Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Mary Seacole

I think almost everyone will have heard of Florence Nightingale, born in Florence to a wealthy British family.  She rebelled against the expected path for a well-born young lady and decided to enter nursing.  Her work led to significant improvements in medical care but her most her most well-known effort was in the Crimean War when in 1854 she took volunteer nurses to the main British camp.

By improving the conditions for the medical care of patients, she drastically lowered the death rate amongst the soldiers.  Her family home was Embley Park (now a private school) near the New Forest so she is often thought of as a local here in Hampshire. 

As I was wandering around some of my favourite parts of Winchester the other day, I went into a shop near Winchester College, one of England's oldest public schools, and there I found some postcards of a Crimean War nurse but not Florence Nightingale.

The nurse pictured on the postcard is Mary Seacole who, unlike Nightingale, is hardly known at all.  Yet her contribution to the Crimean War was very similar and, because of her background, possibly even more remarkable.

Born Mary Jane Grant in Jamaica of a Scottish father and a Jamaican mother, she learnt about herbal remedies and nursing from her mother who she described as "an admirable doctress".  By the age of 12 she was helping her mother in her duties.

She travelled widely, including to Cuba, London, and Central America.  When the Crimean War broke out, she travelled again to London and offered her services as a nurse to help Florence Nightingale's venture.  She was refused in spite of having letters of recommendation from doctors in Jamaica and Panama, but nothing daunted, she made her own way to the Crimea and set up the British Hotel to offer food and quarters for sick and convalescent soldiers. 

Sketch of Mary Seacole's British Hotel in Crimea, by Lady Alicia Blackwood (1818–1913), a friend of Florence Nightingale who resided in the neighbouring "Zebra Vicarage"

She also went to the battlefields to tend the wounded, sometimes under fire, giving immediate help whereas the hospitals set up by Florence Nightingale were days' travel away.

After the war ended she returned to England penniless but her supporters raised money to help her.  In spite of this help and publishing her memoirs, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands", available online through Project Gutenberg, she has never had the same recognition that Florence Nightingale had.

All has changed in recent years, and in 2004 she was voted the greatest ever black Briton.  A fund has been set up for a permanent memorial for her which is being helped by the sale of the postcard I found above.  The photo used for it was discovered at Winchester College.  It was found in an album about the Crimean War and is an indication of her standing at the time - hers was the only non-combatant photo in the album.  All funds from the sale of the postcard will be donated to the Mary Seacole Statue Appeal. The statue, designed by Martin Jennings, will stand in the grounds of St. Thomas Hospital, in central London near Big Ben.

Apart from the scanned picture of the postcard, all pictures are from Wikimedia and in the public domain.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


  1. Mary Seacole was indeed a very remarkable lady. Brave. I find her to be more admirable because she did not allow the discrimination of that period in history to get in the way of her mission to help the wounded soldiers of the Crimean War.

    Props to you for the research you made and for putting together a very "read-worthy" article like this.

  2. What an interesting post! I had heard of Nightingale, of course, but not his lady. Fascinating. You've made me want to read more about her.

  3. I remember seeing a documentary and not having heard of her before it was interesting to note that even then prejudice was rife... had forgotten about her though until your post :-(

  4. superb post, though had heard of her before.

  5. Her story is inspirational. One can't help wondering how many other unsung heros/heroines there are, whose stories were never told either because of prejudice or simply not being in line with contemporary mores. Thanks for reminding us about this great lady.

  6. I remember reading about Mary a few years ago, plus there was an excellent docu about her. Also, I believe there was a portrait found of her quite recently. Great lady, and far more interesting and personable for that matter than Nightingale.

  7. @MamaMia, she must have been incredibly brave. I don't think we really can appreciate what the conditions must have been like, or the prejudices.

    @Max, thank you. I am glad to have piqued your interest.

    @Sage, I admit I'd forgotten about her until I saw the cards on sale. Then I was treated to a mini-lecture from the lady in the shop.

    @jayceeone, thanks!

    @LR, inspirational - very much so. It does make you wonder about others, as you say.

    @Adullamite, thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    @Alison, I wish I'd caught that documentary. Yes, I read about the portrait being found too. It seems she was well enough thought of at the time, but has just been forgotten, unlike Nightingale.

  8. Having never heard of her I am not surprised. Because she was "different" she was not given the recognition due her. Sad thing is it still happens today.

  9. It's absolutely no secret:
    I was taken with Pants down here.
    And after what you here gives of information,
    why the &&%¤ have we not heard about this giving and brave woman before?
    Who has descided only to regard F N and bless her for her efforts, but totally overlook Mary Seacole? No, that's nor fair. no.

    I like this post very much. You will understand if you have time to spear reading my visit the home of another woman: George Sand.

    In history, it's lot's of brave and great women that until now have not gotten their true importance in "Official" history.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    I will publish the url of this post on my Facebook. OK

  10. What a wonderful story. I'm so glad she's starting to get the recognition she deserves. Thanks for helping it along!


Forethoughts, afterthoughts, any thoughts. Tell me.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin