Dictionary of Welsh Biography


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DAVIES , ELIZABETH ( BETSI CADWALADR , 1789 - 1860 ), Crimean nurse .

Daughter of Dafydd Cadwaladr , born 24 May 1789 and christened 26 May at Llanycil ( Bala ). All our knowledge of her life comes from the Autobiography of Elizabeth Davis (two vols., 1857 ), compiled by Jane Williams , Ysgafell , from notes of her conversation. Left by the death of her mother ( c. 1795-6 ) to the care of an elder sister whom she detested, Elizabeth quickly became a rebel . Though taken into the household of her father's landlord , Simon Lloyd of Plas-yn-dre , where she was kindly treated and learnt dancing and harp-playing , she ran away to Liverpool at 14 (her dates, be it said, are very sketchy throughout), and became a domestic servant , keeping however in the closest touch with the Welsh C.M. church in the city. Her employer's travels enabled her to see Mrs. Siddons acting at Edinburgh , and to visit several Continental countries in 1815-16 . Returning to Bala , she again ran away, to Chester , and thence (to escape marriage) to London , where she stayed for a while under the roof of John Jones of Glan-y-gors ( 1766 - 1821 ), with whom she claimed ‘distant kinship.’ As domestic servant in the house of a fashionable tailor , she was able to combine zealous attendance at her chapel with devotion to the theatre. In 1820 , after a visit to Bala (which she found ‘dull’) she became maid in a sea-captain 's family, and for years rounded the globe, meeting all sorts of people (including William Carey and bishop Heber ), acting Shakespeare on ship-board, undergoing remarkable adventures (on her own perhaps rather boastful testimony), but sedulously refusing the adventure of matrimony — one gets the impression of a somewhat masculine woman. Returning to England , she somehow lost her savings, and again took service — Charles Kemble (so she says) overheard her acting Hamlet in her employer's kitchen, and offered her £50 a week to act in his company. She was in North Wales in 1844-5 , and in South Wales in 1849 . Her employer left her ‘a fortune,’ of which she was deprived by legal chicanery; she then took to nursing at Guy's Hospital , and was thus led to volunteer in 1854 for nursing service in the Crimea . As might have been expected, she got on badly with Florence Nightingale , and was invalided home; her comments on affairs in the Crimea are extremely caustic. She spent her last years in poverty, dying in the London house of her sister Bridget , 17 July 1860 . To the end, she was devoutly religious; the small Welsh Bible given her in her childhood by Thomas Charles remained her ‘constant companion.’ But her zest for the theatre (perhaps a throw-back to the pre-Methodist culture of her father's countryside), for adventure, and for seeing the world, was equally strong.

Sources:

  • Autobiography of Elizabeth Davis , 1857 ;
  • see also C. Woodham Smith , Florence Nightingale. 1820-1910 , London, 1950 , 193, 215, 219.
  • The dates of her birth and death were discovered by Mr. Robert Owen .

Author:

Emeritus Professor Robert Thomas Jenkins, C.B.E., D.Litt., Ll.D., F.S.A., (1881-1969), Bangor

Published date: 1959