Elizabeth (Betsi) Cadwaladr is synonymous with the largest health organisation in Wales, the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board. Born 24 May 1789, in Llanycil, near Bala, Betsi grew up on Pen Rhiw Farm and was one of 16 children.
Betsi had a number of jobs before she became a nurse. She started off as a maid at Plas Yn Dre and it is here that she learned how to speak English, play the harp and complete housework. She escaped from this job, however, to become a maid to a wealthy Liverpool family at the age of 14 and travelled with them around Europe. It is believed that she changed her surname to Davis at this time, because it was easier to pronounce. She did eventually return to Wales but then fled to London to live with her sister, because she did not want to get married.
Aged 31, she returned again to Bala but considered it to be ‘dull’ so got herself a job on a ship to be a maid to the ship’s captain. This allowed her to travel for many years, visiting places such as Australia, China, Africa, India and South America. Although she was not at this time trained in nursing, she often cared for the sick on the ship and delivered many babies.
Upon her return to Britain, she happened to read an article in The Times about the conditions facing those injured in battle in one of the conflicts of the Crimean War and made the decision to train as a nurse at Guy’s Hospital in London.
Once she was qualified, she opted to join the military nursing service because she wanted to work in Crimea. Placed at a hospital in Scutari, Turkey, Betsi worked in a hospital run by Florence Nightingale. Florence had a very low opinion of the Welsh due to her reading of a publication of a report, ‘Treachery of the Blue Books’ which depicted the Welsh to be lacking both basic education and morality.
Florence Nightingale did not want Betsi to work as a nurse.
Betsi endured 3 months of clashes with Florence, mainly due to the age gap (31 years) and the way Betsi liked to do things. Florence wanted everything done by the book and for the rules to be followed, some of which she wrote herself. Betsi, however, side-stepped the rules so she could react more intuitively when caring for the soldier’s needs.
Eventually, the constant clashing between Cadwaladr and Nightingale led Betsi to leave and relocate to a hospital closer to the frontline in Balaclava. Again, she struggled with bureaucracy in order to get the supplies she needed to treat the injured soldiers. However, Florence Nightingale visited the hospital in Balaclava many times and after noticing the positive changes to the hospital, finally gave Betsi Cadwaladr the recognition she deserved.
Betsi Cadwaladr died 17 July 1860, 5 years after she returned to Britain as conditions from the Crimean War took its toll on her health. During those 5 years, she lived in London and managed to write her autobiography (Autobiography of Elizabeth Davis, 1857. Republished as Betsy Cadwaladyr: A Balaclava Nurse). Betsi is buried in the paupers section of Abney Park Cemetery in north London.
- Betsi was named number 38 of ‘the 50 greatest Welsh men and women of all time’, beating the likes of Tom Jones, Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Giggs.
- Following an event to celebrate the centenary of International Women’s Day, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes- Wales produced a booklet containing the presentations shown during 3 events from across Wales; Betsi Cadwaladr was chosen by two different people so she had two entries in that publication.
- Betsi changed her surname from ‘Cadwaladr’ to ‘Davis’ when she was living among English people unable to pronounce ‘Cadwaladr’. She adopted ‘Davis’, as had her older siblings in a similar situation, because it derived from her father’s first name and thus used the traditional Welsh patronymic system.