From Lynn McDonald to Rebekka Campbell

Rebekka Campbell, Editor, BBC Schools
September 4, 2014

Dear Ms Campbell,

Thank you for your reply of 3 September 2014 regarding my complaint about “BBC School Radio–Mary Seacole.” I am of course sorry that material still in use cannot be removed or corrected, because I failed to complain within 30 days. If something has been misinforming people since 2010, that hardly makes it right to continue to use it, especially as an educational resource.

It is troubling that you consider that a mere two mentions of Mrs Seacole running a hospital does not violate the standard of “due accuracy,” given that she never ran a hospital (or hotel) at all. Or that having Seacole treat “injured men,” while not “literally true” as shown, is fine. Clearly we differ in opinion.

However, your reply is wrong in several matters of fact, not interpretation, which I trust you will re-examine more carefully.

1. The man, not specified as officer or ordinary soldier, could not have been “provided with soup and blankets,” as you state in defence of the programme. Seacole’s business provided no one with blankets (Nightingale did that, for soldiers). You continue to transfer her work improving conditions for soldiers (she got kitchens going and bedding supplied) to Seacole, when her establishment was commercial, for officers (you blur this by not specifying rank). Seacole described how “course after course made its appearance, and to soup and fish succeeded turkeys, saddle of mutton, fowls, ham, tongue,” etc., in a “French” style of cooking (p 179). Not your “soup and blankets”!

2. You cite a “letter” from John Hall, Inspector General of Hospitals, which Mrs Seacole purports to quote. However, the letter could never be found in any archive or publication relating to Hall. Seacole’s enthusiastic biographer, Jane Robinson, who searched for evidence of the existence of the various testimonies, could find none. Nor could I. The very notion that Hall should commend her for administering “appropriate remedies,” even “charitably” is preposterous. The position of the Army Medical Dept, and Hall himself, was that no charity was needed, that the medical staff and supplies were adequate for the tasks. Thus, Hall is not “quoted by Seacole,” but a fictional letter is used. I discuss this and give sources in my book, Mary Seacole, The Making of the Myth, which of course was not available when the programme was first created, but which is available now and it does document everything.

3. On the entry into Sebastopol you have mixed up pages of her memoir. Seacole’s first trip into Sebastopol (with no mention of Sally, although hardly a matter of importance) was strictly social. There were no medicines, but only refreshments (p 173). In her book, she goes on to describe scenes of drunken soldiers plundering the city, and accepting plunder herself (pp 174-75). This is not performing medical work! She went again the next day, merely to observe, again no medical work, according to her own book (p 176). The quotation you give of her taking “medical supplies” occurs on the day of the last assault, on 8 September (p 169), which presumably is what prompted the Russians to abandon the city. This is one of the three times she did give first aid. However, there was no fighting in Sebastopol, for the Russians had left in the night.

4. Russell’s account of Mrs Seacole assisting is warm indeed, for the very good reason that he was fundraising for her. He mentions 3 occasions, the same as I do. It is stretching it to say that this confirms your point. His account of Seacole during the war itself was flattering, but brief.

Yours sincerely

Lynn McDonald, PhD, LLD (hon)
Professor emerita