Photograph of Elizabeth Cadwaladyr. Used with permission from Betsy Cadwaladyr:
A Balaclava Nurse edited by Jane Williams (Ysgafell), with a new introduction
by Deirdre Beddoe. (Dinas Powys, HONNO, 1987).
ISBN 1-870206-00-2. Engraving from a photograph, 1857, in National Library of Wales MS 12353D.
Elizabeth Cadwaladyr was one of sixteen children born to Dafydd
Cadwaladyr, second son of Cadwaladr and Catrin Dafydd, and his
wife Judith Erasmus. She was christened on 26 May 1789 at Llanycil
parish church near Bala, Merionethshire. All that we know of
her life comes from "The Autobiography of Elizabeth Davis, A
Balaclava Nurse, Daughter of Dafydd Cadwaladyr", compiled and
edited by Jane Williams from notes of their conversations.
Elizabeth (Betsy) spent her early years on the hill farm of
Pen-Rhiw. The death of her mother when she was about five years
old affected Betsy deeply, and in order to escape the strict
regime imposed by her father, who was a Methodist preacher, and
the elder sister who looked after the household following the
death of their mother - and whom Betsy disliked intensely - she
went to live with her father’s landlord, Simon Lloyd of
Plas-yn-dre when she was nine years old. There she was treated
kindly and learnt ‘all sorts of housework and needlework,
in cooking and baking, in brewing, washing and ironing’.
She was also taught to read and write, to dance and play the
harp and to speak English. She recounts in her autobiography
how she got into trouble with her father for dancing while she
still lived at home.
‘He [her father] talked to me very
gravely, and asked how he could go into the pulpit and speak
of the wickedness of the world, while his own child did such
things. He remarked that his other children did not want to go
to dances, and he could not think why I did’. Betsy replied, ‘I
can’t help it – when I hear music, something tickles
my feet, and I can’t keep them quiet’.
Despite being happy living with the Lloyd family Betsy suddenly
decided that she wanted to see the world, so she stole out of
the house in the middle of the night and ran away to Chester
where she had an aunt. The aunt gave her money to take the coach
back to Bala, but instead Betsy took a package boat to Liverpool.
She was about 14 years of age.
Betsy found employment in domestic service in Liverpool, Chester
and London at various times of her life, and her employers’ travels
enabled her to travel widely. It was while she was in Liverpool
that she changed her name from Elizabeth Cadwaladyr to Elizabeth
Davis ‘on finding that the English people could not pronounce
While at Edinburgh and Glasgow she saw the
actress Mrs Siddons perform, and in 1815 she travelled on the
continent, visiting Vigo, Saragossa, Seville, Granada and Madrid
in Spain; France, where she saw Louis XVIII ‘come into
the city’ of Paris; Belgium at the time of the battle of
Waterloo; Trieste, and Naples where ‘we saw Vesusius’.
She journeyed up the Rhine to Berlin and on to Vienna ‘where
we saw the young Napoleon ... a fine delicately-looking boy’;
then to Milan, Venice and Rome – she says that she was
disappointed with Rome – before returning to Liverpool
via the Hague and Ostend. At Liverpool she became secretly engaged
to a Captain Thomas Harris – but two days before the date
set for the wedding he was drowned when his ship, the Perseverance,
Her father travelled to Liverpool to fetch her home, but while
she loved and admired her father she didn’t stay long in
Bala, escaping to Chester in August 1816 and then to London.
In 1820 she became nanny to a sea-captain’s family, and
thus began years of travelling the world and meet all sorts
of interesting people. Her adventures included acting Shakespeare
on board ship, undergoing remarkable adventures and avoiding
She travelled to the West Indies, to Madras and Calcutta (where
she witnessed women throwing their babies into the Ganges); to
Mauritius and Siam; to Canton where she wandered into an opium
den and found herself in the presence of the Emperor; to Australia
and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), New Zealand, Peru - she
witnessed an earthquake in Lima - and Chile where she complained
about the rattlesnakes. She also visited Malta, Greece, Egypt,
the East Indies and missionary stations.
Detail from letter from Elizabeth Davis to the
Honourable Mr Herbert. The letter is a request from Davis to become a nurse in
Crimea. National Archives Catalogue reference: WO 25/264
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Back in London she lost all her savings and later was ‘deprived’ of ‘a
fortune’ promised her by her employer. She then took to
nursing, first of all in Guy’s Hospital and then nursing
private patients, and as a result of reading one of William Howard
Russell’s newspaper accounts from the Crimean War of the
suffering of the soldiers, she volunteered in 1854 for nursing
service in the Crimea. Her letter of application is held at the
National Archives, catalogue reference: WO
She joined a party of nurses and ‘Sisters
of Mercy’ under a Miss Stanley and eventually reached Scutari.
This was the main British Hospital and was under the control
of Florence Nightingale. Strong-willed Betsy did not like Florence
Nightingale and was angry at being made to mend old shirts and
sort rotting linen instead of being allowed at the centre of
the action, the Crimean peninsular. She therefore left for the
hospital at Balaclava and immediately set to work to treat the
infested wounds of the soldiers. She nursed the men for six weeks
before being put in charge of the special diet kitchen. Being
an excellent cook she made sure that the soldiers had good food
produced from the best ingredients. However, overwork and ill
health meant that she was forced to return to Britain, leaving
with a recommendation from Florence Nightingale for a government
pension. However, her comments on affairs in the Crimea are extremely
scathing and she had little good to say about Florence Nightingale.
Betsy was devoutly religious and the small Welsh Bible given
to her by the Rev. Thomas Charles of Bala when she was young
remained her ‘constant companion’; but her love of
the theatre, her thirst for adventure and for seeing the world,
was also strong. She died in poverty at the home of her sister
Bridget in London in 1860.
Text by Eirionedd A. Baskerville, National Library of Wales