A statue honoring Crimean War nurse Mary Jane Seacole (1805-1881) was unveiled at St Thomas’ Hospital, Thursday, June 30th. It is the first of its kind in the UK dedicated to a named black woman and will stand in the hospital’s garden, opposite the Houses of Parliament.
The Jamaican-born nurse cared for wounded British soldiers during the Crimean War in the 19th century.
BARONESS Floella Benjamin OBE, led the celebrations to honour Jamaican born Crimean War heroine Mary Seacole, at the unveiling of a statue in the gardens of St Thomas’ Hospital. It is the first statue in the UK dedicated to a named black woman.
More than 300 guests – including Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry VC; Simon Stevens, Chief Executive, NHS England; England’s Chief Nursing Officer Jane Cummings; Len McCluskey, General Secretary, Unite; and Commonwealth Secretary General Baroness Scotland, attended the unveiling of the nurse who cared for wounded British soldiers during the Crimean War.
The bronze, created by Martin Jennings, has finally come to fruition following a 12 year campaign by the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal which has raised over £500,000 for the project. Last November, Chancellor George Osborne announced that £240,000 of Libor banking fines would be donated to the appeal.
We are very grateful to everyone who has supported the statue. We look forward to finally granting Mary Seacole the acknowledgement she deserves for her selfless support of British soldiers. The statue will be a fantastic new landmark on the South Bank providing much needed recognition of the contribution black and ethnic minorities have made throughout British history and a celebration of the UK’s diversity. – LORD CLIVE SOLEY, CHAIR OF THE MARY SEACOLE MEMORIAL STATUE APPEAL
Mary Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. Her father was a Scottish soldier and her mother a Jamaican woman who she learnt her nursing skills from when she kept a boarding house for invalid soldiers. She married Edwin Seacole in 1836, who died 8 years later.
She travelled widely and, when in England, asked the War Office to be sent to Crimea as an army nurse. She was refused but went anyway and set up a “British Hotel” to help sick and convalescent officers. She also nursed the wounded on the battlefield, sometimes under the hail of gunfire.
Mother Seacole, as she became known, had a reputation that rivalled that of Florence Nightingale. After returning to England destitute and in ill health, a benefit festival was organised for her in 1857, and later that year she published her memoirs.
Sir Hugh Taylor, chairman of Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, said he was “delighted” that the hospital was hosting the statue.
He said: “This will be a fitting tribute to a woman who was a pioneer for the generations of nurses and other staff from black and minority ethnic backgrounds who have served the NHS so well over the years.
“Mary Seacole is a positive role model for the current generation of nurses and other healthcare professionals, speaking to the diversity of our local population, our patients and the staff who work here.”
Early life, 1805–1825
Mary Seacole was born Mary Jane Grant in Kingston, Jamaica, the daughter of a Scottish soldier in the British Army and a free Jamaican Creole woman. Seacole’s mother was a “doctress”, a healer who used traditional Caribbean and African herbal remedies. She ran Blundell Hall, a boarding house at 7 East Street in Kingston and one of the best hotels in all Kingston. Here Seacole acquired her nursing skills. Her autobiography says her early experiments in medicine were based on what she learned from her mother while ministering to a doll, then progressing to pets, before helping her mother treat humans.
Seacole was proud of her Scottish ancestry and called herself a Creole, a term that was commonly used in a racially neutral sense or to refer to the children of white settlers. In her autobiography The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole, she records her bloodline thus: “I am a Creole, and have good Scots blood coursing through my veins. My father was a soldier of an old Scottish family.” Legally, she was classified as a mulatto, a multiracial person with limited political rights. Robinson speculates that she may technically have been a quadroon. Seacole emphasises her personal vigour in her autobiography, distancing herself from the contemporary stereotype of the “lazy Creole”, She was proud of her black ancestry, writing, “I have a few shades of deeper brown upon my skin which shows me related—and I am proud of the relationship—to those poor mortals whom you once held enslaved, and whose bodies America still owns.”