Black History Month: Mary Seacole
Mary Seacole was a contemporary of Florence Nightingale. She risked her life tending wounded and dying soldiers on the frontlines during the Crimean War.
Although she had 30 years of nursing experience, she was rejected as a volunteer for the war – possibly because she was mixed race. Undeterred, she used her own money and loans from friends to travel to the Crimea.
Today she is remembered not only for her bravery and determination, but also as a role model for the values of:
- Good citizenship — she established community-based primary healthcare to treat and rehabilitate the sick and wounded
- Entrepreneurship — she was determined to get herself to the Crimea, and she managed it independently
- Achievement — she is one of history’s greatest figures
To commemmorate Mary and her accomplishments, we offer the following facts about her life and service:
Mary Seacole’s early life
- Mary Seacole was born Mary Grant in Jamaica in 1805. Her mother was a black Jamaican and her father was a white Scottish soldier.
- Mary learnt her nursing skills from her mother. A ‘doctress’, Mary’s mother used traditional Creole (herbal) medicine. She ran a boarding house in Kingston, Jamaica.
- As a child, Mary practised medicine on her dolls, dogs, cats and even herself.
- Mary was born a ‘free person’, but at the time there were still many black slaves working in Jamiaca. (Slavery was abolished in Jamaica in 1838).
- In 1836, Mary married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole (who Mary said was a godson of Horatio Nelson). They set up a general store, but it was not successful.
- After her husband died in 1844, Mary worked as a nurse and doctress. She looked after officers and their wives from nearby military stations in Kingston. She met some of them again on the Crimean battlefields.
- Mary helped nurse patients during a cholera outbreak in Panama, where she was running a hotel.
Mary Seacole in Crimea
- On her way to the Crimea, Mary stayed the night at Scutari Hospital. She had a brief conversation with Florence Nightingale.
- Mary opened ‘The British Hotel’ in summer 1855 to provide ‘comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’. It was also a restaurant and general store. The British Hotel provided an income for Mary that allowed her to continue her unofficial nursing activities.
- The soldiers nicknamed Mary ‘Mother Seacole’.
- The war ended in 1856, and Mary’s hotel went bankrupt. She returned to England with very little money.
After the Crimean War
- The Times newspaper set up the ‘Seacole fund’ to support Mary and recognise her services to the British Troops.
- In 1857 Mary wrote her autobiography, ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’. It became a best seller — it was the first autobiography written by a black woman in Britain.
- In July 1857 Punch newspaper organised four fundraising military galas for Mary on the banks of the Thames. More than 40,000 people attended, including some of the Royal family.
- Mary was awarded four medals for her services. Queen Victoria congratulated her on her achievements in the Crimea.
- Mary died in 1881. She was largely forgotten until 1954 when the Nurses’ Association of Jamaica named its Headquarters in Kingston ‘Mary Seacole House’.
- In 2004 she was voted ‘the Greatest Black Briton’.
- In 2016 a statue of Mary Seacole was placed in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital, London.
- On 4 May 2020, the NHS Seacole Centre was opened in Headley Court, Surrey. It was designed to be a ‘rehabilitation centre to support the needs of people during and after the Covid-19 pandemic’.
By Fiona Charlesworth, Off the Page teacher