To Sharon Ament, Director, Museum of London

To Sharon Ament, Director, Museum of London

Sharon Ament, director
Museum of London
150 London Wall
London EC2Y 5HN

Dear Ms Ament

We are writing with concern about your website and tour material on Mary Seacole, about whom an enormous amount of misinformation is in circulation. Especially since the Museum of London takes tours of school children, we urge that the errors be corrected.

Minor errors, or uncorroborated points, on your coverage of Seacole include the point that her mother was a “free black woman,” although Seacole never used the term “black” for herself or her family members-they were of mixed race; she called herself “Creole” (Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands 1). She described her father as a “soldier” (1) not an officer. She gave her mother’s occupation as “boarding house” keeper, who was also an “admirable doctress (2), never a nurse. There is no documentation that Seacole was employed by the royal family post-Crimea.

On the Crimean War the errors escalate. When war broke out in the Crimea-the first battle was on 20 September-Nightingale’s team of nurses did not exist, and Seacole was en route to England from Panama, to attend to her gold-mining stocks (74). Seacole never submitted an application to be a nurse (they are at the Public Archives, Kew). According to her memoir, she went around to various offices to apply in person-after Nightingale and her team had left (75-79). She may have been rejected for racism, but it is impossible to tell-she was also old for nursing, and lacked hospital experience.

Seacole then decided, with her business partner, to establish a hotel, and sent out printed cards to this effect (81). On consultation with chef Alexis Soyer, however, she decided to keep the business to food and drink, not hotel accommodation (see his Culinary Campaign 233). She never claimed to have run a “daily clinic,” but rather saw “patients,” all walk-ins, while running her kitchen (125). The food was for sale to officers, not ordinary soldiers, who clearly could not afford the lobster, fine wines, champagne, etc. Nor did soldiers buy boots or saddles, but officers did. The “cannon fire” statement is an exaggeration, and her helping “on the battlefield” occurred on exactly three occasions (156, 167, 169). Seacole sold herbal remedies, and gave some away to those who could not pay. However, she also added toxic non-herbals to her cholera remedies, such as lead acetate and mercury chloride (31). Her remedies for bowel diseases were unhappily similar to those used by doctors, and, like theirs, either ineffective or positively harmful.

Seacole was given no medals by any country, nor ever, in her Wonderful Adventures, claimed to have been awarded any. She did not wear medals for her picture on the cover. However, she started to wear them in London after the war, which was not then illegal. Since 1955, it has been a criminal offence in the Army Act to wear military medals not your own. This is a common myth bandied about, but is entirely false. (Only the military were awarded those medals-see John Horsley Mayo, Medals and Decorations of the British Army and Navy, vol. 2 on the Crimean War). The one medal Seacole was awarded, although posthumously, was the Jamaican Order of Merit, but you do not mention it!

Seacole and her partner had to declare bankruptcy (they had expanded the business, expecting the British Army to stay longer in the Crimea after hostilities were over than it did). Officers did the fund raising for her after the war, for officers were her main customers.

We note also that your website has almost nothing about Nightingale-a “carte de visite.” Yet her decades-long work, all based in London, brought in modern professional nursing, health care reforms and changed hospital design.

Yours sincerely