SEACOLE, Mary (1805-1881)
Plaque erected in 2007 by English Heritage at 14 Soho Square, Soho, London, W1D 3QG, City of Westminster
MARY SEACOLE 1805-1881 Jamaican Nurse HEROINE OF THE CRIMEAN WAR lived here
Mary Seacole was a pioneering nurse and a heroine of the Crimean War. She lived for many years in London and is commemorated with a blue plaque at 14 Soho Square, where she started writing her autobiography.
Born in Jamaica, Mary Jane Grant was the daughter of a Scottish soldier and a Creole hotel-keeper. She took a keen interest in her mother’s work as a healer and later inherited her boarding house business. In 1836 she married Edwin Horatio Seacole, the reputed godson of Lord Nelson, but she was widowed eight years later.
The chance to use her medical skills came in the late 1840s and early 1850s, when Seacole nursed patients during cholera epidemics in Jamaica and Panama. During a yellow fever epidemic in Jamaica, she helped organise medical care in a British military camp.
On hearing of the outbreak of the Crimean War, Mary Seacole left the Caribbean for England, where she arrived in late 1854. However, her efforts to be recruited as a nurse were rebuffed by the team who worked under Florence Nightingale – perhaps because of Seacole’s colour – and she set out for the Crimea on her own.
Seacole arrived in Balaklava in February 1855. By April – in partnership with Thomas Day, a relative of her late husband – she had opened the ‘British Hotel’ between Balaklava and Sevastopol. There, with money paid by officers and those who could afford it, Seacole provided food and medicine for all and tended to the injured.
A woman of bravery and diligence, ‘Mother’ Seacole served near the front – there are even reports of her tending the wounded while under fire – and was the first woman to enter Sevastopol when it fell after the Allied siege in September 1855. Her work was praised by Lord Rokeby, the British commander-in-chief, and from summer 1855 her efforts were brought to public notice in England by William Russell, war correspondent of The Times.
As the Crimean War drew to a close in 1856, Seacole found herself with outstanding stock and unpaid bills. She was declared bankrupt in November that year, prompting campaigns by The Times and Punch in particular to reimburse her for her losses.
It was during this time of need that Seacole lived at 14 Soho Square. In a letter written to Punch from there in May 1857, she wrote that ‘Punch brings sunshine into the poor little room … to which she is reduced’. In July 1857 a Seacole Fund Grand Military Festival was held in Kennington and her achievements in the Crimea were widely fêted.
Around the same time, Seacole began writing her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. She was probably still living at number 14 at the time of its publication in July 1857.
Seacole travelled to and fro between England and Jamaica during the 1860s but was back in London by 1869. She mixed increasingly with royalty, acting as a personal masseuse to the Princess of Wales, and in 1871 was sculpted by Count Gleichen, Queen Victoria’s nephew. Ten years later she died at her home in Paddington.
Read more about Mary Seacole at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.