To Martin Hall, vice-chancellor, University of Salford

To Prof. Martin Hall, University of Salford

Professor Martin Hall, Vice-chancellor
University of Salford
The Crescent
Salford M5 4WT

December 10, 2012

Dear Vice-chancellor

Some of the information requested about the Mary Seacole Building was duly sent, thanks to Ian Johnston. No information was provided on the information given to those making the decision, or any background document provided. Still, enough was sent for me to be writing you, now with colleagues concerned with the issue, about the extent of misinformation.

I am sorry to tell you that the wording on the plaque in the Seacole Building is seriously wrong, from beginning to end. Numerous erroneous sources are now available, so that it would take considerable care to get the facts about Seacole right, or even close. My colleagues and I do not object to honouring Seacole for her own work, but to crediting her with work (and feats) that she did not do, often crediting her with the work that Florence Nightingale did. (You do not mention Nightingale by name on your plaque, but make a snide reference to the “Angel Band.” Nightingale’s mission, not Seacole’s, was to ordinary soldiers.)

Herewith your plaque, with its errors (see the numbered notes): Mary Seacole, born in Kingston, Jamaica, was an unlikely medical pioneer.1 She had no private capital2, no formal training3, and yet when she died in 1881 she was the most famous black woman of the Victorian age. She is acknowledged now as a gifted and influential multidisciplinary practitioner4 and true nursing hero5.

Mary was the daughter of a Scottish soldier father and African Caribbean mother. Her mother was a “doctress” or traditional healer who taught her willing daughter all she knew. Mary travelled widely and in Panama encountered and cared for cholera victims for the first time. Her expertise in herbal remedies6 and spiritual healing7 became tempered with a sound clinical approach.

In 1854 Mary rushed to Britain8 and volunteered to help in the Crimean War. She was nearly 50 years of age and a striking figure-unashamedly large, colourful and cheerful. Her exuberance embarrassed the War Office and they refused to see her9. Similarly she was turned down by the much-acclaimed “Angel Band” of more demure military nurses10. Undeterred, Mary funded her own journey to the battlefields of the Crimea11. There she founded the British Hotel close to the battlefield of Balaclava12 for sick and wounded soldiers of all rank(s)13. “Mother Seacole” quickly became an institution among her “sons” in the army, beloved and admired.

When the war ended in 1856, she returned to Britain destitute and in ill health. The press highlighted her plight and funds were raised through a grand military festival14. She was decorated for her work by Britain, France and Turkey15 and became something of a national celebrity. Her autobiography “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands” was first published in 1857 and tells her remarkable life story with energy, warmth and humour. In it she provided an insight into the history of race politics16.

All her life she followed an instinct to help comfort and understand and the individual patient was always her prime concern17. When she died in London at the age of 76 she had become recognized as the first black woman in history to make her mark on British public life18.

In the light of this critique, we ask how you intend to amend the plaque? An academic institution cannot permit such material in a public setting without exposing itself to significant embarrassment. We would be happy to provide material for a more appropriate inscription, if that would be helpful.

Sincerely yours


[Numbers in brackets refer to pages in Alexis Soyer, Culinary Campaign 1857 (CC) and Mary Seacole’s “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands” (WA)]

1 Medical pioneer: what did she pioneer?

2 No private capital: but she owned her late mother’s boarding house, “my house” (WA, pp 7, 59), a substantial building; when setting up her business in the Crimea she told Soyer that she had “embarked a large capital” in “her new speculation” (CC, p 233)

3 No formal training: there was no nursing training at the time for anyone, including Nightingale.

4 Influential multi-disciplinary practitioner: what disciplines? Whom did she influence?

5 True nursing hero: where and when did she nurse? How was she heroic?

6 Her expertise in herbal remedies: but she added toxic metals to her herbal cures, notably “sugar of lead” or lead acetate and mercury chloride (calomel) (WA, p 31).

7 Spiritual healing: not a subject she mentioned in her memoir, any source?

8 Rushed to Britain: however, in her memoir she said that she went to London to attend to her gold mining stocks, and only there, after Nightingale and her nurses had left, did she decide she wanted to go, too. This was after the major battles, and the sinking of a major supply ship on 14 November 1854, as she noted in her memoir, when she was still thinking about applying (WA, p 74).

9 Her exuberance embarrassed the War Office: how do you know that? Seacole’s memoir is the only source available on the matter, and it says nothing of the sort (WA, pp 77-79).

10 Turned down by the much acclaimed “Angel Band” of more demure military nurses: many of them were not demure at all, and were dismissed for intoxication; in any event they had all left for the war before Seacole decided she wanted to go, so could hardly have turned her down (WA, p 74).

11 Funded her own journey: yes, with the proceeds of her previous business, and with the intention of making money with her investment, as she told Soyer (CC, p 233).

12 Close to the battlefield of Balaclava: but the Battle of Balaclava took place on 25 October 1854, before Seacole had even decided she wanted to go to the war.

13 Sick and wounded soldiers of all ranks: Seacole’s memoir describes a hut providing meals, take-away, a bar and store for officers, only a “canteen” for soldiers (WA, p 114). She announced the intention of opening the “British Hotel,” but in fact it was never a hotel. Those who knew it called it “Mrs Seacole’s hut” or “Mrs Seacole’s store.” There were no beds for anyone, let alone sick or wounded; those who went there were well enough to be walk-ins.

14 Funds were raised through a grand military festival. The festival raised little money; the fund that supported Seacole in her old age was raised in 1867, by subscription.

15 She was decorated for her work by Britain, France and Turkey: a point often made, but not true, nor did Seacole ever claim to have won any decorations, although she wore medals when back in London.

16 She provided an insight into the history of race politics: but she never discussed the plight of blacks, slave or free, in Jamaica; she herself lived in many respects as a white Jamaican, employing blacks, e.g. two black servants in the Panama and the Crimea (WA, pp 12, 36, 39); she frequently used racist language for others, including “nigger” (WA, pp 20, 45, 48) and never referred to herself as a black or African.

17 The individual patient was always her prime concern: where did she state this?

18 The first black woman in history to make her mark on British public life: with the proviso that she did not identify as a black; she called herself variously “yellow” (WA, pp 27, 34, 78) and “a little brown” or “brunette” (WA, p 4) and “a few shades of deeper brown upon my skin” (WA, p 14), for her skin was not “as dark as any nigger’s” (WA, p 48).