Who was Betsi Cadwaladr?
Derek Jones makes enquiries
I confess that, having lived round here for 20 years, I
have only recently thought to ask that
question—despite countless visits to hospitals and
surgeries administered by the University Health Board
which carries her name. It has taken the covid-19
pandemic to make me repair the omission, though I
guess I was not alone in my previous lack of curiosity.
One of a large family, she was born at Pen Rhiw farm
at Llanysil, near Bala in 1789 (a fateful year during
which the French Revolution erupted). From a young
age she always had itchy feet. She departed for
Liverpool when she was 14, became a maid for a merchant ship’s captain, with whom she tracked
across Europe, including to the scene of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, but also, further afield to
Australia. During her extensive travels, she learned how to deliver babies and to give general care to
sick members of the ship’s crew.
Returning to London in 1854, just as the Crimean War was beginning, she may have read the
following appeal by William H Russell, the war correspondent for The Times, ‘Are there no devoted
women amongst us, able and willing to go forth and minister to the sick and suffering soldiers in the
hospitals of Scutari? Are there none of the daughters of England (sic) at this extreme hour
of need, ready for such a work of mercy?
In response, Florence Nightingale was drafted as ‘Superintendent of the Female Nurses of the East’.
Betsi Cadwaladr, now aged 65, trained as a nurse at Guy’s Hospital near London Bridge and joined
others in the Crimea, but was assigned by ‘the lady with the lamp’ to sewing duties! There was
already a clash of personalities. Florence, upper class, a friend of cabinet ministers, believed in the
necessity of discipline; Betsi, working class, frustrated at being kept from proper nursing, was never
one to keep silent.
Betsi Cadwaladr was finally sent to Balaclava, nearer the front line, and was quickly confronted by
the consequences of what was later called ‘one of the worst managed wars in history, with deaths
due to illness and malnutrition four times the rate due to enemy action’. Conditions were appalling.
Betsi reported ‘the first [soldier] that I touched was a case of frostbite. The toes of both the man’s
feet fell off with the bandages. The hand of the other fell off at the wrist. It was a fortnight
before…some of the wounds of the men had been looked at and dressed’. She removed maggots
from the wounds in ‘handfuls’.
Betsi worked night and day and made progress, despite intolerable problems. When Florence
Nightingale came to inspect progress, she was impressed, and later reflected that Betsi was ‘an
active, respectable and hard working old woman with a foul tongue and a cross temper’. Perhaps
she saw that there was some value in Betsi’s more intuitive approach to nursing. Finally, however,
this ‘hard working old woman’ herself caught both cholera and dysentery and had to return to
London, where she died in 1860 and was buried in a pauper’s grave at Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke
Newington, now in the London Borough of Hackney.
Honour was finally given to this heroic, but largely forgotten woman. In 2016, she was named by the
Western Mail as ‘one of the greatest Welsh men and women of all time, along with Aneurin Bevan,
the founder of the NHS. The Royal College of Nursing erected a headstone over her grave. ‘She
brought healing and comfort to the wounded during the Crimean War, and was ready to cut through
regulations to give soldiers the treatment they deserved’. RCN Wales organises regular Betsi
Memorial Lectures in Cardiff, Llangollen and Carmarthen. And the pop-up hospital in Llandudno,
during Covid-19, was named Ysbyty Enfys. To name it ‘Nightingale’ would never have done!