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Later Victorian Portraits Catalogue

Mary Jane Seacole (née Grant) (1805-1881), Nurse, adventurer and writer

Nurse, traveller, writer; born c.1805, at Kingston, Jamaica, daughter of a Scottish soldier and Jamaican hotelier. Married Edwin Seacole 1836, soon widowed; travelled to Britain 1854 and on own initiative to the Crimea, where she sold food and drink to the military and provided first aid and medicine to the sick and wounded; after return to Britain she was made bankrupt until military admirers raised funds for her support; published autobiographical The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (1857); died 14 May 1881, in London.

Forgotten for many decades, the story of her life was rediscovered in the 1980s and she became a nursing role model alongside Florence Nightingale. In 2004 she was popularly voted the ‘Greatest Black Briton’.

I have seen her go down under fire with her little store of creature comforts for our wounded men, and a more tender or skilful hand about a wound or broken limb could not be found among our best surgeons. I saw her at the assaults on Redan, at the Battle of Tchernaya, at the fall of Sebastopol, laden … with wine, bandages and food for the wounded or the prisoners. [1]

According to illustrator William Simpson, Seacole was

a well-known character in the Crimea, all the soldiers and sailors knew her. She had a taste for nursing and doctoring, but she added to this a business as a sutler. She told me one day that she had Scotch blood in her veins. I must say that she did not look like it, but the old lady spoke proudly of this point in her genealogy. She was a nice, good creature, and everyone liked her. At Lord Raglan’s funeral, and at such ceremonies as the investiture of the Bath, she turned out with the brightest of ribbons in her bonnet. [2]

Dr Jan Marsh

Footnotesback to top

1) William H. Russell, The Times, 11 Apr. 1857.
2) Simpson 1903, p.57.

Referencesback to top

Anionwu 2005
Anionwu, E., ed., A Short History of Mary Seacole: A Resource for Nurses and Students, London, 2005.

Cooper 2014
Cooper, T., ed., National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, London, 2014.

Funnell and Marsh 2011
Funnell, P., and J. Marsh, A Guide to Victorian and Edwardian Portraits, London, 2011.

Grey 1869
Grey, Mrs W., Journal of a Visit to Egypt, Constantinople, the Crimea, Greece, &c. in the suite of the Prince and Princess of Wales, London, 1869.

I-Spy 2010
I-Spy National Portrait Gallery, Watford, 2010.

James 2010
James, T.B., ‘Mary Seacole’s Lost Letter’, BBC History Magazine, October 2010, pp.53–5.

Marsh 2005c
Marsh, J., ed., Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800–1900, Aldershot, 2005.

Modest & Barringer, forthcoming
Modest, W., and T. Barringer, eds, Victorian Jamaica, Durham, NC, forthcoming.

Palmer 2004
Palmer, A., ‘Seacole, Mary Jane (1805–1881)’, ODNB, Oxford, 2004; online ed., May 2006.

Rappaport 2007
Rappaport, H., No Place for Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War, London, 2007.

Robinson 2005
Robinson, J., Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea, London, 2005.

Seacole 1857
Seacole., M., The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, London, 1857.

Seacole 1984
Seacole, M., The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, ed. Z. Alexander and A. Dewjee, Bristol, [1857] 1984.

Seacole 2005
Seacole, M., The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, ed. S. Salih, London, [1857] 2005.

Simpson 1903
Simpson, W., The Autobiography of William Simpson R.I. (Crimean Simpson), London, 1903.

Staring-Derks et al. 2015
Staring-Derks, C., J. Staring and E.N. Anionwu, ‘Mary Seacole: Global Nurse Extraordinaire’, Journal of Advanced Nursing, vol.71, no.3, 2015, pp.514–25.