A London First: Mary Seacole’s Sculpture
“I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead” – Sir William Howard Russell, War Correspondent for The Times, 1857.
Despite these words it still took until 2016 for London to unveil this sculpture of Mary Seacole.
Who Was Mary Seacole?
Seacole was a Jamaican-born nurse and carer remembered for her heroic effort to provide medical help to injured soldiers in the Crimean War (1853-56).
Mary wasn’t a trained nurse and she wasn’t granted admission when she volunteered her help. Instead she organised to travel herself to Scutari and set up a kind of hotel, providing food and treatment (often herbal and homemade rather than medical) to wounded soldiers.
Mary Jane Seacole, by Albert Charles Challen, 1869 – National Portrait Gallery
Her aid, despite being criticised by Nightingale, was welcomed by the soldiers themselves. One in a letter home cites; “In case of any malady [the men] would seek her advice and use her herbal medicines, in preference to reporting to their own doctors.”
It took a 12 year campaign to raise £500,000 (which included then Chancellor George Osborne giving £240,000 of the LIBOR banking fines). The delay wasn’t helped by Lynn Mcdonald, head of The Nightingale Society who fiercely opposed the statue, claiming it would damage the memory of Florence Nightingale’s important work both during the Crimean War and in essentially founding the nursing profession.
BBC presenter and Black Historian, David Olusoga summarises the argument well, encouraging us to celebrate Mary Seacole in her own right and in her own achievements:
“Both she and Florence Nightingale made unique contributions but there’s plenty of room in our historic memory of the Crimean War to remember both of them.”
Unveiled in June 2016 and created by Martin Jennings, Seacole is depicted striding forwards heroically, with a bag – presumably full of supplies – to help the sick and wounded.
The round back drop is also interesting. You could easily dismiss it as decoration but the round disc is also an important part of the sculpture, a plaque on the floor declares it’s a cast of an impression from the ground on the site in Crimea where Mary Seacole ministered to British Soldiers.
Jennings has expressed concern over attempts (by the Nightingale Society) to ‘derail’ the project and he expresses the fact that there needn’t be competition between the two. “They performed very different roles and the achievements of both can happily sit alongside each other.”
The sculpture stands in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital, facing the River Thames and House of Parliament and is a stone’s throw from the Florence Nightingale Museum.