HIDDEN HIGH STREET HISTORIES - PEOPLE
Elizabeth Bastable Wilkins
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Elizabeth Bastable Wilkins was Matron of Chard Hospital for over thirty years. Prior to this, she had worked at the Red Cross Hospital in Brussels during World War 1 with Edith Cavell, who set up a resistance movement.
When Nurse Cavell was absent one day, the Germans raided the hospital hoping to find escaping British soldiers hiding there. Sister Wilkins warned the ward nurse and four 'Tommies' were spirited away whilst Elizabeth hid their documents in a lavatory cistern; but she was still arrested and interrogated, but thankfully, released after three hours.
On August 5th 1915, there was another raid, when both Sister Wilkins and Edith Cavell were arrested. Astonishingly, Sister Wilkins was released again, but Edith Cavell stayed in prison and whilst she there, Elizabeth looked after Cavells' dogs and visited her as often as she could.
In the last letter that Edith Cavell wrote to her friend in October 1915, Edith thanked her and all the other nurses, ending with "My love to you all, I am not afraid but quite happy". She was executed by firing squad on the 12th October 1915. Sister Wilkins papers and letters from this time are held in the Imperial War Museum.
Edith Cavell, my Mum and me
One of the first films I remember watching on our old black and white tele was Nurse Edith Cavell starring Anna Neagle. I particularly recall my Mum saying that when she was a nurse in her younger days, she had looked a bit like Anna Neagle.
I was reminded of this recently when I was going through some old photographs and found some of my Mum when she was nursing at Merthyr before the war. Curious, I decided to go on to the Internet to find out what the real Edith Cavell looked like. You will remember the story of how in 1915 Nurse Cavell was based in Belgium and took in British soldiers to help them escape the clutches of the Germans. I downloaded some photos of Edith Cavell and her nurses and decided to read some more.
Due to pressure of work in Brussels, Cavell hired an assistant – Elizabeth Wilkins. Wilkins often used to plead with Cavell to be more cautious with regard to the soldiers that were being helped via the hospital escape route. According to tradition, Wilkins was suspicious of one soldier – a Frenchman named Gaston Quien – and she advised Edith Cavell to be wary of this particular individual. When the current batch of soldiers (including Quien) were gone, arrests started to be made by the Germans and both Edith Cavell and Elizabeth Wilkins were duly taken in to custody.
Nurse Cavell had hidden from her staff as much as she possibly could and although Wilkins was questioned for many hours, she was set free. As we know, Nurse Cavell was not so lucky and she was executed by a firing squad on October 2, 1915. Along the way to the place of execution, Cavell caught sight of Elizabeth Wilkins who was standing by the roadside in tears.
Two weeks after my foray into the Internet, I was researching (again) on-line and the result of this particular expedition into the ether uncovered a strange fact – Elizabeth Wilkins turned out to be my second cousin who lived to the respectable age of 82. I checked with the nursing archives in London and one of the nurses in the photos I downloaded was indeed Nurse Wilkins, standing alongside Edith Cavell. The final coincidence in this particular story was that, as I was brought up opposite the old Swansea Hospital, I was looking into dates when Phillips Parade was built. I found out that on November 6th, 1902, Edith Cavell had applied to become a nurse in Swansea Hospital where my mother worked later in her career as a sister. At the time, Cavell was living in Highgate, London where my wife and I had a flat.
On the subject of genealogy, the latest 1911 census data from England has resolved a few outstanding queries I’ve had with regard to some of my ancestors who had dropped off the radar at the time of the 1901 data. It turns out that they were all in Dublin at the time and one of the daughters born in that lovely city went on to marry one John Sharp Higham whose mother was Pollie Hartley, and it was her father who had started Hartleys Jam. The daughter’s name was Patricia and it was she that my sister was named after.
I wonder who you have in your family tree?