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Ten Things To Know About Mary Seacole

There was an inner strength within Mary Seacole which made her overcome many barriers. Here are some facts about her. 

Mary Seacole is credited as being a brave doctress and entrepreneur. There was an inner strength within Mary Seacole which made her overcome many barriers. Here are some facts about her.

1. Born in Jamaica

Mary Seacole was born Mary Jane Grant on 23 November 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica. Her father was a Scottish soldier, and her mother was a practitioner of traditional Jamaican medicine. In 1655 Jamaica was seized by the British. At the time Mary was born, most Jamaicans worked as slaves. However, like her mother, Mary was born free.

2. A Natural Host

Her mother had a boarding house in Kingston. Mary learned about the art of medicine from her mother, an ‘admirable doctress’ and soon gained her own reputation as a ‘skilful nurse and doctress’. Doctress is the term Seacole used herself for her preparation and dispensing of herbal remedies, in modern day terminology we would refer to much of her work being that of a nurse. Seacole sometimes coupled ‘nurse and doctress’ to describe her work, for example, when she was rebuilding her Kingston boarding house after a fire. She didn’t take on a role as nurse in any British hospital.

An outbreak of cholera, a contagious disease that causes vomiting, cramps and diarrhoea, hit Jamaica in 1850. Mary studied the disease, and with the help of a military doctor learned how to treat infected patients.

Mary would visit the battlefront at Crimea on her horse, taking sandwiches, drinks, bandages and medicines with her. But it was a dangerous thing to do. Mary once suffered a dislocated thumb after she threw herself on the ground to avoid gunfire.

Mary treated British, French and Sardinian soldiers – who were all allies – but she also tended to Russian soldiers, even though they were technically the enemy.

From July 1855, Crimean War correspondent William Howard Russell had made Mary’s name familiar to British readers in publications such as The Times and Punch. Because of this, she became legendary during the sixteen months she was in the Crimea with her good work echoed in letters and journals by the troops themselves, commending her service to the sick, ‘bountiful kindness’, good humour and energy.

3. A Business Woman

Throughout her life Seacole was a businesswoman, mainly in the provision of food. She owned property including her own boarding house in Kingston, Jamaica, just like her mother had done.

In 1850 she joined her brother who had established “a considerable store and hotel” in Panama, catering to men setting out for the California gold rush. Before leaving for Panama she had clothing and foods made for sale: “My house was full for weeks of tailors, making up rough coats, trousers, etc., and seamstresses cutting out and making shirts….my kitchen was filled with busy people manufacturing preserves, guava jelly and other delicacies,” and she invested “a considerable sum…in the purchase of preserved meats, vegetables and eggs”.

Her own account of the cholera epidemic includes few cures and many “fearful scenes,” of “affrighted faces and cries of woe” “poor creatures” for it “spread rapidly”. Mary had even contracted cholera and recovered from it herself. Seacole states that there was “no doctor” and that the dentist there was timid and would not prescribe.

At the British colony she did visit the Bahamas and collected “handsome shells and rare shell work” for sale in Jamaica”.

In Cruces, Central America, Seacole assisted her brother with his hotel before opening her own “British Hotel,” which was, like the one in the Crimea which was a restaurant and store rather than a hotel.

Mary was widely praised for her work in treating cholera, and returned to Jamaica in 1853, where there was a yellow fever epidemic.

Most of her businesses were successful. Two failed: the British Hotel in Crimea and her Aldershot store. Her Panama ventures enabled her to finance her Crimea trip.

4. A Traveller

Mary travelled widely including two trips to Britain. The Crimean War had broken out in October 1853. By the next year Mary had arrived in London to offer her skills as a nurse. In the 1800s, it was considered unusual for a woman to travel alone.

Seacole’s memoir reports a short, entirely friendly encounter with Nightingale, where it is clear that she was then en route for the Crimea to join her business partner Day rather than looking for a nursing position.

5. Overcame Resistance

Seacole was determined to help the soldiers and so she paid her own way to the Crimea with her friend Thomas Day. They launched a firm called Seacole and Day which became a general store and restaurant near the British camp in the Crimea called the ‘British Hotel’ which was largely for officers, not soldiers. She was a practical and passionate woman who didn’t let a little bit of red tape get in her way.

6. Well Respected

There were reports of her tending the wounded, while under fire. And she was also the first woman to enter Sevastopol when it fell after the allied siege in September 1855. Mary was very popular and earned the nickname ‘Mother Seacole’.

When she returned to England a year later, she was declared bankrupt. The Times and Punch ran campaigns to reimburse her. And in response to this effort Seacole writes a letter to punch, in 1857 in which she says that “Punch brings sunshine into the poor little room” to which she is reduced.

Seacole’s English friends raised a significant sum of money for her to support her in her old age.

In July 1857, the same month when her biography was published, the sequel fund grand military festival in Kennington was held. She died at her home in Paddington.

7. An Author

She wrote an autobiography. It was at her Soho residence where she wrote her biography Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands which has since appeared in five editions. This became the first-ever autobiography published by a free black woman in the British empire. It was published in 1857. The book sold so well that a second edition was published the next year.

8. Forgotten about until the 1980s

She is listed in the Census of 1871 as “annuitant” and in1881 as being of “independent” means. By the time of Mary’s death in 1881 she was relatively unknown. She became a forgotten heroine to the majority of the British public but now with a statue in central London and on the national curriculum her story is being retold.

9. Has two plaques in London

A green plaque is on 147 George Street, which is just off Edgware Road and another on 14 Soho Square. Both commemorate where she lived. It was in Soho where she wrote her autobiography and she was probably still living there when it was published in 1857.

10. Has a statue in London

Her statue is eight feet tall and weighs one and a half tonnes. Being a contemporary statue it is rather different from the Victorian ones we so often see on the streets. It’s more of an action shot. Seacole is wearing her medical bag over her left shoulder and she’s marching onto the battlefields of the Crimean war. Behind her is a big disc representing the obstacles she had to face.

On the floor behind the statue is a quote from Sir William Howard Russell (1857), who was a war correspondent at the time. And it says, “I trust that England will not forget one who nursed the sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and sucker them and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.”

To learn more about Mary Seacole, her statue, and other medical women of London, listen to our London History Podcast Episode 13: London Statues of Medical

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London History Podcast:
November 12, 2021
71: Georgian Dentistry
November 5, 2021
70: Robert Hooke

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