Mary Seacole Pioneer Crimea Nurse

After researching the Birth of the NHS for her blog post earlier this year our Assistant Librarian, Sandi, has been looking into the life of Mary Seacole for Black History Month….

We have all heard of Florence Nightingale the Crimea Nurse but few know the name of Mary Seacole.

Yet at the time, 1856, the War Correspondent William Howard Russell of “The Times” wrote of Mary :- “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 battlefield to aid the wounded and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessing”

But unlike Florence Nightingale her name has been forgotten.

Mary Seacole was born as Mary Jane Grant, in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805 the illegitimate daughter of James Grant, a Scottish Lieutenant in the British Army and his mistress, a free black woman.

Mary’s mother ran a boarding house called Blundell Hall for sick and injured soldiers and civilians. Britain had taken Jamaica from Spain in the 1600’s and to protect its economic interests as the world’s leading exporter of sugar, had a large contingent of the British Army garrisoned there. In Jamaica’s humid climate many Europeans succumbed to the various Tropical diseases, such as Yellow Fever and Malaria and Enteric (intestinal) diseases such as Cholera, Typhoid, and Dysentery.

Only known photograph of Mary Seacole (1805-1881), taken c.1873 by Maull & Company in London by an unknown photographer (who probably died before 1936)

Her mother was a healer, a “doctress” and taught Mary traditional Jamaican or Creole medicine and hygiene based on West African healing traditions brought over by the transported slaves. Slavery was eventually abolished in 1834.

In 1818 and 1823 Mary travelled to England which gave her the opportunity to learn about European medicine.

Mary married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole, an English merchant in 1836, and they set up a store in Black River St Elizabeth. Mary describes her husband as the god son of Horatio Nelson although there is some speculation that he was the son of Nelson and Lady Hamilton. In Jamaica he was in poor health, which is probably how he met Mary, he remained delicate and needed nursing and unfortunately he died in 1844, eight years after their marriage.

[Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Lord Nelson Vol l-Vll Published 1844-46 Athenaeum collection]

There is a document on Ancestry from 1838 where Edwin is registered on the Freemasons Membership Register of the Sussex Lodge Kingston Jamaica.

Her mother also died about the same time so Mary set up her own boarding house in Kingston.

In 1850 there was an outbreak of Cholera in Kingston resulting in 31,000 deaths. Mary worked with doctors treating patients and learnt medical skills. The following year she put these into practice when visiting her brother in Cruses in Panama, when it had its own epidemic of Cholera. Panama was on the route to the California Gold Rush (1848-51) which avoided extensive overland travel. Conditions in the mining camps were primitive, rough and violent and there were no doctors. Mary became adept at treating knife wounds and injuries when fights broke out.

On her return to Jamaica in 1853 she was invited by the authorities set up a temporary hospital at Up Park, the British Military headquarters, for soldiers suffering from a Yellow Fever epidemic.

Crimea photo NDJ-Bx008-03 Lord Raglan, General Pellissier and Omar Pasha

The British were fighting the Crimea War (1853-1856), in the area now known as the Ukraine, in an alliance with the Ottoman Empire, Sardinia and France against Russia to limit its expansion into Europe.

The mortality rate for Crimea soldiers was ten times more of dying from disease, cross infection and sepsis in hospital, than death on the battlefield.

The Crimea War was the first campaign to have War Correspondents. William Howard Russell of “The Times” sent home shocking accounts of the conditions facing the Army.

When the Public were made aware of the reports that soldiers were lacking the necessities, the appalling conditions in hospitals and breakdown in nursing care, Mary, a British patriot, decided to offer her services to the British War Office to tend the wounded. Although Mary carried letters of recommendation from British Officers in Kingston praising her medical skills, the Victorian authorities saw only her handicaps of being Black, Female, Illegitimate, aged 50, Fat, formally uneducated and unprotected by a husband(a widow). She was turned down.

She decided with her business partner, Thomas Day, the Superintendent of the Panama Mining Camp to fund themselves to go to the Crimea with a stock of food and medicines. On arriving in Constantinople, now Istanbul, Mary went to see Florence Nightingale to request joining the Army Nurses’ Corps. Again, she was turned down.

Crimea photo Cookhouse of 8th Hussars NDJ-Bx-008-01

Mary set herself up as a Sutler or Victualler, selling provisions to the Army in the field and opened a boarding house called the British Hotel, a rest centre for sick and recovering officers, 2 miles from the port city of Balaclava and along the route to the British Army camp at Sebastopol. She was welcomed by many British officers and soldiers who knew her from their postings to Jamaica.

Wounded soldiers were embarked from Balaclava to the British Hospitals at Scutari, now called Usutar, a suburb of Constantinople, on the Turkish mainland. Mary would often ride out to dispense her home- made cures, medicines and food to the injured waiting to be shipped out, to soldiers on the front lines and often came under fire.

Her daily “surgeries” were thronged with soldiers and military personnel preferring to be treated with her home-made remedies than be subjected to the traditional medical treatments of the day which included cupping, bleeding and strong emetic purging and heavily relied on large amounts of opiates, mercury, arsenic and antimony.

Initially Army Doctors regarded Mary treatments as “Quackery” but soon respected both her skill medically and effect on morale. William Howard Russell of “The Times” wrote “ a more tender and skilful hand about a wound or broken limb could not be fond amongst our best surgeons”

William Menzies Calder assistant staff surgeon 49th regiment in his diary for the 24 August 1855 wrote, Her fame as a doctress for cholera and diarrhoea are spread all over the camp. Her powders for diarrhoea and cholera seem to have worked miracles, she used them with great benefit in Panama. They certainly cannot be less efficacious than all our drugs etc. for cholera, from all the varieties of which I have yet seen little benefit here.”

Through Mary’s kindness, dedication and treatment of the soldiers she became known to them as “Mother Seacole”.

Crimea photo 8th Hussars, named soldiers. NDJ-Bx008-02

Mary was the first women to enter the city after the fall of Sebastopol carrying bandages, medicines and refreshments for those that needed them including the injured and dying Russians.

After the fall of Sebastopol some fighting continued until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1856 and the Army left the Crimea.

Mary was left with a large quantity of provisions that she had to sell off as best she could before returning to England. It left her in such financial difficulties that she was forced to declare bankruptcy.

The declaration evoked sympathetic letters to the newspapers from the generals, officers and soldiers she had tended and support from members of the Royal family.

In the Hampshire Chronical 8 Aug 1857 “ who by her gratuitous kindness to the sick and wounded soldiers in the Crimea established claim upon the gratitude of all classes.”

Lord Rokeby, a divisional commander from the war, set up a fund for her and with Lord George Paget arranged in 1857 a four-day Grand Military Festival with thousands of performers and 80,000 attendees in Royal Surrey Gardens. Unfortunately, the finances were mismanaged and she got little benefit from it.

It did help publicize her autobiography “The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in many Lands” which was an instant best seller, providing her with a pension.

The London Illustrated News printed an extract of her book “The very first day I approached the wharf a party of sick and wounded had just arrived. …. seeing a poor artillery man stretched upon a pallet groaning heavily, I ran up to him at once and eased the stiff dressings. Lightly my practiced fingers ran over the familiar work……and well I was rewarded when the poor fellow’s groans subsided into a restless uneasy mutter.”

The London Illustrated News writes “Perhaps at first the authorities looked askant at the woman-volunteer; but they soon found her worth and utility; and from that time until the British army left the Crimea, Mother Seacole was a household word in the camp.”

And “Colonel Pakenham the Adjutant-General of the British Army’s own words, that “she frequently exerted herself in the most praiseworthy manner in attending wounded men, even in positions of great danger.”” [London Illustrated News 25th July 1857 Athenaeum Collection Vol 28 &29]

There are those, including the Florence Nightingale Society who dispute that Mary did much in the way of nursing of the soldiers, that she only dispensed tea and lemonade and ran an Officers hostelry but newspaper articles of the time and the esteem she was held by the ordinary soldier seems to disprove this.

Mary died of a stroke aged 76 in 1881 and is buried in St Marys’ Roman Catholic Cemetery by Kensal Green London.

For almost 100 years she had been forgotten.

In 1973 nurses from the Caribbean visiting England, found she was in an unmarked grave.

A group of black women in the constituency of MP, Baron Clive Soley, approached him with the aim of identifying and refurbishing Mary’s grave. A gravestone was erected jointly by the Lignum Vitae Club a Jamaica women’s club in London and the British Commonwealth Nurses War Memorial Fund.

In 2004 Mary Seacole was voted the Greatest Black Briton.

After a twelve-year campaign to raise £500,00 a statue was commissioned by Martin Jennings which was unveiled 30th June 2016 in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital.

Photograph by Owen Blacker on Wikimedia Commons

On it are transcribed the words of War Correspondent William Howard Russell of the “Times”; “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.”

References and Further Reading:

Encyclopaedia of World Biography


National Army Museum

BBC History Historic Figures; Mary Seacole 1805-1881

Athenaeum Collection Related Subjects

A Philosophical and Political History of Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies Vol 1- Vlll 1808 W.T.Raynal 959.8 RAY

Illustrated Scenes of the War published by Rock, Scenes of the battle of Alma and Siege of Sebastopol B53-17

Colour Sergeant William Rogers, Bideford Collection of documents, letters and photographs B30-14-10

Surgeon in the Crimea George Lawson 92 LAW

The Invasion of the Crimea 9 volumes A W Kinglake 940.285 KIN

…Sandi, Assistant Librarian

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