live with her sister, Bridget, who had been employed by Augusta Hall, Lady Llanofer, all her working life.

Betsi died in 1860 and was buried in a pauper's grave in Abney Park cemetery, London; the cemetery where Henry Richard, of Tregaron, the Apostle of Peace, is buried. For many years, few people knew anything about her history or where she was buried. But in August 2012, a service was held beside her grave in the cemetery by representatives of the Royal College of Nursing, who unveiled a memorial to her.

She was a determined woman, and there is no doubt that many of the ideas implemented and reforms undertaken by Florence Nightingale were initially tried and tested by Betsi Cadwaladr.

Emlyn Davies, December 2015

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Emlyn Davies:

     Canon William Evans; September 2017
Robert Owen; June 2017

Ynysyfelin; a lost community; March 2017
Laura Ashley
; December 2016
Adelina Patti
, September 2016
Billy Hughes
; June 2016
Coed y Bleiddiau
; March 2016

Sir Thomas Artemus Jones; September 2015

The two redheads; June 2015

cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan Caregos Cyf., 2015


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