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The Other Florence Nightingale - Mary Seacole

Updated on February 4, 2010

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.

Mary with her medals
Mary with her medals
Sculpted bust
Sculpted bust

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.

Mary Seacole's grave
Mary Seacole's grave

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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    • stars439 profile image

      stars439 

      6 years ago from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State.

      What a fantastic lady. Deserved the Medal Of Honor. God Bless You.

    • profile image

      Bronwen Irene Williams 

      6 years ago

      Perhaps this woman could have a statue next to Mr Mandela.

    • profile image

      iesha 

      7 years ago

      i think she is a truely amazing women. She didnt care what people think of her and to do that i have got " admit you have to a heart that wasnt bujjing she a star *****

    • profile image

      peacenhim 

      8 years ago

      Fascinating story! What a wonderful depiction of Heroism. She offered the gift of life to many!

    • knell63 profile imageAUTHOR

      knell63 

      8 years ago from Umbria, Italy

      Thanks Nell, I agree and think its looking more likely now. Such a remarkable woman who deserves recognition.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      8 years ago from England

      Ever since I first read about her I have always said there should be a statue. I hope it happens soon. great hub. Nell

    • knell63 profile imageAUTHOR

      knell63 

      8 years ago from Umbria, Italy

      Thats what impressed me with her, she seemed such a determined and generous person. So nice that she if finally getting the recognition she so richly deservers. Espcially in the schools, all we ever did was Kings and Queens, and then only Lizzy and Henry.

    • Amanda Severn profile image

      Amanda Severn 

      8 years ago from UK

      My son learned about Mary Seacole at school when they were studying the Victorians. I must admit that I hadn't heard of her before that, but it's good to read some fuller information. She sounds like a remarkable lady.

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 

      8 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you, knell63. A very good hub. I never heard of this lady before I read this. She's fascinating--so brave. She just went unsponsored to help the Crimean soldiers. Thank you for a very interesting topic and a good job.

    • profile image

      Nancy's Niche 

      8 years ago

      Very interesting bio on a truly remarkable woman. I imagine there are many others like Mary, whose achievements were over looked in lieu of someone else.

    • knell63 profile imageAUTHOR

      knell63 

      8 years ago from Umbria, Italy

      Cheers Jerilee, Thats it, there are these wonderful people who were maybe famous in their day or just are no longer remembered and they make such interesting reading.

    • Jerilee Wei profile image

      Jerilee Wei 

      8 years ago from United States

      Quite an interesting story. Reminds you that there are so many others beyond those who were famous enough to make it to the textbooks.

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