WiSW: Mary Seacole

The Story of Mary Jane Seacole, Part 3. 

After the end of the Crimean War, Mary Seacole returned to England poorer than before she had gone, and with deteriorating health. In 1856 she opened a canteen in Hampshire, but failed to turn a profit and soon ran out of money. That same year she went to a celebration dinner for 2,000 soldiers at which Florence Nightingale was the guest of honor. It is reported Seacole’s presence was highly celebrated at the even as well. That same year her debtors and suppliers from the war forced her to declare bankruptcy. 

It’s reported that at this time in her life Mary Seacole began wearing military medals, the Turkish Order of the Medjidie, the French Lègion d’honneur, a Sardinian award, and the British Crimea Medal. It is thought that she also received a yet unidentified Russian medal of merit. However, Seacole was never formally recognized in this way, and despite all of her nursing efforts and aid in the war, given her race and without formal service papers, it is unlikely she was rewarded for her time in Crimea by any government. It is believed she wore miniature display medals to show her support and love for the soldiers.  

The public became aware Seacole’s bankruptcy situation and in 1857 a fund was set up to which many public figures donated money, after which Seacole was given a certificate clearing her from bankruptcy. She was publicly humiliated when the Punch magazine published her letter of admiration that also asked for financial help. A quote from the Punch’s commentary on this letter reads: ”It will be evident, from the foregoing, that Mother Seacole has sunk much lower in the world, and is also in danger of rising much higher in it, than is consistent with the honour of the British army, and the generosity of the British public.” The article ironically urges its readers to donate. Over the next few years Seacole made many less than profitable attempts at fundraising. 

In 1857 she published her autobiography with the help of James Blackwood. This was the first autobiography written by a black woman in Britain. It is likely she dictated the book to an editor and writer. A Times corresponded wrote a few lines as a preface: “I have witnessed her devotion and her courage … and I trust that England will never forget one who has 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.”

In 1860 Seacole joined the Catholic Church and moved back to Jamaica. Her funding was reinforced in England through patrons such as the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke of Cambridge, the Prince of Wales, and other high ranking military men. She purchased land near New Blundell Hall and built a home and housing to lease there.

In 1870 Mary Seacole returned to London, probably to be of medical assistance to the Franco-Prussian War effort. She became a familiar face within the royal circle, and became the personal masseuse to the Princess of Wales. 

In 1881, at the age of 75, Mary Seacole died of apoplexy in her home. She left a wealthy estate to her beneficiaries, much of which went to her sister. Seacole’s legacy was largely forgotten for many years in England. But after an effort to reinstate her heroic status within the last hundred years, she has since received the Jamaican Order of Merit, and her history has been added to the UK national curriculum. In 2004 Seacole was voted first place on a poll of the 100 Greatest Black Britons. There have since been numerous memorials and healthcare related buildings named after her. In 2016 a large statue of her was erected in front of St Thomas’ Hospital, in London, on the statue are etched the words from the preface of her autobiography. There is currently a film in production about Mary Seacole’s life.

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