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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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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