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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

The Totally Improbable, Completely True Life of Betsi Cadwaladr, Welsh War Nurse

On a winter’s night in 1854, two steel-willed women regarded each other with mutual dislike across a desk located on a scrap of misery-soaked land. Two more different people there could not have been: the younger, in her mid-thirties, was the daughter of a privileged house who had studied nursing against her family’s wishes, and was now attempting to instil some order in the midst of the chaos of war. Her name was Florence Nightingale, the Crimean War’s ‘Lady with the Lamp’. The older, in her mid-sixties, was a Welshwoman who had travelled the world as a servant to various ship captains, experiencing adventure, peril and destitution in just about equal quantities. She often gave her name as Elizabeth Davis, but she was born Betsi Cadwaladr (1789–1860), and she had never in her life backed down from a fight.

In their confrontation, all the power and authority, the resources and social standing, lay with Nightingale, but Cadwaladr was possessed of a singular soul that would not cower before power when she felt a wrong was being done. She thought Nightingale’s use of her nurses, and her distribution of provisions, were woefully misguided and causing unnecessary suffering for the Crimean War’s manifold victims, and said so. She fumed that she, as a nurse with a decade’s worth of experience, was being kept on shirt-mending duty when her skills were desperately needed in the General Hospital at Balaclava tending to wounded men.

Nightingale, worn to the nub already with the gigantic task of creating something like a hospital from the pit of suffering that was Scutari, and now having to deal with this opinionated Welshwoman on top of everything else, washed her hands of the whole business. ‘I have done with you entirely,’ Nightingale said in exasperation as she gave the old woman leave to do what she would, and with that Cadwaladr headed for Balaclava and the hardest years of her life.

Betsi Cadwaladr and Hardship had walked long in each other’s company by that point. She was never sure what year she was born, but knew that her mother died when she was but 5 years old, leaving her to the care of her preacher father and her cruel older sister. An impetuous child who loved dancing, she was fiercely beaten whenever she was caught doing it. She ran away from home at the age of 9, and then ran away from her second home at the age of 14, making her way to the big city of Liverpool with no particular plan for how to support herself once there.

She was, however, gifted with the astounding ability of making friends wherever she went, and the improbable luck of finding kinsfolk in every corner of the world willing to help her on to her next stage in life. Arriving in Liverpool, she applied to become a domestic servant and proved her worth early when, given sole charge of a shop one day, she noticed somebody breaking a pane of glass and reaching in through the window to try and steal a bolt of cloth. This country child just arrived in the city did not run screaming, or duck into the nearest closet to hide. No, she did what she would always do in life when faced with injustice, springing instinctively to action. She grabbed a nearby pole and beat the thief’s hand away then flung open the door, chased the man down on foot, tackled him, and pummelled him into submission until the police arrived to take him into custody.

A message had thus been sent to the cosmos: Do Not Mess With Betsi Cadwaladr.

Soon even the bustling city life of Liverpool became too small for Cadwaladr and she signed on as a servant on a series of trading ships bound for exotic ports. She visited China and stumbled by accident into the emperor’s council chambers, and was nearly executed on the spot as a result. She rode elephants and dined in palaces while escorting high-caste Burmese ladies. She was kidnapped by a former prince desperate to marry her, and nearly stabbed to death by another whose pomposities she had dared to laugh at. She walked across a bridge made up of an entire fleet of merchant ships while carrying a delighted Brazilian princess in her arms. Her quick thinking saved two ships from going down to the bottom of the ocean, and her striking looks, unbreakable honesty and fierce spirit had prompted a dozen men to propose to her in vain.

Returning to England at last, she had amassed a small fortune from her own efforts at trading, and in gifts from grateful royalty and passengers whom she had found ways to aid along their way. Receiving her back pay, she left her valuable possessions on her boat, and proceeded to look for ways to invest her new-found capital. And that is when, for the first but not last time, she lost everything. She put all of her earnings into the purchase of some rental properties which, it turned out, the seller did not actually own. Her money lost in a scam, she at least had her stored-up valuables. Returning to the port, she found, however, that the ship had left without bothering to put her goods back on shore.

Cadwaladr had served well and faithfully for years, had rejected marriage offers from princes and captains, and was now right back where she started, broke in England, without any prospect of financial security in her approaching old age. But she was made of stern stuff, and simply set her shoulder to the wheel again, finding employment as a servant in a series of homes culminating in work with a great and prosperous lawyer named in her memoir only as ‘Mr H’. She served as both nurse and servant, and his gratitude for all she did for him was so great that he willed the majority of his substantial estate to her, the document being signed by his hand and witnessed by two people of good standing.

When he eventually passed, Cadwaladr’s future should again have been secured, but the lawyer’s relations descended en masse and declared the will void for having only two witnesses instead of three. Already provided for in Mr H’s will, the family decided to take Cadwaladr’s share of his estate as well, leaving her once again without employment or financial reserves for the future. No longer young, she had to face the prospect of starting life from scratch, yet again.

Which is precisely when the grandly disastrous cavalcade of international posturing known as the Crimean War broke out, in 1853. In the gnash of Russia trying to assert itself in the Balkans, Napoleon III trying to claim a small slice of the military legacy that was his uncle’s, and England getting its oar in, around 750,000 men were killed or wounded. British battlefield medicine, still resolutely stuck in the age of the Duke of Wellington, was woefully unprepared for the scale of suffering hurled its way from the Crimean battlefields. Reports of understaffed hospitals, reeking with the dread stench of infection, stuffed with the dead and dying, reached England and prompted a furore that led Florence Nightingale and a squadron of supporting nurses to offer their services.

Betsi Cadwaladr took note of the nursing drive and, having herself been nurse to a variety of ailing patrons, knew she could be of value. Too late to join Nightingale’s first detachment of nurses, she secured a position with the next group out under Mary Stanley. Arriving at Scutari, Nightingale’s main base of operations, she was frustrated from the first. Instead of using her years of experience in both nursing and resource management (she had been in regular charge of ship loading and inventory during her years on merchant vessels), she was employed as a seamstress, explicitly forbidden from even talking to the wounded. She also bristled under Nightingale’s policy for distributing the Free Gifts sent from England for the soldiers. Cadwaladr saw storehouses full of linen and food, rotting away instead of being put to the soldiers’ use, because Nightingale’s requisition system was too formal and unbending to allow nurses to use their insight to distribute these resources as needed.

Nightingale was of course labouring under the immense task of setting a critically broken system aright, juggling the tasks of head nurse, resource administrator, fund distributor, public building designer, and parliamentary correspondent – all in circumstances of omnipresent suffering and death. To be fair, Cadwaladr probably could have done better in seeing all the things Nightingale was doing right instead of honing in on the few things she had yet to figure out, but as always in her life, the presence of injustice got her blood up, and when it came time to talk to Nightingale directly, she had nothing good to say about The Lady with the Lamp or her methods of administration.

Transferred closer to the front at Balaclava General Hospital, Cadwaladr set about reforming the hospital as she thought best, hounding the requisitions officers until she got the food, bedding, forks, knives, bandages, toothbrushes and clothing that her charges desperately needed. Army provisioners who could count on Nightingale to follow the rules for distribution were bowled back on their heels by the force of nature that was Betsi Cadwaladr. She worked in the special kitchen during the day, preparing meals, while intermittently touring the wards she had reorganised, personally removing literal bucketfuls of maggots from the flesh of patients who had been left too long unattended by the couple of doctors working the hospital. Under her care, patients’ wounds were cleaned and bandaged, their food needs carefully monitored, and the necessary provisions for a semi-comfortable stay acquired.

Doing a similar multitude of jobs back at Scutari, the young Florence Nightingale worked herself into an invalid state that would remain with her for the next fifty years of life. Cadwaladr was thirty years older, doing the same work, and doing it closer to the war front, and in spite of a lifetime accustomed to hard labour, she too faced inevitable breakdown. Cholera and dysentery both dug their claws deep into her sexagenarian frame, and in 1855 she was forced to return back to England.

Her original contract had stipulated that nurse wages were set at a starting amount of 10 shillings a week, with raises up to 25s depending on the quality of service done. Nightingale, when accepting Cadwaladr’s resignation, only offered her the 10-shilling rate when settling up her back wages in spite of her Herculean efforts at Balaclava. Cadwaladr, however, knew her worth, and was not about to take the rate reserved for drunken and incompetent nurses as the wages for her health-breaking heroics. Nightingale compromised, and they settled at 18 shillings a week.

Returning to England, Cadwaladr was 66 years old, in ill health, without a job, and carrying a few thin pounds of money by way of reward for her service to the British army. She wrote her memoirs with the help of a historian by the name of Jane Williams, which were published in 1857 and which end on an appeal crushing in its desperation:


In the decline of life, the Heroine of this narrative is left unprovided for.

She is anxious to obtain employment in some public institution, and is fully capable of executing any office of trust and vigilant inspection.

Benevolent readers who may wish to contribute to the comfort of her latter years, can pay in subscriptions for her, either to Mr Murgatroyd, 18, Stafford Row, Pimlico, or to Mr John Brown, 9, Hans Place, Sloane Street.

After a life of adventure and service, Betsi Cadwaladr died in 1860 and was buried in a pauper’s grave.


Betsy Cadwaladyr: A Balaclava Nurse: An Autobiography of Elizabeth Davis (1857) was reprinted by Honno Classics in 1987 and 2007 with a useful introduction from Deirdre Beddoe and is your most important resource for her life.


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