Betsy Cadwaladyr: A Balaclava Nurse: An Autobiography of Elizabeth Davis

Published by Honno 


Elizabeth Davis – known in Wales as Betsy Cadwaladyr – was a ladies’ maid from Meirionnydd who travelled the world and gained fame as a nurse during the Crimean War. She was a dynamic character who broke free of the restrictions placed on women in Victorian times to lead a life of adventure. Journeying to many exotic parts of the globe, she came into contact with international events in the horrors of the field hospital at Balaclava, where she served under Florence Nightingale.

I’m not normally one for classics, especially classical autobiographies as I’m a self-confessed lazy reader and I’m put off by the effort involved in reading old fashioned text about a life that, though admirable, has all the good bits edited out for the sake of propriety (how’s that for honest?!).

With that in mind, I gave this book a go because my local health authority, as a resident of North Wales, is named after Betsy Cadwaladyr and it seemed rude not to dig deeper when the opportunity was presented to me.


The autobiography was edited back in the day by Jane Williams in order to make the story more coherent for a reader to understand (thank you!), which means that Williams wrote an introduction, which was first introduced by someone else, namely Dierdre Beddoe, I’m not afraid to admit that I was intimidated by all the preamble and was convinced that this book was going to be hard going.

Betsy Cadwaladyr, let it be known, was a badass and is now my personal hero.
I imagine she was a tremendous pain the backside for anyone who stood between her and what she wanted or thought was right, but what a force to be reckoned with!

The book is divided into two parts – the first covers her early years and everything leading up to her journey to Crimea and her nursing career.
Much of it has been fact checked and verified otherwise you’d assume that this book was fiction – it involves a number of spontaneous voyages to far off lands, narrowly avoided marriage attempts and laying out burglars with a single punch.

I’m woefully ignorant about the life of an 19th Century ladies maid, but I’m pretty sure not many young women got away with half the stunts she pulled…

The second half of the book, followed by in-depth appendices which back up her testimony, relates to her time in the field hospitals in Crimea.
This includes her hearty and blatant disapproval of Florence Nightingale and her approach to resource management. I think I enjoyed this haughtiness so much because Cadwaladyr was a sledgehammer of a human (I can relate) and had constructive criticism about someone that public opinion still seems to swoon over. 

This was a very enjoyable and educational read, I feel an extra bit of connection as I seem to have lived in all of the same areas within Wales and England as the subject of this book.

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