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Medals and Testimonials

Seacole stamp, 2006, based on portrait by Challen. Note medals.Seacole’s Wonderful Adventures includes many testimonial letters, from doctors, patients and their families (see Chapter 7 for yellow fever in Jamaica and Chapter 13 for the Crimean period). As to their authenticity, we have no idea. Biographer Jane Robinson searched for a paper trail, but could find no letters.

In the case of letters by army officers, medical or military, the practice was to copy letters to the War Office in London, where they were numbered and docketed. Robinson could find no records of such letters in her search, to conclude skeptically: “She quotes a chapterful of letters in Wonderful Adventures, all saying what a sterling soul she was,” but because of the “lack of corresponding copies in their author’s papers are inadmissible as independent tokens of esteem” (121).

Many sources credit Seacole with being awarded medals for her work in the Crimean War, most often three  medals. Yet Seacole never claimed, in her 1857 memoir, to having won any, and in a later sourceregretted that she had not.

The Crimea Medal, said to have been won by Seacole, was a service medal given only to the military, officers, non-commissioned officers and private soldiers, with a clasp to indicate particular battles or the siege of Sebastopol in which they were engaged: see John Horsley Mayo, Medals and Decorations of the British Army and Navy (London: Archibald Constable 1897) 2:500. It did not require particular acts of bravery, which were recognized by the awarding of the Victoria Cross. The same source also notes the awarding of a special “jewel” to Nightingale in 1855, by Queen Victoria (2:500-010). The jewel was intended to be worn as the badge of an order, but Nightingale never wore it. It is on display at the Imperial War Museum.

The first British medal awarded to women was the Royal Red Cross, in 1883 (Nightingale was on the first list of persons honoured).

Misinformation on Seacole’s medals can even be found in (otherwise) good academic sources, such as  in John Shepherd’s substantial two-volume The Crimean Doctors: A History of the British Medical Services in the Crimean War (2:507).

When Seacole was honoured by "100 Black Britons" the claim was made that she was awarded the Crimean medal.

The Statue Appeal Campaign puts out this misinformation, and the Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Trust repeats it.

Portrait of Mary Seacole by Albert Challen, National Portrait Gallery Terracotta bust of Seacole by Count Gleichen
Much reproduced portrait by Albert Challen at the National,Portrait Gallery and the bust by Count Gleichen, which show Seacole wearing medals, but which were never awarded her.

It was no offence to wear someone else's medals when Seacole did. Such was made a criminal offence in the UK Army Act of 1955, Section 197 (the act has since been revised, but the same offence still holds). Specifically, the offence is to wear any military decoration, badge, stripe or emblem without authorization, and to falsely represent oneself as being entitled to wear such. Exemptions have been made for widows and other family members of war veterans.

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