The Other Florence Nightingale - Mary Seacole
Mary Jane Grant, a remarkable Jamaican woman born in 1805, the daughter of a Creole free black Jamaican woman and a Scottish Officer. Her mother, known as "the doctoress" ran a boarding house called Blundell Hall in Kingston that catered for British soldiers and sailors. It was here that Mary would learn how to tend to injuries and treat sickness using traditional medicine.
During her twenties she visited London, travelled around Cuba, the Bahamas, Haiti and occasionally worked at the British Army Head Quarters based at Up Park Camp. In 1836 at the age of 30, she married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole, the illegitimate son of Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton. Sadly Edwin died young in 1844 after only 8 years of marriage. Further tragedy struck later in the year when her mother also passed away and the family home burnt down.
She rebuilt Blundell Hall and continued providing accommodation for visiting Europeans and treating the sick and ill. In 1850 during a cholera epidemic in Jamaica which killed some 32,000 people, she helped provide treatment to many of the sick.
In 1851 she travelled once more to Central America, staying with her brother for a while in Panama at a time when cholera was rampant in one of the gold prospecting towns. Moving on to Gongona where she set up a restaurant before finally returning to Jamaica. This was during an outbreak of yellow fever and once again Mary pitched in to administer to the sick and dying.
At the age of 50 in 1854 she heard about the Crimean war and was concerned for "her soldiers" as she always referred to the British Army. Reaching the decision to make her way there and offer assistance she set off to London. Initial efforts to meet up with Florence Nightingale were turned down but she continued until eventually reaching the sad conclusion that race was the reason for her rebuff. Eventually with the aid of an old friend Thomas Day she acquired the necessary provisions and supplies and set off for Turkey.
Mary Seacole sent advance word of her intention to establish a mess hall to assist with the convalescence and recovery of British officers and before long she had established the British Hotel, where she fed and cared for the soldiers. Mary's establishment close to the bridgehead at Kadikoi near Balaclava was built from found, scavenged and reclaimed materials and soon became popular with the soldiers. While Nightingales hospital was three days sailing from the frontline, Seacole's camp was in the thick of battle. She could be regularly seen walking the field of war, administering to the injured, dressed in brightly coloured clothes so as to be easily distinguished and not a target.
Described by the Times reporter as "a warm and successful physician" and a visiting French Chef as " an old dame of jovial appearance" she was well know in the area. Although Florence Nightingale never commented publicly, in a private letter she described Mary Seacole's hotel as " a bad house and little more than a brothel" and accused her of getting the men drunk.
When Sevastopol fell suddenly in September 1855 she fulfilled her promise to be the first woman in the town. Aalking amidst the ruins she helped the injured of the city and visited the local hospital. For a while things were quite, festivals and horse races were held at which Mary provided catering then with the signing of the peace treaty in 1856 everyone suddenly left. Their rapid departure left Mary with a large amount of unsold stock, creditors and a large number of unpaid bills.
Now returning to London poorer than she left and ended up filing for bankruptcy, once more her notoriety came to her rescue and articles in the Times and News of the World drew attention to her plight. It was also around this time she started to wear her famous medals from the British, French, Turkish and Sardinian governments. From foot soldiers to the Prince of Wales, all contributed to her cause and before long she was off the debtors list.
In 1857 Mary published her memoirs "Wonderful adventures of Mrs Seacole in many lands" and had her portrait painted by Albert Challen, while Count Gleichen, Queen Victoria's nephew and Henry Weekes sculpted busts of her. The Weekes bust now resides in the Getty Centre.
After a short illness in 1881 at the age of 76 having lived a full and adventurous life Mrs Mary Seacole passed away. She is buried in St Mary's Catholic Church cemetery in Kensal Green, London.
Although much loved and famous during her lifetime, Mary Seacole was rapidly forgotten after her death and her time in the Crimean was overshadowed by Florence Nightingale's achievements.
Luckily she has been rediscovered and her accomplishments against the odds and despite of her background have once again been recognised. There are now Mary Seacole wards and university blocks named after her. The most influential nurse in the British National Health Service now receives the Seacole award and finally plans are well progressed for a timely statue to this remarkable woman.
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