To BBC School Radio

BBC School Radio
4th Floor, Bridge House
Salford M50 2BH

August 5, 2014

Dear Sirs/Mesdames

Re: BBC School Radio. History–The Victorians. 9. The Life of Mary Seacole. BBC 2010. Still available.

The BBC’s coverage of Mary Seacole has been fallacious in many respects, and this BBC School Radio “educational” material is particularly bad. Some of the comparisons with Nightingale are nasty. The whole programme should be replaced with one that meets reasonable standards of accuracy (to apply both to material on Seacole and comparisons with Nightingale).

My own publications give accurate information, with sources. They were not available when this item was created, but obviously the sources I used were. Most of the BBC’s mistakes could have been avoided simply by consulting Seacole’s Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (page references hee are to it).

The website and clips should be taken down promptly, to be replaced when adequate, accurate material is available.

Herewith a list of errors. Further material can be supplied to detail errors and/or provide more context. For other examples of misinformation see

Lesson Plan: Learning intention: We are learning to understand the life of a key historical character from the Victorian era.

1. Journey to the Crimea (approx 6 mins). This describes Nightingale as “a famous nurse who organised help for soldiers during the Crimean War,” which is true, but a gross understatement, while most statements about Seacole an overstatement or fiction.

During listening, one key fact to focus on. Key question: What obstacles did Mary Seacole overcome to serve as a nurse in the Crimean War? Instruction: Write down the things Mary Seacole overcame to fulfil her ambition. (Answers: Racism preventing travel to England from Jamaica.

However, there is no evidence that racism was the problem; since Seacole never properly applied, and did not have the hospital experience required, there were good reasons for rejecting her.

“Not allowed to serve as a nurse in the army,” but she never applied. “Had to make the dangerous journey to the Crimea on her own.” The journey was not especially dangerous, and she probably was accompanied by her two black servants.

2. The Crimean War. Before listening: one key fact to discuss….. Discussion question: What do soldiers need if they are injured fighting in a war? (To be cleaned, bandaged, kept warm, brought, food, given medicine.)

Yes, but this was the work of the doctors and nurses, not Seacole.

During listening: one question to focus on. Key question: How did Mary Seacole help the British soldiers? Instruction: Write notes to explain what Mary Seacole did to help the British soldiers. (Answers: Providing shelter and food for injured soldiers. Running a hospital in a dangerous area close to where the battles took place.)

Again, this is not true: Seacole never ran a hospital, or even worked in one so much as one day of her life.

3. After the war was over. Before listening: one key fact to discuss…. The British soldiers and Florence Nightingale’s nurses were all brought home by the British army. Discussion question: How do you think Mary Seacole should have been treated after the Crimean War?

This seems geared to fostering resentment. But why would the British Army bring a businessperson home for free? Doctors, nurses, soldiers, of course, but Seacole was not one of them. Nor did she ever complain that the army did not give her a free trip. She presented the loss of her business as the result of overstocking their supplies, not correctly estimating when the army would leave the Crimea.

During listening: one question to focus on. Key question: What happened to Mary Seacole after the Crimean war? Instruction: Write a list of the things that happened to Mary Seacole after the war was over. (Answers: The ‘British Hotel’ hospital cost money to maintain and could not be sold. Mary Seacole had no money to live on. A reporter told her story and organised collections to reward her for her service.)

However, by her own description, Seacole had some money to live on, although little. No reporter organized fundraising for her, but her officer friends did.

When she applied to the War Department in London to join Florence Nightingale as a nurse, she was turned away with the weak excuse that no more nurses were needed, although Mary was under the illusion that she was being rejected because of her colour. So Mary Seacole decided to travel to the Crimea and build her own hospital and in spite of hearing stores about the harsh conditions she would encounter in the Crimea, she was determined to carry out her plans.

The “weak excuse”? Seacole never applied (the applications are at the National Archives, Kew). Her own description of her efforts at applying show her dropping into government offices, informally. Moreover, she was late, not starting until November 30 or later (her own account says after the sinking of a supply ship, which was first reported November 30).

2. The Crimean War. Mary has built her hospital (she calls it the ‘British Hotel’) which is much closer to the battlefield than Florence Nightingale’s.

It was not a hospital but a business for officers.

She describes how she treated the wounded soldiers who needed her help.

However, this occurred on three occasions only–she missed the three major battles and the worst of the siege.

One day in 1856 a journalist called William Howard Russell from ‘The Times’ newspaper arrived at the British Hotel, wanting to write an article about Mary. Rather grudgingly she agreed.

She never said anything of the kind, and his report never refers to an interview at her business, but seeing her on the battlefield, postbattle, where he was taking notes. This account is entirely fictional. He is known to have been a customer, for he is listed as having left (a small) unpaid bill.

He discovered how well loved Mary was by the soldiers–they called her Mother Seacole.

Officers did also.

And how she would put aside fears for her own personal safety in order to treat wounded soldiers on the battlefield itself.

Again, this occurred on only three occasions–he saw one–when he was on the battlefield himself.

She would treat any wounded soldiers if they needed her help, including enemy troops.

On one occasion, according to her memoir, she helped “several” Russians.

3. After the war was over….Back in London, she and Sally, her faithful maid, were very poor.

Seacole gave her maid’s name as Mary. There is no mention of a Sally or any maid in London. Chef Alexis Soyer called Sally/Sarah her daughter in his war memoir.

A “surprise visit” from Russell is described, but Seacole herself said that she went to Lord Rokeby to ask for help and he organized the fundraising. There was a huge party but the “message of congratulation from Queen Victoria” is yet again fictional.

On the clips, a segment shows Seacole running a hospital, called the British Hotel, where she treated ordinary soldiers injured in battle, carried in from the battlefield. Yet, according to her memoir, she planned on opening a hotel, never a hospital, and it was scrapped for a restaurant/bar/takeaway/catering service, for officers. It was a hut, not a hotel, with a “canteen” available to the soldiers (p 114).

There is also a fictional visit “late in the day” by W.H. Russell, who did in fact write nice things about Seacole, but not what he is quoted as saying. Russell praised Seacole for kindness, but never called her hut a hospital.

Seacole contrasts her hospital with Nightingale’s: “Mr Russell, I just want to make a place where soldiers can come and be safe and warm. This one here with the wound in the head….” and the soldier states “I thought I was going to die, and now here I am tucked up in the warm, drinking soup.” Blatantly false, again.

Seacole is also falsely described as walking Russell to the fighting: “Look, if a man gets wounded up here near Sebastopol, he has to be taken down to our place. That’s two hours walking. We’re just not close enough.” But she had no hospital anywhere!! A jibe at Nightingale, that her hospital “is too far away from the action,” true, but hardly Nightingale’s decision: she was sent there by the War Office.

The soldier with head wounds given soup and tucked up in head is entirely fictional. Seacole missed the first three, major, battles. She was present at three, which were over in hours. She described giving first aid on the battlefield and at the entrance to a hospital, but she never took soldiers in, transported them to her “hospital” (which did not exist). Meals–and she described delicious meals–were available, for a price, to officers, not ordinary soldiers. This is a nice story–but it is untrue.

On treating “wounded enemy soldiers” it seems that Seacole’s description, on one occasion, of giving first aid to “several Russians” (166) has been grossly exaggerated. There is no mention of her taking loot from dead Russians, including cutting off their buttons as souvenirs (167). One Russian officer gave her a ring for her kindness. She was kind, but all this exaggerates it.

On entering Sebastopol, the letter by General Garrett was not to bring medicines, but, “to pass Mrs Seacole and attendants with refreshments for officers and soldiers” (173). She described a convivial group bringing muleloads to the fallen city, and did not describe treating any wounded.

The “Follow up and extension activity” is also wrong. The Crimean War did not begin in 1853 (not for the French and British), and Seacole was nowhere near the Crimea until March or so 1855, not 1854-56. She was not “ignored at first,” but enjoyed celebrity immediately after the war. The children are to work on a timeline, but are given incorrect dates!

Yours sincerely

Lynn McDonald, PhD, LLD (hon)
Professor emerita