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Mary Seacole

Mary Jane Seacole (1805–14 May 1881) was a British nurse who distinguished herself for her dedication and courage caring for troops during the Crimean War. Her autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, was published in 1857 and provides a vivid account of her life and experiences.

Seacole has been described as the "Black Florence Nightingale", whose exploits in organising the hospital at Scutari have overshadowed those of Seacole in popular memory.

Early life

Mary Jane Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica as Mary Grant, the daughter of a white Scottish officer in the British Army and a free Jamaican Creole woman (slavery was only abolished in Jamaica on 1 August 1838). Seacole called herself a Creole. Her mother was a "doctress" who ran a boarding house for invalid soldiers and sailors, where Seacole learned her nursing skills. She married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole (a Jamaican merchant and a godson of Lord Nelson) in 1836, and travelled with her husband around the Caribbean (Cuba, Haiti and the Bahamas), Central America and England.

A drawing of Mary Seacole


After her husband's death in 1844, Seacole established a hotel in Cruces, Panama with her brother Edward in 1851, successfully treating victims of cholera. She was shocked at the overt racism of some Americans, notwithstanding her good works. She returned to Jamaica in 1853 at the request of the medical authorities to minister to victims of an outbreak of yellow fever.


Units from Jamaica were sent to the Crimea when war broke out. Hearing of the dire medical conditions in the Crimea, Seacole travelled to England in 1854 with letters of recommendation from doctors in Jamaica and approached the War Office asking to be sent to the Crimea as an army nurse. Although Elizabeth Herbert, the wife of the Secretary of State for War was recruiting nurses, the War Office refused to see Seacole at least four times: Seacole attributed this to her ethnicity.

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Nevertheless, together with a Caribbean acquaintance, Thomas Day, Seacole assembled a stock of medical supplies and travelled to the Crimea at her own expense in January 1855. After visiting Florence Nightingale at her hospital in Scutari, near Constantinople, Seacole moved on to the Crimea and opened a 'British Hotel' in the early summer of 1855 at Spring Hill, near Kadikoi, between Balaclava and Sevastopol, providing a 'a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers'.

Seacole also ministered to wounded soldiers on the battlefield, often under fire, and became known to the British Army as "Mother Seacole". In a dispatch written on 14 September 1855, William Howard Russell, special correspondent of The Times in the Crimea and often recognised as the modern first war correspondent, wrote that she was a 'warm and successful physician, who doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battle-field to aid the wounded and has earned many a poor fellow's blessing.'

The British Hotel charged for its services, supplied alcohol, and was open to visiting tourists as well as soldiers, leading Nightingale to later accuse Seacole of running an establishment that was little better than a brothel. Seacole was the first woman to enter Sevastopol after it fell on 8 September 1855, but the abrupt end of the war in 1856 left Seacole in a difficult position, with a Hotel full of unsaleable provisions.

Later life

After the end of the war, Seacole returned to England in poor health and destitute: she was declared bankrupt in November 1856. Her plight was publicised in the British press, with Punch magazine printing the poem 'A Stir for Seacole' about her in the 6 December 1856 edition (sung to the tune of Old King Cole). The Seacole Fund Grand Military Festival was held in her honour over four days at the Royal Surrey Gardens beside the River Thames in Kennington, London, from 27 July to 30 July 1857, to raise funds. The festival was supported by many military men, including Major-General Lord Rokeby (who had commanded the 1st Division in the Crimea) and Lord George Paget (who charged with the Light Brigade and later commanded it) and was very successful: over 1,000 artists performed, including nine military bands and an orchestra, and over 40,000 attended.

Unfortunately, the festival only raised £228, but Seacole wrote an autobiographical account of her travels, published in 1857 as The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. The book was dedicated to Major-General Lord Rokeby, and William Howard Russell wrote as a preface "I have witnessed her devotion and her courage… and I trust that England will never forget one who has nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead". The autobiography was commercially very successful, rescuing Seacole from her difficult financial position.

She became personal masseuse to the Princess of Wales, later Queen Alexandra, and Prince Victor of Hohenlohe-Langenburg (also known as Count Gleichen), a nephew of Queen Victoria, carved a bust of her in 1871. Seacole had treated him in the Crimea. Although several other busts have been identified as of Seacole, the only known portrait, painted in 1869 by the otherwise unknown artist Albert Charles Challen, was identified in January 2005 and will be displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

In recognition of her nursing works in the Crimea, she was awarded the Crimean Medal, the French Legion of Honour and the Turkish Order of the Medjidie medal. Seacole died at 3 Cambridge Street, Paddington, Marylebone, London in 1881, leaving an estate of £2,500. The Jamaican Daily Gleaner stated in her obituary on 9 June 1881 that she had also received a Russian medal: a bust by George Kelly, based on the original by Count Gleichen, depicts her wearing four medals. Her obituary in The Times read simply: "She was present at many battles and at the risk of her life often carried the wounded off the field." She is buried in St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery, Harrow Road, Kensal Green, London.


While she was well known at the end of her life, Seacole rapidly faded from public memory. Although Seacole's work in the Crimea was overshadowed by Florence Nightingale's for many years, there has been a resurgence of interest in her and efforts to properly acknowledge her achievements in the early years of the 21st century. A campaign to erect a statue of Seacole in London was launched on 24 November 2003, and the Home Office also commemorated her in early 2005 in the name of part of its new headquarters at 2, Marsham Street, which consists of the Fry, Peel and Seacole buildings. Seacole has become somewhat of a symbol of racial attitudes and social injustices in Britain. Her story illustrates unceasing perseverance, courage and love in the face of prejudice.

A campaign to erect a sculpture of Seacole in London was launched on 24 November 2003, and she was voted into first place in an online poll of 100 Great Black Britons in 2004.

A brand new building at The University of Salford was recently named after her, in celebration of her efforts within the years she spent during the war.

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