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Betsi Cadwaladr: The forgotten Welsh nurse

Betsi Cadwaladr
A painting of Lake Bala, the area Betsi was born. This was painted during her lifetime in the mid 19th century. Source: Alphonse Dousseau (via Wikimedia Commons)
The Betsi Cadwaladr health board has been prominent in the news due to high case and death rate. But, who was the eponymous Betsi Cadwaladr?

By Fflur Trevor | @Caerdydd Editor

If you’ve lived in Wales during the pandemic, the names Hywel Dda and Betsi Cadwaladr are most likely familiar to you. These are the health boards for West Wales and North Wales, that are named after important Welsh figures.

However, the Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board has been more prominent in the news due to the June outbreak at a meat factory in, Wrexham and Angelsey. It was these local outbreaks that lead the Betsi Cadwaladr health board to have a high number of cases and deaths.

But, who was the eponymous Betsi Cadwaladr?


Early Life

Betsi Cadwaladr was born May 24, 1789 in Llanycil, near Bala a daughter to a prominent Methodist preacher, Dafydd Cadwaladr.

Like many of her time, religion had a profound presence in her life. Later on, a gift of a Bible soon after her mothers’ death gave her a sense of purpose in life.


Escape

In her adolescence, Betsi was employed as a maid at Plas yn Dre, Bala, where she trained in housework and learned English. However, she found domestic duties tedious and grew increasingly unhappy.

So, she escaped.

Aged only fourteen, Betsi escaped through a bedroom window using tied bedsheets to abseil down the building. After escaping, she headed to Liverpool, and once again she found herself employed as a domestic servant.

Also, she changed her surname to Davis as it was easier to pronounce. Soon afterward, the independent Betsi fled to London to avoid marriage.


Early Work

In London, her employment as a maid allowed her to travel the world with her employers. Betsi found herself in France at the time of The Battle of Waterloo, where she treated the injured soldiers.

Subsequently, she became a captain’s maid aboard a ship which enabled her to travel to South America, Africa, and the newly discovered Australia.

Betsi, whilst working aboard the ship, maintained her nursing duties, and tended to the sick and delivered babies.


Nursing and Discrimination

Betsi eventually returned to land and decided to train as a nurse in London. After completing her nurse training, she joined the military, aged 65.

However, many discouraged her to go including the lady with the lamp, Florence Nightingale. Florence, who was from a privileged and upper-class background, did not believe that Betsi fitted the criteria to nurse in Crimea.

Her perspective was a consequence of a recent publication, known as The Treachery of the Blue Books (Brad y Llyfrau Gleision) which portrayed the Welsh as immoral and lacking in intelligence.

Therefore, to Florence, the Welsh, working-class Betsi, was a second-class citizen and did not deserve a place to nurse in Crimea.

Betsi’s alleged response to Florence Nightingale perception of her was: “Do you think I am a dog or an animal to make me over? I have a will of my own”


The Feud continues

Betsi, due to her social status, was posted to a hospital in Turkey, which was being run by Florence Nightingale.

The two women, who were hard-working and independent, clashed frequently due to their different social statuses’ and their differing approaches to nursing.

Whilst Florence Nightingale was a rigid rule follower, Betsi favoured a more intuitive approach to nursing.

Consequently, the tension between the two boiled over and Betsi, now age 65 chose to move to another hospital near Balaclava. However, despite everything, Florence Nightingale appreciated Betsi as a nurse and gave her credit for her hard work.


Death

Conditions in the Crimea were appalling, to say the least, and greatly affected Betsi’s health.

Therefore, the aging Betsi returned to Britain in 1855, suffering from cholera and dysentery. In the last years of her incredible life, Betsi lived with her sister in, London. During that time, she wrote her autobiography.

In 1860, age 71, Betsi died and was buried in the pauper’s section of Abney Park cemetery in North London. It wouldn’t be until August 2012 until a new memorial stone was placed on her grave.


Legacy

Although, her story is unique. The narrative of discrimination is a common motif in many of these stories, throughout history.

Since her death, as mentioned, the North Wales health Board has been named in her memory. Moreover, since 2005, the RCN Wales biennial Betsi Cadwaladr lecture has been presented by AMs, PMs, Journalists, and Medical Professionals.

In 2014, a survey of 50 greatest welsh people of all time by, The Western Mail, ranked Betsi Cadwaladr at number 38.

Betsi is an example of a woman of independent spirit, diligence, tenacity, and determination whilst facing the obstacles of discrimination.

Therefore, her legacy undoubtedly makes her one of Wales’ most important and influential hidden heroines.

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