12 November 2014
Hands up who’s heard of Mary Seacole? Well I hadn’t, but a month or two ago when it was still warm and sunny, I was lucky enough to view the “work in progress” of a very large statue of this extraordinary woman. The statue is destined for the south bank of the Thames, outside St Thomas’s Hospital just about opposite the Houses of Parliament. It’s a striding statue; and even at the early stages one could see the subject betrays a zealous purpose. The statue will be unveiled next year, and from what I saw the impact will be stunning.
Mary Seacole, self-confessed “female Ulysses”, was born in 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica, a “Creole with good Scotch blood coursing in my veins”. Her mother was a talented “doctress” and, by the age of twelve, Mary was helping, and learning, her skills. She seems to have been born with what we would now call the travel bug. Not until she was an old lady did she eventually settle down, hence the Ulysses.
The help she gave to her mother in treating and nursing the British officers and their wives in the nearby camps in Kingston stood her in good stead, and when her mother died Mary journeyed to Panama to test her skills and join her brother. Here she established a “hotel”, a place where sick travellers might rest and recuperate with her simple treatments. And here she married, a brief marriage cut short by illness and death. The appalling weather and squalid conditions would have tried the endurance of any man, let alone a woman, but Mary had immense inner resources and bravery. Neither thieves nor hurricanes, chicanery or cholera deterred her for long.
When she heard that war had broken out in the Crimea, she determined to join her soldiers fighting and dying there. Her struggle to get to the Front with enough stores and medicines, to become the “Crimean heroine” she so longed to be, is vividly described in her autobiography: Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, first published in 1857. By the time the book appeared, Mary Seacole was something of a notoriety. It’s well-worth reading despite the occasional exaggerations. (Penguin Classics, 2005.)
Known as “Mother Seacole”, her first instinct was to join the “Angel Band” of Florence Nightingale nurses, but she was rejected ostensibly because of her lack of formal training — and possibly her “dusky complexion”. She could not but be a controversial figure, providing and selling as she did in her “Hotel” the comforts a fighting man looked for, such as drink. However Miss Nightingale, despite mistrusting Mother Seacole’s reputation, did find her a bed for the night after a short interview in Scutari hospital.
Nothing daunted, the indomitable Mary made her way to Spring Hill near the battlefront. In partnership with Thomas Day, a distant relation of her husband, she established the British Hotel. Dozens of officers and men had reason to be grateful for her kind care at the Hotel, where they could buy necessities (it was said you could buy anything from an anchor to a needle) and simple remedies if they could afford it, or be treated for free if they could not.
She was often to be found on the battlefield, dressing wounds and comforting the dying – no wonder the soldiers loved her and never forgot her. This was made obvious from the fund raising efforts made on her behalf when the Hotel went bankrupt and she returned to England at the end of the War, penniless.
Her book made a certain amount of money and was re-printed, and there were benefits on her behalf. It is reported that by the time she died in London in 1881 at the age of 76 she was a rich woman. It seems that Queen Victoria thought highly of her and engaged her services for one of the Princesses.
But it was in the Crimea where Mary Seacole found her true vocation and where her famous reputation was made. The many testimonials to her in the book included a glowing tribute from WH Russell, the first war correspondent “to tell it how it is” for The Times readers of the day. Her dogged hard work and her battle against the odds (which included not only fell disease but a plague of rats and an exploding ammunition dump) make this tireless woman truly the “Crimea heroine” of her dreams.
An astute business woman, one can imagine her managing GlaxoSmithKline or maybe Johnson & Johnson. I bet she’d put the profits back into Tesco…