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Mary Seacole

Our first featured black person in health is a woman who, much like the founders of St Oswald’s Hospice and those who went on to build our children and young adult’s unit, saw there was a need and worked to meet that need, despite many setbacks.

Mary Jane Seacole was a mixed Scottish/Jamaican woman born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. Mary’s mother ran a boarding house for invalid soldiers which is where she learned about nursing. Whilst her family were ‘free’ they had few civil rights and were not allowed to vote, hold public office or enter the professions. However, Mary Seacole had travelled extensively before her marriage and added European medical ideas to her knowledge of traditional medicine. In 1836 Mary married Edwin Seacole but was widowed after eight years.

In 1854, following the outbreak of the Crimean War, Seacole travelled to England and asked the War Office to send her to be an army nurse in the Crimea where there were poor medical facilities for wounded soldiers. Her request was refused, so Seacole funded her own trip. She set up the British Hotel near Balaclava to provide 'a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers'. She also visited the battlefield, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded. Mary Seacole’s reputation rivalled that of Florence Nightingale at the time and she became known as 'Mother Seacole'.

When the Crimean War ended in 1856, Seacole left the Crimea almost penniless. She was declared bankrupt on her return to England and Queen Victoria’s nephew helped set up a charitable fund for her that people from across Britain donated to.

In 1857, Mary Seacole attempted to raise funds to travel to India to care for the wounded in the Indian Rebellion but was persuaded otherwise. She returned to Jamaica in 1860 but returned to London 10 years later where she treated many including Alexandra, Princess of Wales.

Mary Seacole died aged 76, from a stroke on 14 May 1881. In 2020 she was voted one of the 100 Great Black Britons.

If you would like to find out more information about Mary Seacole, please click here.

Find out more information about our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion work at the Hospice, please click here.

Image: Mary Seacole Memorial © Matt Brown