Mary Seacole, born in Jamaica in 1805, was a British woman who became famous for her work as a nurse during the Crimean War. She set up hospitals and provided medical care for soldiers on both sides of the conflict.
She was not a military nurse but rather a civilian who took it upon herself to help provide medical treatment to the soldiers in need.
Mary Seacole did meet Florence Nightingale for one day in Turkey and they both knew about each other before then. It happened in 1855 while Mary Seacole was on her way to the Crimea. Mary Seacole stayed overnight before continuing on her journey.
Mary Seacole’s Early Life
Mary Seacole was a Creole, half Jamaican and half Scottish. Her mother was a famous Jamaican healer known at the time as a doctress. Later in life Mary Seacole also used to be used to like to be known as a doctress, ie the female equivalent of a doctor rather than a nurse.
Her father was James Grant, a white Scottish army officer. She also had a sister called Louisa.
Mary’s mother, Mrs Grant, ran a lodging house in Kingston, Jamaica, called Blundell Hall.
She was also a famous Jamaican healer. Female doctors at the time were known at the time as a doctresses. Later in life, Mary Seacole also used to like to be known as a doctress.
As a healer, Mrs Grant taught Mary many of her skills using traditional Jamaican medicines.
From an early age, Mary practised medicine on her doll, dogs, and cats, and on herself.
In her autobiography she wrote:
Mary was also a great businesswoman. When she was a teenager, she visited London and learned more about nursing, but she also started to trade Caribbean goods.
Mary Seacole’s husband
On 10 November 1836, Mary married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole in Kingston.
There was a family legend that Edwin was an illegitimate son of Lord Nelson and his mistress, Emma Hamilton and he was adopted by Thomas, a local “surgeon, apothecary, and midwife”.
However, Seacole’s will indicates that Horatio Seacole was Nelson’s godson.
Edwin Seacole was a merchant and together they moved to Black River. There they opened a grocery store that unfortunately failed. They returned to Blundell Hall in the early 1840s and sadly Edwin died in 1844.
Mary Seacole and the Crimean War
From October 1853 until 1 April 1856, the Crimean War raged between the Russian Empire and an alliance of the United Kingdom, France, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire.
The main battles were fought on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea and in Turkey.
A large number of troops were drafted to the area and disease broke out almost immediately.
Cholera claimed hundreds of lives. Many more would die waiting to be shipped out or on the voyage.
When they arrived at the understaffed, dirty and overcrowded hospitals which provided the only medical treatment for the wounded, their prospects were not much better.
Florence Nightingale was asked to send nurses to help save lives in hospitals in Britain.
Interviews were quickly held, suitable candidates selected, and Nightingale left for Turkey on 21 October.
At this time Seacole had travelled to England to deal with her investments in gold-mining businesses.
However, she then decided to try to join the second team of Florence Nightingale’s nurses going to the Crimea.
Her application to the War Office and other government offices was turned down as she was told plans for departure were already under way. However, she wondered whether this might may have been an excuse for racist attitudes.
In the end, Seacole opted to use her own resources to travel to Crimea and open a hotel there. She was accompanied by her maid, Sally.
Soon after she formed a partnership with Thomas Day, an acquaintance from the Caribbean.
According to her journal, Mary met up with Florence Nightingale at Scutari which was a district of Istanbul, in Turkey. It was a friendly meeting and she was given a bed for the night before going off to meet her ship.
From there it was a 4-day journey to get to Balaclava where she would set up the British Hotel for sick and wounded soldiers.
The hotel was built in March 1855 out of driftwood, packing cases, iron sheets, and salvaged materials such as glass doors and window frames.
Meals and supplies were available for offices and medicines were given out when they were needed.
Mary would also go amongst the soldiers selling food and other provisions and seeing to the wounded.
At the end of the war, the hotel was no longer needed and although it cost Mary £800 which was a lot of money in those days she wasn’t able to sell it.
While in the Crimea she became known as Mother Seacole to many of the soldiers.
Back in London
When Mary returned to London she was both bankrupt and in poor health.
In 1857, Sir William H Russell wrote about Mary in The Times. Many soldiers also wrote letters to The Times explaining how she had cared for them.
A fund-raising gala was held for her over 4 nights in 1857 on the banks of the River Thames. The event was attended by over 80,000 people.
Mary Seacole’s Autobiography
In the same year, she published her autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands.
I know that this is available as an ebook from Birmingham Library and so may be available from other libraries.
It will certainly be available from many booksellers.
Mary Seacole on YouTube
There are some brilliant videos on Youtube
For KS2 there is a series of 3 5-minute videos from the BBC.
And you might only like to try these animated videos from Credits Extra.
Part 1 : Mary Seacole – A Bold Front to Fortune – Extra History https://youtu.be/eADLWvWqK5Q?t=1
Part 2 : Mary Seacole – Mother Seacole in the Crimea – https://youtu.be/eADLWvWqK5Q?t=1
Mary Seacole and Doctor Who!
For any Dr Who fans – you might like to watch this introduction to her life which includes clips from Dr Who and comments from the main characters. partially Jodie Whittaker, about why Mary Seacole was such an important historical figure.
Mary Seacole is played by Sara Powell.
One of the things Sara shows you in some detail (towards the end of this video clip) is her costume, including the one bit that Mary wouldn’t have worn.
However, there is also quite a lot in the middle of the video about the Dr Who plot, the Flux and the Sontarans, so it would probably only really be of interest to Dr Who fans who also happened to be learning about Mary Seacole.
Mary Seacole’s Medals
In the Dr Who clip above there is a suggestion that Mary Seacole wore medals that she hadn’t officially received.
This is challenged by historian Elizabeth Anionwu, Emeritus Professor of Nursing, University of West London
Mary Seacole Song from Horrible Histories
Here the Horrible Histories team sing a song about Mary Seacole.
Mary Seacole Quizzes
After watching some of these videos your child might like to try these quizzes
https://www.bbc.co.uk/cbbc/quizzes/horrible-histories-song-quiz-mary-seacole-crimean-war-nurse – 8 easy multiple-choice questions
https://www.maryseacoletrust.org.uk/quiz/ – 16 multiple-choice questions.
https://wordwall.net/resource/616737/history/mary-seacole – I’m in 6th place (JK). Can you beat me?
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