Edith Cavell, the Fourth Plinth, and an old Huguenot chapel

On this walk I spent some time at the Edith Cavell monument, checked out the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, and walked past a former Huguenot chapel.

It was the same evening as my stroll on Cecil Court in London’s West End. I continued on toward the National Portrait Gallery.

Never able to pass a pub sign without taking a picture, I shot this one of the Greenman and French Horn. What a lovely 3-D figure! Too bad it’s not a pub any more, but a restaurant. At least the sign is still there.

Green Man and French Horn pub sign

Green Man and French Horn pub sign

If you’ve visited London’s theatre district, you will have passed by the grand monument in honour of Edith Cavell.

Nurse Edith Cavell was a leader in her profession. English by birth and training, she had moved to Brussels as a nurse in 1907. She already spoke fluent French and knew Brussels from having been a governess there before returning to England to become a nurse.

On the Cavell Nurses’ Trust website, they say she became Matron of the first Nursing School in Belgium. “By 1912, Edith was busy managing one nursing school, three hospitals, three private nursing homes, 24 communal schools for nurses, thirteen private kindergartens, private duty cases, a clinic and was giving four lectures a week to doctors and nurses.”

Edith Cavell was visiting her widowed mother in England when the First World War started. Events moved quickly. She knew she would be needed, and returned to Belgium right away.

The received wisdom is that Cavell refused to turn away any injured soldier, regardless of which side they were on.

She used the hospital as part of an underground network to smuggle British soldiers out of occupied Belgium. Recent research by the former head of MI5, Dame Stella Rimington, established that the network also passed intelligence back home.

It wasn’t long before the Germans shut down Cavell’s smuggling ring, arresting 35 people. Quick trials found everyone guilty of treason, a crime punishable by death.

Edith Cavell was executed by firing squad the day after being found guilty. Her story was immediately manipulated as a propaganda tool. One account said she refused a blindfold, fainted in front of the firing squad, and was instead shot point blank by a German officer with a revolver. I read this story in the Edinburgh Evening News for Monday, October 18, 1915. The truth, however, appears to be established by credible eye witnesses: she was shot by a formal firing squad without irregularities.

The execution of a woman was unheard of and shocking. I don’t know why the propagandists thought it needed embellishing.

Edith Cavell memorial in London

Edith Cavell memorial in London

It doesn’t matter to me whether Edith Cavell said the exact words engraved on this monument. I don’t care whether she was a spy. Her legend grew because of the magnification as a propaganda tool, to stir up support for the war, to encourage men to enlist as soldiers, to keep everyone on side. The manner in which Cavell’s story was used doesn’t make her any less heroic. She knew from the start that assisting English soldiers to escape would put her in jeopardy, and she carried on anyway.

Text on Edith Cavell memorial

Text on Edith Cavell memorial

My walk happened on the day after Remembrance Day, known better as Armistice Day in England. On the Cavell monument, wreaths of poppies lay glowing in the rain of November. I took the small paper poppy from my jacket collar and left it there.

The Edith Cavell monument is only steps from the door to the National Portrait Gallery. The mood changed from sombre to intrigued once I got in there.

When I got out, things took another turn: Fireworks! I had a straight, unobstructed view of some fantastic fireworks straight ahead. Why?

I found out later it was the culmination of the Lord Mayor’s Show, a whole other story. I didn’t see the parade or any other things, just the fireworks and those were magnificent even from this long distance.

Fireworks for Lord Mayor's Show

Fireworks for Lord Mayor’s Show

In the rain, I felt like a snail slithering across the slippery pavement of Trafalgar Square. The Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields was dramatically lit, with fireworks barely visible behind it.

Church of St. Martin in the Fields, London

Church of St. Martin in the Fields, London

In the square itself Admiral Lord Nelson, the great hero of English naval history, stands high up on his column. Nelson died at the moment of his greatest victory, the Battle of Trafalgar. Had the English lost there, Napoleon might have invaded England by sea.

The other thing in the picture looks a bit like a statue on a column but it’s not. It’s the latest work on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, “Really Good”. No matter what you may think it looks like in this photo, it’s a closed hand giving the thumbs-up sign with a seriously oversized, elongated thumb.

I  really don’t like it. The artist David Shrigley has said this piece is about making the world a better place. I’m inclined to agree with critic Jonathan Jones who wrote about it in The Guardian: this is ugly but it makes a statement, and it’s not the superficial “Everything’s really good” message indicated by the title.

Jones concludes with this:

“Are we all modern Stalins, an inane public demanding that artists grin and smile and affirm that life in Britain is Really Good? David Shrigley’s thumb is so pleased with the way things are that it wants to jab God in the eye.”

Trafalgar Square in the rain with Thumbs Up on Fourth Plinth

Trafalgar Square in the rain with Thumbs Up on Fourth Plinth


Also on my wander I passed by a little chapel, behind the National Gallery. Its name now is Orange Street Congregational Church. It started as the Temple of Leicester Fields, later the Orange Street Chapel, and held its first service on Saturday, April 15, 1693, Easter Eve. A detailed history of the Chapel is given in the 1888 book, Lux Benigna, being the History of Orange Street Chapel, by Richard W. Free, available online thanks to Microsoft digitizing it from the UCLA library.

This was a Huguenot chapel, a place of worship for French Protestants who had fled violent religious persecution in France.

Orange Street Chapel dates from 1693 when the Huguenots built it near Leicester Square

Orange Street Chapel dates from 1693 when the Huguenots built it near Leicester Square

All of these things are within a few blocks of each other. Every step brings a new story.


This is my standard form of disclosure that I am retroactively adding to all blog posts done before April 1, 2018, and will add to all new posts.

1. Is this experience open to the public?


2. Who paid the cost of me doing this?

I did.

3. Did I get any compensation or special consideration for writing this blog post?


4. Would I be as positive about this place if I had gone as a regular visitor?

Yes. I did go as a regular visitor.


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  • Reply
    November 30, 2016 at 6:12 am

    Rumours of her being a British spy have long been denied and ridiculed as German propaganda, however ex-head of MI5 has unearthed evidence that Nurse Cavell was indeed a spy.

    On the whole nursing are an overlooked profession but it has thrown up many an innovator of care and of social reform.


    • Reply
      December 1, 2016 at 4:36 pm

      Great points, thanks!
      I got the impression Edith Cavell was a nurse’s nurse – passionate about the work. I am speculating that she passively accepted the spying as a means to an end – getting patients to safer places.
      This is uninformed speculation on my part. Maybe I should read Stella Rimington’s book. One more for the list.
      I agree: Nurses don’t get the respect and appreciation they deserve.

    Thanks for stopping by. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this post or anything else on this website.