The Crimean War was one of those 19th century conflicts between imperial powers that easily skips your mind. The Russian Empire on one side and Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont on the other – duking it out for supremacy in Europe. Sort of thing that had you yawning your head off as a teenage history pupil at school. The main legacy of this neglected war, which saw carnage on an unprecedented scale, was the emergence of modern nursing. Two women were at the forefront of this development: Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole.
They could not have been more different. Nightingale, an upper-middle class woman who managed and trained nurses in a way that was groundbreaking. Seacole – a half-Jamaican, half-Scottish nurse who began her career more as a healer in the Caribbean tradition of healthcare but learned battlefield medicine by working alongside army doctors applying innovative techniques for hygiene, ventilation, and empathy for the patient.
Going back to newspaper reports at the time of their service in the Crimea, as well as the obituaries for the death of Seacole in 1881, I was surprised to find that – contrary to what you might think – commentators lavished praise on both women. And, what really took me aback, was that they were clearly aware that Nightingale’s PR machine had sought to undermine Seacole’s contribution to the war effort.
Seacole’s stock rises as Nightingale’s diminishes
It’s often assumed that Victorian Britain completely forgot Jamaican-born nurse Mary Seacole while placing her erstwhile medical rival Florence Nightingale on a pedestal. Seacole’s heroism in the Crimean War (1853-1856), where British soldiers fought a bloody conflict in Russia, being swept under the carpet while everybody heroised the “lady of the lamp”. It’s certainly true that for most of the 20th century, Seacole’s name vanished while Nightingale was known by every school child.
There’s been a campaign in recent years to redress this and give Seacole her well-deserved recognition. Though some revisionist voices have tried to push back, claiming Seacole wasn’t a bona fide nurse or even that she was running a commercial venture for financial gain solely. It’s certainly true she was a canny business woman and hotelier. But that is not the whole story. The truth is that when she volunteered as a nurse for duty in the Crimea, which she was perfectly entitled to do given her experience, Seacole was turned down flat. And the tone of that rejection was frankly insulting and racist.
But once Seacole was in the Crimea, perceptions changed dramatically. Well, among soldiers and journalists anyway. Though Nightingale was less convinced. Seacole was clearly competition. Through gritted teeth they claimed to like each other but you can feel the bristling contempt emanating from Nightingale and the sense of injustice felt by Seacole in their relationship.
Once the two women were back in Britain and the war was over, they both got hefty press coverage. Unfortunately for Seacole, that centred on her filing for bankruptcy. However, that misfortune was addressed by top people straight away, right up to the Royal Family, who rallied to help Seacole. Not what I expected to discover in these newspaper reports.
And there’s something else – many establishment Victorians were not as sympathetic to Florence Nightingale as you might think.
Victorian society warms to Seacole
What will surprise many today is that after the Crimea War, Mary Seacole was not neglected by mainstream Victorian opinion, having proven her ability. I’ve delved into British newspapers from the end of the Crimean War in 1856 until her death in 1881. She was regarded as a hero who had given brave devotion to soldiers in the war zone. When she faced bankruptcy on her return to Britain, top society figures rushed to support Seacole.
Not just that, but Victorians were very aware that Florence Nightingale had run off with all the glory. Of course they recognised Nightingale’s sterling service as a pioneering nurse. But Victorian society knew Seacole had provided what was frequently described as “motherly” care for the wounded and dying.
To quote The Observer on July 26, 1857 said of Seacole: “…the kindness which she evinced to the sick and wounded of our army ought not to be allowed to be forgotten in the blaze of that greater fame of Florence Nightingale”.
Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale both valued – but differently
Sir William Howard Russell (1827-1907) was regarded as one of the first modern war correspondents. He wrote incredibly vivid despatches from the Crimean War detailing the terrible injuries, death toll, and outbreak of diseases like cholera. Never before had the public and the authorities been subjected to the facts in such detail. And they demanded action. British soldiers needed help and quickly.
Nightingale and Seacole headed to the Crimea and the two women were heroised by Russell. However, their modus operandi was very different. Nightingale opened up a whole new career path for women who might have otherwise been condemned to domestic drudgery, low-paid factory work, or an abusive marriage. She rebalanced the relationship between doctors and nurses and created clean and well-run hospital wards for the wounded military.
It’s important that in elevating Seacole to her rightful place, we don’t trash Florence Nightingale as her achievements were beyond doubt. She pioneered modern nursing and levels of training and management that still characterise the profession to this day. Nightingale also gave nurses status and respect – that had never existed before.
Seacole was never part of the medical establishment. Her approach was more entrepreneurial but as a woman of her ethnicity, there was little option. Seacole had to make her own way in a very tough world which included making herself financially independent through various business activities – which are sometimes used against her now. In truth, unlike Nightingale, there was no silver spoon in Seacole’s mouth when she was born. She had to go and find one.
Victorians had no problem with this. They understood her position, more than some people now. Seacole was “unaided by any Government commissariat”, as The Morning Chronicle newspaper put it (July 27, 1857), gathering enormous stores and provisions in the Crimea to help the troops but unable to sell or remove from the Crimea to recoup her costs. This resulted in terrific financial problems for her once the war concluded.
Mary Seacole files for bankruptcy
In 1856, Seacole was back in London, destitute and in poor health. She was forced to file for bankruptcy.
It may surprise people today to know that there was indignation in the press at how Seacole was being treated. On November 25, 1856, The Caledonian Mercury fulminated that a “good old soul whose generous hospitality has warmed up many a gallant spirit on the chilly heights of Balaklava has now in her turn been caught in the worst storm of all – the gale of adversity”.
It continued, acknowledging that while Nightingale was being canonised, Seacole was being erased:
“While the benevolent deeds of Florence Nightingale are being handed down to posterity with blessings and imperishable renown, are the humbler actions of Mrs Seacole to be entirely forgotten…”
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DISCOVER: Victorian slang for beginners
The establishment comes to Seacole’s rescue
Bankruptcy was a humiliation for Seacole but she had friends in high places. The Seacole Fund was set up to assist and its patrons included the Prince of Wales, Duke of Edinburgh, and the Duke of Cambridge. It raised enough money, according to contemporary press reports I’ve accessed, to keep Seacole comfortable to the end of her days.
On July 28, 1857, The Morning Post published a list of aristocrats and senior military behind the fund. At the Royal Surrey Gardens, a Grand Military Festival raised a large amount of money for Seacole. It included a “colossal orchestra” formed from the First Life Guards, Second Life Guards, Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards, etc, etc. Various choirs offered their services including the Royal Italian Opera. Each time the National Anthem was sung, cannon were fired. And this was just one of several events.
Seacole had not been forgotten. Quite the contrary, she was clearly held in high esteem by top people and there was a genuine regard for what she had done during the war.
Lord Rokeby was the chair and honorary treasurer of The Seacole Fund. He received a letter from Seacole expressing her gratitude to him for the support during the bankruptcy proceedings. “I am fully aware of the kind feelings yourself and the army have towards me, and this knowledge tends to sustain me in my present difficulties”. This was intended to be a private correspondence but Rokeby passed it to the press. He was proud to have helped her.
When Seacole died, her remaining inheritance was bequeathed to “persons of title”, as if paying them back. She also penned a biography, published by Routledge, to ease her financial difficulties, Wonderful Adventures in Many Lands, with a foreword written by the aforementioned Sir William Howard Russell. He was keen to help the Jamaican nurse as best he could.
Glowing obituaries to Seacole in Victorian London
When Mary Seacole died in May 1881, The Times newspaper in London was fulsome in its praise. Take into consideration this was the journal of the Victorian establishment, written, published, and read by middle and upper class gentlemen. The obituary was being written just over two decades from the end of the Crimean conflict so many would have remembered the events of that war with grim clarity.
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The Times observed that Seacole “distinguished herself as a nurse on the battlefield” and had been instructed in the “art of nursing” by her mother since childhood. In 1855, when it was announced that no more nurses were required in the Crimea, she had set up “comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers at Balaclava”. Her bravery was obvious to all:
“She was present at many battles, and at the risk of her life often carried the wounded off the field.”