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Mary Seacole: 'An extraordinary person'

HEROINE: Mary Seacole was loved by British soldiers

IF HISTORY matters, it matters for ordinary people and not just the great and the good. There is an opportunity and a danger in the suggestion that education secretary Michael Gove might change the curriculum to remove people like Mary Seacole.

Why does Mary Seacole matter historically? I would suggest two important reasons.

Firstly, she was so widely admired and respected by British troops that when she returned bankrupt from the Crimea a committee was formed under the chairmanship of Colonel Henry Daniell, of the Coldstream Guards, to raise funds for her. It consisted of 14 senior officers of famous regiments and the Royal Navy. Members of the royal family were among its patrons. A concert lasting for three days raised money to help Mary Seacole. It was attended by 80,000 people including many of the troops whom she had cared for. Troops do not do that unless someone matters to them.

Sir William Russell, war correspondent for The Times, said of her: “I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them …” But we did forget. The curriculum and now the memorial are putting that right.

The second reason follows from the first. Mary Seacole reminds us of what was happening in Britain and the world at that important time, so she is important in the teaching of history.

She enables us to understand why Britain, having become the world’s first industrial power and with a global reach, has become what we are today – the most successful multicultural country and one of which we can be greatly proud as the Olympics recently reminded us.

Britain did not magically become multicultural with the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1947. There is a painting in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords showing the death of Nelson at Trafalgar. Nelson’s fleet had 188 sailors of African origin aboard as well as sailors from other parts of the world. The painting shows the early multicultural face of Britain.


HONOURED: MP Margaret Hodge and Professor Elizabeth Anionwu unveil an English heritage plaque for Seacole

Other parts of history are then inevitably drawn to our attention. We cannot be proud of our record in the 18th Century as the largest slave trader across the Atlantic, but we can be proud of the amazing public pressure that resulted in its abolition and the 19th Century campaign to end slavery. Britain lost somewhere in the order of 15,000 marines and sailors combating the slave trade. Why is this not part of our complex and sometimes contradictory history? Our history is not all good neither is it all bad. We need to see it in the round and recognise the positive along with the negative.

When school children hear about Mary Seacole they are enthused because she was interesting and exciting so why take her out of the curriculum? Do we not want to enthuse our children with fascinating historical stories? Should we not proudly talk of our success in creating this multicultural society? The struggle for equality amongst the races is an important story with many examples of success and failure. History comes alive when taught in this way. I don’t want a return to ‘Kings and Queens’ History. I suffered that at school.

Some of the arguments around Mary Seacole say she was not a ‘proper nurse’ but nursing at that time was carried out by housekeepers, nuns and other groups and individuals in society. It was Florence Nightingale to her eternal credit, who created the concept of modern nursing with an emphasis on hygiene, organisation and training. We should remember Florence for creating modern nursing. We should see Mary Seacole as a battlefield nurse. She went out on the battlefield giving care and compassion (and who says that is unimportant in nursing?) as well as dressing wounds.

She administered various herbal remedies to the sick and not without success which is one of the reasons, I would suggest, for her popularity. This was a time when doctors were still bleeding patients. Medicine was not what it is today. Mary Seacole used herbal remedies and who would claim that they were less effective than the practice of bleeding patients?

The history of nursing recognises the contribution of the early pioneers. Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale are not competitors in this history – they are complimentary and both were brave and distinguished women who made important contributions to nursing but in different ways.

My message to Michael Gove is be proud of our history, be proud of how we became the incredible and successful nation that we are today and remember that it only came about because of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Our troops still remember Mary Seacole and have contributed to the current appeal for a memorial. If they can remember their regimental histories, surely we can remember too and put it in a wider and important social context.

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Lord Clive Soley of Hammersmith is chairman of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal. The charity has raised more than £158,000 to help erect a permanent statue in her honour on the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital, near Waterloo.

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