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Correspondence on the Seacole statue

Herewith letters on the proposed installation of a statue in honour of Mary Seacole on the grounds of St Thomas' Hospital, London—the hospital closely associated with Florence Nightingale. The letters review the ways in which support for Seacole has been used to attack Nightingale's reputation as a pioneer in public health and nursing.

To Wendy Mathews from Lynn McDonald, 27 Sept 2011

Dear Mrs Mathews

Your letter to Sir Hugh Taylor of 16 September 2011 and the “Mary Seacole Memorial Statute Update” of 20 July 2011 were sent to me by an American nursing leader who is also a Nightingale scholar, Barbara Dossey, and indeed concerns about this project have reached me from a number of people. I am the editor of the Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, a 16-volume project of which 14 volumes have already appeared, and no. 15 is in production. I am not a Seacole scholar, but have read her memoirs and several biographies of her, hence know the literature fairly well.

Several issues are intertwined, a suitable memorial to Mary Seacole (with which I agree) and the denigration of Nightingale, which is the product of some years of attack by two authors, F.B. Smith and Hugh Small, now with many followers, and popularized by three hostile and incorrect films, labelled documentaries, and related press coverage. (I could send you a great deal of material on this.) The Seacole film is telling in its title” “Mary Seacole: The Real Angel of the Crimea.” It portrays Seacole very positively (no problem with that) but shows Nightingale as cold and condescending (which is inaccurate). The two probably met for 5 minutes, an encounter Seacole described in her memoirs in amicable terms (see her _ Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands_ pp 135-6). The film has a great deal of misinformation in it, rather similar to that in 2.0 “Mary Seacole – History” in the Update document:

  1. That the “British army asked her to supervise nursing services at their headquarters in Kingston.” Evidence?
  2. That at the British Hotel in the Crimea, “she provided soldiers with accommodation, food and nursing care.” Evidence? There is much to the contrary. Seacole (with her business partner) was a sutler, or supplier of goods. The British Hotel was largely a restaurant for officers, an outlet for fine wines, with a cheaper canteen for soldiers. It was not a hospital and did not provide nursing services. (Seacole was generous and compassionate, and provided herbal remedies to sick soldiers, for which she deserves credit, but this is not what your “history” says.) The business failed when peace was established and officers and soldiers returned to Britain, leaving large amounts of expensive supplies unsold.
  3. That Seacole “received four medals including the Crimean Medal and the Légion d’Honneur”—any evidence? Biographer Jane Robinson in Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse who Became a Heroine of the Crimea tried to find it but could not (p 167). I tried the list of the Légion d’Honneur—no Seacole on it. Robinson’s book is highly partial to Seacole and negative about Nightingale, but she did try to document facts, for example, pointing out that the chapterful of letters from army generals Seacole quoted from attesting to the importance of her work, lacked “corresponding copies in their authors’ papers,” and were “inadmissible” as evidence (p 121).

There are further errors in point 3.2, on Seacole as a “Crimean War nursing heroine.” She was a herbalist, a “doctress,” in her own terms. She was not a nurse in the normal sense of the term. It is not clear that she ever did regular nursing work (in Jamaica she worked in her family’s business—her nursing only short-term in epidemics).

The public does indeed need to be reminded of the “importance of the nursing profession.” But what years of “her life’s work” did Seacole give “in support of its early development”? She did not nurse after the war, or ever nurse in the U.K. at any time that I know of. She did not train nurses, start a nursing school, write books or articles on nursing, mentor nurses, or any of the things that Nightingale did all her working life post-Crimea. Please, give dates and accomplishments for Seacole on nursing, as opposed to her generous gifts of herbals and sympathy, commendable indeed, but not the professional nursing that Nightingale worked so hard and long to establish.

I would be happy to give a briefing on Nightingale and her work, especially her contribution to St Thomas’. The material is available in my Collected Works of Florence Nightingale and a shorter (under 200 pages) Florence Nightingale at First Hand (2010). I will be in London late March and April, possibly longer.

The Guy’s St Thomas’ board should be aware that the denigration of Nightingale is inevitable in this promotion of “the real angel of the Crimean War” at Nightingale’s very hospital. Is this your intention? St Thomas’ is the hospital to which Nightingale gave her best efforts to develop nursing, for some 40 years post-Crimea, and whose design she greatly influenced—to make it safer when hospitals were great killers. The Nightingale School at it led in the training of professional nurses, and sent out teams of nursing leaders throughout the world. Nightingale has been nastily and inaccurately attacked in recent years. It’s time to defend her and restore her place in history. A memorial to Seacole should be an independent matter and not detract from Nightingale’s enormous contribution.

To Sir Hugh Taylor, Chair, Guy's-St Thomas' Trust, from Lynn McDonald, 1 October 2011

Dear Sir Hugh

Correspondence to you and a report, the “Mary Seacole Memorial Statute Update” of 20 July 2011, were sent to me by an American nursing leader who is also a Nightingale scholar, Barbara Dossey, and indeed concerns about this project have reached me from a number of people. I am the editor of the Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, a 16-volume project of which 14 volumes have already appeared, and no. 15 is in production. I am not a Seacole scholar, but have read her memoirs and several biographies of her, hence know the literature fairly well.

Several issues are intertwined, a suitable memorial to Mary Seacole (with which I agree) and the denigration of Nightingale, which is the product of some years of attack by two authors, F.B. Smith and Hugh Small, now with many followers, and popularized by three hostile and incorrect films, labelled documentaries, and related press coverage. (I could send you a great deal of material on this.) The Seacole film is telling in its title” “Mary Seacole: The Real Angel of the Crimea.” It portrays Seacole very positively (no problem with that) but shows Nightingale as cold and condescending (which is inaccurate). The two probably met for 5 minutes, an encounter Seacole described in her memoirs in amicable terms (see her Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands pp 135-6). The film has a great deal of misinformation in it, rather similar to that in 2.0 “Mary Seacole – History” in the Update document:

  1. That the “British army asked her to supervise nursing services at their headquarters in Kingston.” Evidence?
  2. That at the British Hotel in the Crimea, “she provided soldiers with accommodation, food and nursing care.” Evidence? There is much to the contrary. Seacole (with her business partner) was a sutler, or supplier of goods. The British Hotel was largely a restaurant for officers, an outlet for fine wines, with a cheaper canteen for soldiers. It was not a hospital and did not provide nursing services. (Seacole was generous and compassionate, and provided herbal remedies to sick soldiers, for which she deserves credit, but this is not what your “history” says.) The business failed when peace was established and officers and soldiers returned to Britain, leaving large amounts of expensive supplies unsold.
  3. That Seacole “received four medals including the Crimean Medal and the Légion d’Honneur”—any evidence? Biographer Jane Robinson in Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse who Became a Heroine of the Crimea tried to find it but could not (p 167). I tried the list of the Légion d’Honneur—no Seacole on it. Robinson’s book is highly partial to Seacole and negative about Nightingale, but she did try to document facts, for example, pointing out that the chapterful of letters from army generals Seacole quoted from attesting to the importance of her work, lacked “corresponding copies in their authors’ papers,” and were “inadmissible” as evidence (p 121).

There are further errors in point 3.2, on Seacole as a “Crimean War nursing heroine.” She was a herbalist, a “doctress,” in her own terms. She was not a nurse in the normal sense of the term. It is not clear that she ever did regular nursing work (in Jamaica she worked in her family’s business—her nursing only short-term in epidemics). Could you inform me of any nursing work she did in the U.K.? I am aware of none from the available sources.

The public does indeed need to be reminded of the “importance of the nursing profession.” But what years of “her life’s work” did Seacole give “in support of its early development”? She did not nurse after the war, or ever nurse in the U.K. at any time that I know of. She did not train nurses, start a nursing school, write books or articles on nursing, mentor nurses, or any of the things that Nightingale did all her working life post-Crimea. Please, give dates and accomplishments for Seacole on nursing, as opposed to her generous gifts of herbals and sympathy, commendable indeed, but not the professional nursing that Nightingale worked so hard and long to establish.

I would be happy to give you and any of your colleagues a briefing on Nightingale and her work, especially her contribution to St Thomas’. The material is available in my Collected Works of Florence Nightingale and a shorter (under 200 pages) Florence Nightingale at First Hand (2010). I will be in London late March and April, possibly longer.

The Guy’s St Thomas’ board should be aware that the denigration of Nightingale is inevitable in this promotion of “the real angel of the Crimean War” at Nightingale’s very hospital. Is this your intention? St Thomas’ is the hospital to which Nightingale gave her best efforts to develop nursing, for some 40 years post-Crimea, and whose design she greatly influenced—to make it safer when hospitals were great killers. The Nightingale School at it led in the training of professional nurses, and sent out teams of nursing leaders throughout the world. Nightingale has been nastily and inaccurately attacked in recent years. It’s time to defend her and restore her place in history. A memorial to Seacole should be an independent matter and not detract from Nightingale’s enormous contribution.

Yours sincerely,
Lynn McDonald

To colleagues from Wendy Mathews, February 2012

Dear Friends

I have been informed that the Planning Application by the MSMSA Committee to erect the huge statue of Mary Seacole in the STH rose garden, could be allowed by the Planning Department without referral to the Councillors of the Planning Committee. To prevent this occurring my aim is to encourage many people to write with specific comments and objections.

The application plans were made pubic last week and I have spent some time (hours!!) reading them on line at Lambeth Borough Council website and at Waterloo Library.

I attach a draft of my letter to provide you with some idea of the crucial points which will do most to sway the Councillors to refuse planning permission. You will notice that the emphasis must be on the practical problems and disadvantages of the current chosen site. It seems that a statue of such size could even cause adverse air currents! Some of you may not empathise with all my objections but all your comments will be helpful.

The application number is 11/04574/FUL

The Planning Officer in charge is Seonaid Carr.

Her address is 1st Floor Phoenix House
10 Wandsworth Road London SW8 2LL
e-mail SCarr@lambeth.gov.uk

Can you please send your comments soon as the file will be closed on Monday 12th March 2012.

I am delighted to let you know that that the Waterloo Community Development Group (WCDG) have also written objecting to the proposal. In addition my local Councillor, Peter Truesdale has today given his support and “called-in” the application which I understand should ensure that the matter will get to the Planning Committee

To Seonaid Carr, Lambeth Planning Officer, from Wendy Mathews, 28 February 2012

Seonaid Carr – Planning Officer
Lambeth Planning
Phoenix House
10 Wandsworth Road
London SW8 2LL 28th February 2012

Sent by e-mail to SCarr@lambeth.gov.uk

Dear Ms Carr

Ref ; Planning application 11/04574/FUL dated 28.12.11 and
Design and Access Statement 11/04574/FUL dated 31.01.12

Thank you for the letter from Sue Foster reference 11/04574/FUL/DC_SCA/17339 dated 20th February 2012

I write now to expand my reasons for requesting that this application be refused.

Primary Reasons – site unsuitable

The proposed statue will be 3m, with a 4.9m disc behind, standing on a plinth 5.8 × 4.2m x 0.2m

  1. It will be too large and out of keeping for this relatively small open space
  2. It will dominate and overwhelm the garden and the Naum Gabo Fountain.
  3. It will reduce the area of public space which exists as a result of an agreement between Lambeth Council and St Thomas’ Hospital in the 1960s.

Groups arriving to view the statue and inscription would cause congestion and disturb patients’ and visitors’ quiet enjoyment of the rose garden and Naum Gabo Fountain.

Vehicle Parking. Point 10 in the document “Application for Planning Permission” states that 384 car spaces are available plus 22 disability spaces but does not specify the location of these spaces. There are only about 200 spaces (plus the 22 noted) within the St Thomas’ site under Gassiot House which are shared by staff, patients and visitors and are already frequently over-subscribed.

Secondary Reasons

Lack of open consultation

The site was offered to the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal Committee in December 2006 (application pack Illustration 8 – letter from Patricia Moberly, at that time Chairman of the Guy’s and St Thomas’ (GSTT) NHS Foundation Trust, to Lord Soley). In November 2005 the Chairman had informed the Board that talks were on going “without commitment” and that the Chairman would “keep the Board informed as the discussions progress”. This did not happen. By December 2006 there had been no presentation of this matter, in open meeting, to the Board of Directors, Council of Governors or members of staff. There has been no direct consultation with around 12000 staff members, although there was a short-term exhibit of the current plans in September 2011.

Historical Precedents

The honour of a statue at St Thomas’ Hospital has hitherto been confined to benefactors. These comprise Robert Clayton, King Edward Vl, Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale. Mrs Seacole had no connection with St Thomas’ or any other hospital. She was a sutler (purveyor of food and drink to the army) a compassionate woman of considerable courage and skilled with herbal treatments. There is no legacy of healthcare expertise. She disliked hospitals and had no connections with the developing nursing profession. Given her ‘alternative’ approach, St Thomas’ is not suitable and is inappropriate site for her memorial statue.

The concept of a memorial statue of Mrs Seacole is to be supported. There are suitable and appropriate sites in the North Lambeth area. Forum Magnum Square is set between the heretofore General Lying In Hospital’s imposing façade and the elegant columned entrance to the County Hall building. The Martin Jennings statue is striking and would look dramatic in such an open position. Moreover there is ample space for the public to read the inscriptions. In 1856 Mrs Seacole attended fundraising events in the area of Spring Gardens and Kennington Park either of which could also provide a suitable setting for her memorial statue.

Mary Seacole is perceived as a role model. She should be amongst the population rather than on a hospital site.

My credentials for writing on this matter emanate from being a lecturer on Mary Seacole since 2004 when I assisted in the preparations – at the Florence Nightingale Museum – to celebrate the bicentenary of her birth (1805). I take Historical tours of both St Thomas’ and Guy’s and am author of the book “My Ward – the story of St Thomas’, Guy’s and the Evelina Children’s Hospitals. I was a Governor of GSTT for six years – the full allowable term of office – from 2004 until 2010.

Yours sincerely
Wendy Mathews (Mrs)

To colleagues from Lynn McDonald, March 2012

Mrs Wendy Mathews, a former governor of Guy-St Thomas’ Trust and an expert on the hospital, has written a troubling letter about the coming decision to install a statue of Mary Seacole at Nightingale’s hospital, St Thomas’. She has asked people to send an email letter ASAP to the Planning Dept. Her letter sets out excellent reasons and suggests alternative sites. Neither she nor I oppose honouring Seacole, but the campaign as it has developed is geared far beyond that goal to the effective displacement of Nightingale as the major founder of the modern profession of nursing.

For your information I enclose my own letter as well. However, as I am not a resident of London, let alone Lambeth, my words will likely count for little. Many of you who receive this email would be paid greater heed. Some may not be able to write in their official capacity, but I would urge a personal letter as someone concerned, rather than silence.

Please pass on the information to anyone else you think might be willing to speak up.

Many thanks
Lynn McDonald

To Seonaid Carr from Lynn McDonald, 1 March 2012

Seonaid Carr, Lambeth Planning Officer
Scarr@lambeth.gov.uk

March 1, 2012

Re Planning application 11/04574/FUL dated 28.12.11 and
Design and Access Statement 11/04574/FUL dated 31.01.12

Dear Ms Carr

I am writing to urge rejection of this application. Quite apart from the reasons given by Mrs Wendy Mathews, in her letter of 28 February 2012, regarding the unsuitableness of the site (notably the ungainly size of the statue for an intimate garden) and the lack of open consultation (which is putting it mildly) there is another reason Mrs Mathews which is too diplomatic to mention. That is the associated campaign, for some advocates of Mary Seacole at least, against Florence Nightingale, and her replacement by Seacole as the “true” heroine of the Crimean War, and the founder of modern professional nursing.

I do not at all object to honouring Seacole, any more than Mrs Mathews did. My point is that Seacole should be celebrated for her own accomplishments, and honouring her should not entail denigrating another person.

Why St Thomas’ Hospital? Seacole never set foot in the place, as a patient or nurse—nor did she nurse in any hospital in Britain. St Thomas’ was the home for more than a century of the Nightingale School, the first secular training school for nurses, and a school that influenced nursing throughout the world. Nurses and matrons trained at it were instrumental in founding nursing in many hospitals throughout the UK (notably Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester, Oxford and Cambridge), Australia, Canada, the United States, Sweden and Germany. Nightingale also was a major influence on the design of the hospital—the one which opened in Lambeth in 1871—bombed during World War II and since completely rebuilt. It was a model throughout the world for healthier, safer, hospital construction.

There are many places where Seacole could be suitably honoured without any implicit attack on Nightingale.

Not only has there been lack of open consultation, a great deal of misinformation has been circulated in support of the St Thomas’ Hospital site for the statue. Flagrant inaccuracies portray Nightingale negatively, while exaggerated claims are made for Seacole, far beyond any that she made for herself in her fine memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands.

The St Thomas’ Guy’s NHS Foundation Trust is itself guilty of spreading significant misinformation in its research paper, “Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Update,” dated 20 July 2011. Here the claim is made that Seacole set up the British Hotel during the Crimean War to provide “soldiers with accommodation, food and nursing care,” and that to acknowledge her “courage and compassion during the war, she received four medals including the Crimean Medal and the Légion d’Honneur” (2.)

In fact, the British Hotel was a restaurant or “mess table” for officers; there was a “canteen” for the “soldiery,” but Seacole never claimed to have provided meals for them, while a major goal of Nightingale’s was to provide nutritious food for ordinary soldiers. The British Hotel closed at 8 p.m. nightly and did not open on Sunday—it provided accommodation neither for officers or soldiers. It had a store for the sale of Seacole’s herbal remedies, plus wines, cigars, and many items for officers.

Point 3.2 of this same document held that the statue would be a memorial to “remind the public of the importance of the nursing profession and Britain’s black heroine who gave her life’s work in support of its early development.” But Seacole did no work towards the founding of nursing in Britain, early or late, let alone give her “life’s work” to such a goal—which Nightingale did, particularly at St Thomas’ Hospital, from its founding in 1860 to her effective retirement around 1900. Seacole never claimed to be a nurse at all, but called herself a “doctress,” trained in traditional Creole herbal remedies by her mother, an “admirable doctress.” Nursing is quite a different profession with quite a different history.

This is not at all to invalidate Seacole’s work. And she deserves to be commended for her compassion and generosity during the Crimean War. However she should not be credited with the decades-long work Nightingale gave to the founding of nursing. St Thomas’ was a significant influence around the world in the establishment of the nursing profession.

Incidentally, as an author of books on women theorists I am surprised that Seacole’s contribution as a writer has not been made more of.

Finally, Seacole did not receive any medals for her services in the Crimean War, from any government, nor did she ever claim to in her memoir. True, she wore medals in a photograph taken of her and in a painting, but these were likely given to her or purchased. There is nothing illegal in wearing such decorations, and she may well have done it for a lark.

I wrote the chair of the St Thomas’ Guy’s Hospital Trust about the gross inaccuracies in its document, but received no acknowledgement, let alone any answer to the questions I raised or clarifications I sought.

Might I add that the disparaging remarks about Nightingale made so frequently by Seacole’s supporters of today bear no relationship to Seacole’s own views. The two women probably met for about five minutes, as related in the Wonderful Adventures (Chapter 9) when Seacole asked Nightingale for a bed for the night at the Scutari Hospital—she was then en route to the Crimea to open up her business. Contrary to many portrayals of the encounter, she did not ask for a job as nurse, then to be denied it on the basis of her race. (Nightingale was already at the Barrack Hospital when Seacole was in London to apply for a post; she had no knowledge of her application of its rejection by the War Office.)

Seacole’s few references to Nightingale in her memoir are all positive and their only encounter described as amicable. In short, the desire of Seacole’s supporters today to place a statue of her in Nightingale’s hospital has absolutely nothing to do either with Seacole’s real contribution, nor her views of Nightingale or Nightingale’s hospital, St Thomas’.

Sincerely yours

Lynn McDonald
University Professor Emerita

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