BBC Schools

From Lynn McDonald to BBC School Radio, 5 August 2014

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

from Rebekka Campbell (Editor, BBC Schools) to Lynn McDonald, 3 September 2014

Dear Professor McDonald,

Thank you for your letter dated 5 August 2014 which raises a number of issues relating to School Radio’s content on Mary Seacole. We appreciate you taking the time to contact us and for your detailed comments: we of course take the question of accuracy very seriously. I trust you received our email dated 18 August explaining that we were investigating your complaint. Please accept my apologies for the short delay in sending on this full response.

We note that the bulk of your complaint is related to the teacher’s notes and the extension activity. Clause 2.3 of the BBC’s complaints framework clearly states that complaints about content currently published on a BBC website should be made within 30 working days of the date when it first appeared online:
The notes and activity you refer to have been online continuously since 2010. Therefore we do not feel that it is practicable and cost-effective to investigate this part of your complaint.

The clips were also first made available online in 2010, but were re-broadcast on 25 June 2014 as part of School Radio’s series on the Victorians. We can therefore consider the audio part of your complaint as your letter was dated within 30 working days of this re-broadcast.

I will preface all my comments by saying that the clips are clearly presented as an audio drama for primary school children. As such, factual events may have been simplified and scenes/characters/dialogue created to allow the drama to unfold in a way that young children can follow. That said, the clips do intend overall to present a historically accurate picture of Mary Seacole’s life.

Firstly, you state that ‘On the clips, a segment shows Mary Seacole running a hospital, called the British Hotel…’ It’s true that at the beginning of the clip Seacole’s character does twice refer to the British Hotel as a hospital. However in the drama, when asked by WH Russell whether the establishment is a hospital, Seacole draws a firm and very clear distinction between the British Hotel and Florence Nightingale’s ‘proper hospital’:

Russell: Why do you call this place the British Hotel? It’s a hospital isn’t it?
Seacole: Florence Nightingale has a hospital Mr Russell. You go and see her if you want to see a proper hospital.

Thereafter in the drama the establishment is always referred to as ‘the British Hotel’. We hear of a man (it’s not stated whether he is an officer or not) being comforted and provided with soup and blankets, and this is consistent with the description Seacole gives in her memoir of providing ‘…a mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’.

While I acknowledge that there is no evidence that Mary Seacole or others referred to the British Hotel as a hospital and accept that it was first and foremost a commercial enterprise, I believe that two uses of the word ‘hospital’ would not materially mislead the young audience. It was used at the outset to indicate to them in a simple way that it was a place where injured men might be treated. As you may be aware, Florence Nightingale is given clear credit for running the ‘proper’ hospitals. The BBC Editorial Guidelines allow for such ‘due’ accuracy, and we believe that the fictional audio clip was duly accurate in using the word hospital in the way it did, before then going on to contextualise this.

Next, you raise concerns about the fictionalised visit of WH Russell and the story of the injured man ‘tucked up in the warm, drinking soup’. The dialogue and the specifics of events are of course fictional but that is in keeping with the nature of the content which is, as I’ve stated above, clearly presented as a dramatised account of history.

We know that Russell did in fact visit the British Hotel – as you say elsewhere in your letter, ‘he is listed as having left (a small) unpaid bill’. We also know from Seacole’s memoir that the two saw each other on the battlefield. While the actual dialogue between the two is fictional, it is based in historical fact and created as a way to enable the drama to unfold.

You describe part of their dialogue, the comment that Florence Nightingale’s hospital is ‘too far from the action’, as being a ‘jibe’ at Nightingale. I don’t agree with this, particularly given that Seacole has already been heard to praise Nightingale’s ‘proper hospital’ and to say, as you comment, that the British Hotel is also ‘just not close enough’. She is simply explaining her reason for going down to the battlefield to help the men.

As with the dialogue between Seacole and Russell, the story of the injured man, while it may not be literally true, is also based on Seacole and others’ accounts. For example in her memoir Seacole describes how:

‘…during the day, if any accident occurred in the neighbourhood or on the road near the British Hotel, the men generally brought the sufferer there, whence, if the hurt was serious, he would be transferred to the hospital of the Land Transport opposite.’

Russell in his description of the British Hotel says that:

‘…here she doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battle-field to aid the wounded, and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessings…’

John Hall, Inspector-General of Hospitals is quoted by Seacole as saying that:

‘She not only, from the knowledge she had acquired in the West Indies, was enabled to administer appropriate remedies for their ailments, but, what was of as much or more importance, she charitably furnished them with proper nourishment…’

These parts of the drama never purported to represent actual dialogue or events, but serve to tell a story that is clearly based in historical fact: at the British Hotel Mary Seacole provided food, shelter and basic treatment of injuries and ailments.

Next you raise a point about Mary Seacole’s treatment of wounded Russian soldiers. You feel that while this did happen in the drama it has been ‘grossly exaggerated’. In fact it forms only a small part of the drama – in (again imagined) dialogue between Russell and Seacole, Russell asks whether it’s true that she helps injured Russians, Seacole states that she does and asks ‘Do you think that’s wrong?’ This dialogue lasts barely 15 seconds and no claim of extensive help is made, so I don’t agree that this amounts to gross exaggeration.

Finally in your comments about the clip you refer to the section where Seacole and Sally enter Sebastopol. They manage to gain entry to the city because of a letter Sally describes from ‘the General’ which says they should be allowed in with ‘medical supplies’. A soldier realises he’s speaking to Mary Seacole and immediately lets them pass. You rightly point out in your letter that, in her memoir, Seacole describes a letter from General Garrett which refers only to ‘refreshments’.

However it’s clear that she did pass through blockades on the strength of her reputation and did carry medical supplies with her. In her memoir she tells us: ‘A line of sentries forbade all strangers passing through without orders, even to Cathcart’s Hill; but once more I found that my reputation served as a permit, and the officers relaxed the rule in my favour everywhere. So, early in the day, I was in my old spot, with my old appliances for the wounded and fatigued…’

WH Russell reports seeing Seacole with her supplies, including bandages: ‘I saw her at the assault on the Redan, at the Tchernay, at the fall of Sebastopol, laden, not with plunder, good old soul! but with wine, bandages, and food for the wounded or the prisoners.’

Here, while the drama may conflate events, as I said, we are charged with being ‘duly’ accurate, and the supporting evidence for this was that she clearly used Garrett’s letter, or one like it, to pass the guards, and arrived with refreshments and medical supplies (bandages) for the wounded. The intention was to show that Seacole was respected, determined to enter the city and that her assistance and services were welcomed and valued. We do not believe that the audience would be materially misled on this point.

I hope I’ve been able to address your concerns here and once again, thank you for taking the time to contact us. We welcome feedback about our content and always strive to ensure it’s of the highest possible quality.

Best wishes,

Rebekka Campbell
Editor, BBC Schools

From Lynn McDonald to Rebekka Campbell (Editor, BBC Schools), 4 September 2014

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