Finding Mary Seacole In London

By Athena Krambides | 11 December 2006
photo shows head of black woman with red scarf and medals on chest

The only known painting of Mary Seacole is now on display at the National Portrait Gallery.

Athena Krambides explores the life of Mary Seacole, nurse and adventuress and describes the recent campaign to erect her statue in London.

There are many types of mother: while one will make sure you are clean, neat, tidy, well fed and cared for, another will ensure the warmth of her humanity and bosom are part of the package."Mother Seacole" was born Mary Jane Grant in 1805 Kingston, Jamaica to a Scottish military officer and Jamaican mulatto mother.Starting early, initially with her doll, she learned nursing skills, eventually working as creole doctress in herbal medicines alongside her mother who ran a boarding house for sick officers in Kingston.

photo shows victorian four story building with sash windows

Mary Seacole moved to cheaper lodgings at 14 Soho Square in 1857. There are long term plans to place a blue plaque on the building. Photo: K Smith

Throughout her adult life Mary remained a seeker of knowledge and skills. 1836 saw Mary married to Edwin Seacole but in 1844 his death left her a widow. So breaking from her family home Mary Seacole travelled to Cuba, Haiti, the Bahamas and Central America learning all the while the best of conventional nursing skills that she would add to her own creole. Briefly becoming ill with a mild form of cholera, she remained undeterred, and on visiting Britain in 1854 she approached the war office to offer her services to the soldiers in the Crimea.

Elizabeth Herbert the wife of the secretary of state for war, who was recruiting nurses at the time refused to interview her. This was a direct response to the colour of her skin and a misguided notion that the Crimean soldiers would share this discrimination and prejudice. At this time her skin colour would have prevented her from holding office or entering the professions - whilst she was doubly excluded from voting both by her colour and sex. It's a testament to her spirit that Mary wrote of this time 'Every step I take in the crowded London streets may bring me in contact with some friends'

Mary Seacole now took the extraordinary step of funding her own trip to the Crimea. On arrival she sought Florence Nightingale whose hospital was far from the front line. Again the Afro-Caribbean women was rejected, now for having no formal training. An intelligent and successful women in her own country with the foresight to value holistic care, found herself twice refused. Her response was courageous.

She founded the 'British Hotel' near the front line in Balaclava in 1855. She offered the men a mess table of home cooking, comfort, convalescence and food for their spirit in her approachability. She nursed on the battle field and was witnessed going to their aid under fire with dressings for the wounded.

She started most days at 5am and went on to 8am baking, recreating creole dishes and giving the men wine, clothing, food and using her nursing skills in the hotel and on the battlefield. A Crimean soldier said of "Mother Seacole"as the men wished to address her, "She was a wonderful woman, all the men swore by her". She became known for her herbal remedies and men would queue to be ministered to by her. She even gave the last rites."Mother Seacole" remained in the Crimea until 1856.

This devotion and care had been funded by her own personal wealth and when she returned to England in ill health she was destitute. The English press brought this to light as Mary Seacole had won the heart of the English people with her courage, and they received her by cheering in the streets of London. In response Commanders in Chief of the army raised monies for Mary with a grand military festival over four nights at the Royal Surrey Gardens. There were over one thousand artists over the four days and this dignified Afro-Caribbean woman met the Royal family.

Mary also responded by writing her autobiography The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands in 1857. It proved so popular it went into print twice.

photo shows yellow book cover with imposing black woman in red dress on cover

Mary Seacole's Book. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

Mary Seacole was awarded the British Crimean medal, the Turkish Medjidie and French Legion of Honour for her services. She can be seen wearing these in the only known portrait of her painted by a little known artist Albert Challen in 1869. It was rediscovered one hundred years after Mary's death. Apparently it had been used as the backing of a frame purchased at a car boot sale.I t eventually found its way to Helen Rappaport who had been researching Mary for three years. It is now on loan to the National Gallery indefinitely, where this proud pioneer has earned her place.

Commemorating Mary Seacole In London

Although there are commemorative stamps in her own country,and a green plaque in Westminster to honour the Jamaican nurse the plaque was not placed until 11th October 2005.

photo shows plaque saying jamaican nurse heroine of the crimean war lived in a house on this site

The green plaque erected by Westminster Council on George Street. Photo: K Smith

A blue plaque still waits to be placed at 14 Soho Square in central London, but there's an ongoing dispute between the Council and the building's owners. Until recent times, she was very much an invisible in the history of the UK, and in the history of nursing. There is now a Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice at the Thames Valley University. Only now after pressure, and in a new political climate has she been able to take her rightful place in our history. She was voted greatest black Briton, in an online poll in 2005 - the bicentenary of her birth.

For the last ten years there has been a bursary in her name, awarded for exceptional work, which has made a positive impact on the health service for black and ethnic minority communities funded by the Department of Health. Yet there is no monument to this remarkable woman in a city that has all too few statues to its great women. A campaign was launched to raise money for one. In 2006 the plan took a step closer with offers of a site at St Thomas's Hospital and a construction company willing to build the monument at cost price.

Undeniably, her skills were groundbreaking as far as British nursing was concerned, and she deserves high profile in history. To compare her to, or call her the "black Florence Nightingale" is to insult her - she operated in a very different way. A black pioneer, a heroine, yes. "Mother Seacole" definitely.

Where to find Mary Seacole

Check the Mary Seacole website for statue updates.

The Florence Nightingale Museum has a longstanding exhibition about Mary Seacole which continues until late spring 2007.

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