“I trust that England will not forget one who nursed the 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, The Times Newspaper, 1857
Mary Jane Grant was born in 1805 in Jamaica, to a Scottish military father and a Creole mother who ran a boarding house in Kingston.
Mary’s gift for healing and her profound knowledge of herbal remedies came from her mother who practiced as a ‘doctress’. In 1836 she married Edwin Seacole, godson of Admiral Nelson, who died in 1844 leaving her childless.
Travelling was Mary’s passion. In 1850 she travelled to Panama to visit her brother. When a cholera epidemic struck and the American doctor could not cope, Mary single-handedly took over caring for the patients. Back in Jamaica, Mary looked after the victims of a yellow fever epidemic in 1853 and the British army asked her to provide nursing services at their headquarters at Up-Park Camp in Kingston.
In 1853 war broke out in the Crimea and the following year at the age of 49, Mary travelled to London to offer her services to nurse soldiers alongside Florence Nightingale who had just left for Scutari. Despite her glowing references from senior medics in Jamaica and Panama her offer of help was rejected five times. Refusing to succumb to discrimination Mary raised the funds for her passage to the Crimea where in 1855 she set up the British Hotel, very close to the war zone. Here she provided soldiers with food and nursing care that included a morning dispensary.
She often rode out to the front line with ‘baskets of medicines of her own preparation’ to treat the sick and wounded of both sides on the battlefields. She acted as a surgeon as well as administering natural remedies. She became well known to the soldiers, who called her ‘Mother Seacole’ and even ‘dear Mamma’.
The war ended suddenly in 1856, leaving Mary bankrupt.
All those who admired her came to her aid, whether soldiers, generals or members of the Royal family. In 1857 a gala was held for her over four nights on the banks of the River Thames and over 80,000 people attended. The same year she published her autobiography which became an instant bestseller.
Her courage and compassion during the conflict was noted by many observers, including Sir William Howard Russell the famous war correspondent of The Times newspaper. Towards the end of her life she travelled back and forth to Jamaica and became the masseuse to the Princess of Wales. She died in London in 1881 and is buried in St Mary’s Roman Catholic cemetery, Kensal Green, London.
In 2004 she was voted the Greatest Black Briton.