Mary Seacole, who nursed sick and wounded soldiers in the Crimean war of 1853-6,
was as well-known in her lifetime as Florence Nightingale. She was born around
1805 in Kingston , Jamaica : her mother kept a boarding house for invalided
British soldiers and their wives, and Mary helped her to treat them from an
As an adult Mary Seacole travelled widely, visiting London twice and opening
a boarding-house in Panama in 1851, where she treated victims of cholera and
recovered from the disease herself. She went on to nurse yellow-fever victims
during an epidemic in Jamaica in 1853.
Hearing that the British army's nursing system in the Crimea had broken down,
Mary Seacole travelled to London and offered her skills and experience, but
was turned down by everyone she approached, including one of Florence Nightingale's
assistants. She finally paid for herself to go, and opened a store and hotel
(actually “a small town of huts”, as building materials were scarce) near Balaklava
to supply provisions to the troops. She was soon well-known among the troops
as “Mother Seacole”, who sold “everything…from an anchor down to a needle” and
cared for the sick and wounded. The war correspondent W.H. Russell wrote in
1855 that she “doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success.
She is always in attendance near the battlefield to aid the wounded, and has
earned many a poor fellow's blessings.”
When the war ended Mary Seacole was left with stores she could not sell, and
she returned to London famous but bankrupt. Military commanders from the Crimea
arranged a four-day music festival for her benefit at Surrey Gardens in Kensington,
with a thousand performers, including nine military bands and an orchestra.
In 1857 Mary Seacole published her life-story, The Wonderful Adventures
of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands . She lived till 1881 and died a rich woman,
leaving £2,500 in her will.