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Mary Seacole: a legacy of inclusion for future generations

A controversial but successful appeal paid for a memorial statue of Crimean war heroine Mary Seacole in London. Now a charitable trust in her name is working for a more inclusive society.
seacole

A controversial but successful appeal paid for a memorial statue of Crimean war heroine Mary Seacole in London. Now a charitable trust in her name is working for a more inclusive society

The statue of Mary Seacole has been standing proudly outside St Thomass Hospital in central London for just over a year. The bronze sculpture, depicting the Jamaican-born nurse facing the Houses of Parliament across the Thames, was unveiled in June last year after more than 12 years of campaigning and fundraising.

But the work to celebrate the role of Mrs Seacole, a pioneering nurse who travelled to the Crimean war to tend injured British soldiers in 1855, has not ended with the success of the statue. The Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal, which raised 500,000 in donations from thousands of individual supporters

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A controversial but successful appeal paid for a memorial statue of Crimean war heroine Mary Seacole in London. Now a charitable trust in her name is working for a more inclusive society

seacole
The statue of Mary Seacole in London. Picture: Barney Newman

The statue of Mary Seacole has been standing proudly outside St Thomas’s Hospital in central London for just over a year. The bronze sculpture, depicting the Jamaican-born nurse facing the Houses of Parliament across the Thames, was unveiled in June last year after more than 12 years of campaigning and fundraising.

But the work to celebrate the role of Mrs Seacole, a pioneering nurse who travelled to the Crimean war to tend injured British soldiers in 1855, has not ended with the success of the statue. The Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal, which raised £500,000 in donations from thousands of individual supporters and organisations, has been succeeded by a new charity called the Mary Seacole Trust.

The charity intends to carry on Mrs Seacole’s legacy by inspiring current and future generations to build a society in Britain that is fairer, more inclusive and more harmonious.

Compassion and work

Drawing on Mrs Seacole’s attributes, it will encourage people to be ‘compassionate, entrepreneurial and hard-working’. It will also care for the statue, believed to be the first of a named black woman in Britain.

Karen Bonner, division director of nursing in the planned care division at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and a trustee of the Mary Seacole Trust, says: ‘We want to promote her as a role model and support people who are committed to tackling social challenges and inequalities. I am a nurse, so for me her story is one that motivates and inspires.’

The chair and vice-chair of the statue appeal, Lord Clive Soley and nurse Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, are life patrons of the trust. Professor Anionwu says the trust is being led by a new generation. ‘They are focused on the projects that promote the legacy of what Mary Seacole stood for and what she achieved,’ she says.

‘We want to promote her as a role model and support people who are committed to tackling social challenges and inequalities’

Karen Bonner

The trust’s work has been funded by a £50,000 grant from the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, which works to improve the health of people in Lambeth and Southwark. The trust will focus its work on education and diversity in leadership. It will highlight how Ms Seacole overcame racism and injustice.

The trust aims to support BME staff to attain senior positions, particularly within the NHS. Improvement in this area is much needed. A 2014 report on the NHS, Snowy White Peaks, found that in London, where 41% of NHS staff and 45% of the population are BME, only 8% of board members and 2.5% of chief executives and chairs were from BME backgrounds.

It also plans to build an alliance between private- and public-sector organisations, starting with a round-table event to explore and share best practice in developing diversity in leadership initiatives.

Recognition of concerns

This work will be carried out in collaboration with England’s chief nursing officer Jane Cummings, on behalf of NHS England, in what the trust’s website describes as a ‘recognition of the significant BME health service workforce and their concerns’.

Trust vice chair Lisa Rodrigues says this work will begin with the round-table event in March or April next year. She says Mrs Seacole’s natural leadership skills and ability to overcome adversity and rejection inspires this strand of the trust’s work.

Ms Rodrigues, a nurse, former mental health trust chief executive and mental health campaigner, says BME and female leaders, particularly BME women, remain woefully under-represented at the top of the NHS. ‘We still have disproportional representation in our leadership. We have about ten different reports we are looking at that are telling us the same thing.

‘Something happens to BME women’s careers – they either hit a glass ceiling or don’t see role models like themselves’

Lisa Rodrigues

‘Something happens to BME women’s careers – they either hit a glass ceiling or don’t see role models like themselves. They stop, and that is not right. It is not getting better, in some ways things have got worse. First we need to talk about it. If we don’t recognise it we can’t find a solution.’

The round-table event will set the agenda for this work, and there will be a focus on achieving long-term change, Ms Rodrigues says.

Projects fulfilling the education strand of the trust’s work include informing the public about Mary Seacole’s life through an expansion of the Seacole exhibition at the Florence Nightingale Museum at St Thomas’s Hospital. The museum is to open shortly.

Young ambassadors

In addition, a Young Seacole Ambassador initiative is designed to encourage the younger generation to consider Mrs Seacole’s inspirational qualities in today’s context. There will be an essay competition for year 5 and 6 school students about who they regard as their modern-day Mrs Seacole. The competition will initially be open to children in the Lambeth and Southwark area, where the statue is located, and will be held nationally in the future.

The promotion of Mrs Seacole’s legacy is not without controversy. When the statue was completed there was a row over the importance of her nursing role. Wendy Mathews, who helped set up the Florence Nightingale Museum, was among 12 signatories to a letter to the Times that claimed: ‘False achievements have been attributed to Mrs Seacole.’ It continued: ‘Mrs Seacole was a kind and generous businesswoman, but was not a frequenter of the battlefield “under fire” or a pioneer of nursing.’

Ms Bonner insists that work to celebrate Mary Seacole is needed – and that honouring her takes nothing away from Florence Nightingale. ‘We still promote Florence Nightingale’s legacy and there is no reason why Mary Seacole should not be part of that legacy. She brought a different slant to nursing. She was what I might class as an advanced nurse practitioner, and there is a need for her to be recognised.’

A life of service across nations

Mary Seacole was born in 1805 in Jamaica to a Scottish military father and a Creole mother who ran a boarding house in Kingston.

In 1850 she travelled to Panama to visit her brother and cared for those affected by a cholera epidemic, then cared for British soldiers based in Jamaica.

Four years later, at the age of 49, she travelled to London to offer to nurse soldiers in Crimea alongside Florence Nightingale. She made five unsuccessful attempts to join Florence Nightingale’s nursing team in Crimea, but despite glowing references her offers of help were rejected.

On the front line

She raised the funds to set up the British Hotel in Crimea in 1855, very close to the war zone. Here she provided soldiers with food and nursing care that included a morning dispensary.

She rode out to the front line with 'baskets of medicines of her own preparation' to treat the sick and wounded on both sides on the battlefield.

When the war ended she was left bankrupt, and a gala was held to raise money for her. She died in London in 1881.


Erin Dean is a freelance health journalist

Find out more about the Mary Seacole Trust here

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