Alexis Soyer and Seacole

The Seacole campaign makes much of Alexis Soyer’s friendship with Seacole, for he was the noted chef who volunteered his services to the British Army to improve their food. Soyer called on Seacole at the British Hotel and the two became friendly. He complimented her on her soups and dainties.

What the Seacole supporters fail to mention, however, is that Soyer worked hard with Nightingale for a year on the task of improving nutrition, and the two succeeded mightily. Pages of his memoir include references to Nightingale and their common work (see especially Soyer’s Culinary Campaign 134, 143, 150, 152, 160, 162, 164, 167, 170-72, 180, 185-86, 201, 204, 213) while Seacole gets only passing mention. A Soyer descendent who was interviewed in the 30-minute Seacole “documentary,” gives a very misleading portrayal of these relationships. The Soyer-Seacole encounter, as Soyer told it in his Culinary Campaign, highlights Seacole’s basic occupation as businesswoman, with no reference to nursing. She told him of her plan to include accommodation for visitors at the British Hotel, and he advised against it. She took his advice. As Soyer said:

The old lady expressed her desire to consult me about what she should do to make money in her new speculation, in which she had embarked a large capital, pointing to two iron houses in course of construction on the other side of the road. She told me that her intention was to have beds there for visitors, which I persuaded her not to do, saying “all the visitors–and they are few in number–sleep on board the vessels in the harbour, and the officers under canvass in the camp. Lay in a good stock of hams, wines, spirits, ale and porter, sauces, pickles and a few preserves and dry vegetables–in short anything which will not spoil by keeping.” “Yes,” said she, “I mean to have all that.” (143).

Soyer’s memoir is useful also for refuting the Seacole campaign view that while Seacole risked her life close to the battlefield, Nightingale was safe in distant hospitals. He was about to accompany her to the battlefield and warned her of “firing” on both sides, to which she replied:

My good young man…more dead and wounded have passed through my hands than I hope you will ever see in the battlefield during the whole of your military career; believe me, I have no fear of death (172).

National Portrait Gallery

“Mary Seacole in Focus” exhibit guide –some obvious errors, embellishments and omissions

Six pictures of Seacole are shown wearing medals, with no explanation that they were not hers. Does the NPG show any other portraits of persons wearing medals they did not earn? Who? What medals?

The Biography has major factual errors. Seacole’s mother’s boarding house, and Seacole’s later, did not cater to “British soldiers” (p 4), but officers. Soldiers could not have afforded the prices, did not mix with officers, and stayed in barracks.

Seacole was not “put in charge” of “nursing services for the British miliary headquarters in Jamaica” (p 4). She said she was asked to bring nurses to the camp outside Kingston, but did not–there was nothing she could do for the sufferers, so she returned to her boarding house. See her pp 59-63 for how little she could do on yellow fever.

“She offered herself directly to Florence Nightingale” (p 4) is highly misleading–she offered to work one night at her hospital, en route to starting her business! But nurses did not normally work at night; Nightingale could hardly have hired her for a non-existent one-person, one-night position. Seacole asked for a bed for the night, and was given one, although the hospital was terribly crowded. The “rejected again” statement again fails to recognize that Seacole never properly applied. “Medical work with the soldiers” is an exaggeration–most of her “patients” were healthy walk-ins; the post-battle first aid work occurred on only 3 occasions (18 June, 16 August and 8 September 1855).

“Mary Seacole’s Life in her Own Words” gives extracts, omitting those that acknowledge “lamentable blunders” in her remedies, that her purpose in going to London in 1854 was to attend to her failing gold stocks, and her acceptance of loot stolen by French soldiers.

Soyer appears on p 9, with no mention of such key facts that it was he who persuaded Seacole not to have a hotel at all, but a restaurant and bar, and his own reports of Seacole’s positive remarks about Nightingale and Nightingale’s positive remarks about her.

The Timeline (p 10-) has exaggerations and unsubstantiated points uncritically accepted, e.g.

  • 1817 “begins nursing,” when she said she learned “doctress” skills from her mother
  • 1853 “nursing yellow fever patients,” although her own account shows she could virtually nothing for them
  • 1854-5 “trying to sign up,” although she never submitted the required application and began late in applying in person
  • 1855 “sets up British Hotel,” which was not a hotel
  • 1860 “returns to Jamaica,” should be 1859
  • 1865 “returns to Britain” because seen as “British sympathizer,” any evidence?
  • 1869, 1871, c1873 pictures of her wearing medals not her own, not mentioned

The Timeline fails to mention her use of toxic substances, lead acetate and mercury chloride, and her acknowledgment of “lamentable blunders.” She began wearing medals not her own in 1855, again, a significant point not mentioned.

While Seacole is made into a heroine, there are slurs on Nightingale as well as complimentary remarks. Yet the NPG misses such important work as her analysis of Crimean War mortality (she was named the first woman fellow of the Royal Statistical Society as a result), her getting the Royal Commission on the sanitary state of the army established, her written evidence to it, the publication of her influential Notes on Hospitals, etc. Her Notes on Nursing and founding of the Nightingale School are acknowledged, but not that she sent nursing leaders around the world, mentored many, was a leading hospital reformer, especially of workhouse infirmaries, an opponent of the terrible Poor Law and pioneer advocate of quality health care for all.

The critique of Nightingale for “her unwillingness to allow Seacole to join her nursing” (p 13) only works if Seacole really were a qualified nurse and had actually applied, neither of which are true.

The comparison of Seacole and Nightingale (p 14) has Seacole treating “impoverished soldiers for free” close to the “battlefields,” omitting the fact that she missed the first 3, major, battles of the war, since she was busy in London on her gold stocks. She described giving first aid for free on 3 occasions (the 1855 battles), all post-battle, after her major work of selling food and drink to battle spectators (see her own memoir!).

The fostering of resentment is a major theme in the NPG’s treatment of the two women. No good reason could be found, apparently, for why more information is available about Nightingale than Seacole (p 14), but then most of the enormous work Nightingale did on nursing, public health and hospital reform work is not mentioned. Also in Section 3 “Teaching and learning” repeats the theme that Nightingale was “always remembered” while Seacole fell into obscurity, as if there were no important differences in their contributions.

Section 2 on the portrait discusses the medals Seacole wore (p 16), failing to mention that not one of them was awarded to her. In Section 3 “Guided discussion” a leading question is posed: “what is she wearing that might give you some clue about her life?” for which the answer is the medals; correct only if it is noted that she wore them post-war back in London, but was not awarded them.

Section 3 “Teaching and learning” refers to “medical people,” not a term Nightingale would have accepted–nursing and medicine were distinct professions. Again, “professional development” is used as if Seacole were a medical professional. She is called “ahead of her time in seeking status similar to that of a doctor.” Seacole did in effect practise medicine without a licence, but the prescribing and administering of toxic substances, not mentioned, is not good medicine, nor nursing.

More resentment is fostered for Key Stage 2 pupils (p 22) in stating that Seacole returned “so poor,” while Nightingale was “comfortably off.” True, Nightingale was better off thanks to her family, but Seacole also came from a propertied family–she was never penniless. Seacole attributed her business losses to overstocking in the post-hostilities period–a bad business decision she and her partner made–expecting the peace negotiations to last months longer than they did. Not mentioned. Pupils are to look at the “evidence of the portraits,” a nice trick, given that the pupils are not told that the medals were not hers (p 22).

Key Stage 3 pupils are erroneously told that Nightingale rejected germ theory and her “lack of enthusiasm for women doctors” (p 24). Yet Nightingale accepted germ theory after the identification of the cholera bacillus; of course germ theory does not appear in her books written prior to the discoveries of Pasteur and Lister. Nightingale supported the admission of women to the medical profession, and supported Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s Women’s Hospital in particular. Her priority was the establishment of a distinct profession of nursing, but then she  correctly understood that few women would make it into the medical profession and that those who did would have little impact on it (this changed only in the late 20th century).

“Mary Seacole’s medicine chest” omits mention of lead acetate and mercury chloride, which she used, but names innocent herbals and quinine that she never mentioned (p 28). More NPG laundering.

“Image bank with links” notes Sevastopol (p 29), again the sanitized version; nowhere does the NPG acknowledge that Seacole clipped buttons off the coats of dead Russian soldiers, and accepted loot stolen from Russian churches, both of which she described in her memoir.

“Bibliography, web links” (p 30) are scant on Nightingale.

The Glossary (p 32) gives another sanitized picture of Seacole, omitting mention of the loot and use of toxic substances. Mrs Seacole was no goody-goody–see her memoir. She was a kind, generous and decent person. She gave her time and energy voluntarily as well as running her business. She did help ordinary soldiers, albeit it in a more modest way than is described in the website. Her memoir is terrific. Her life deserves celebration as it actually was. The errors and omissions should be corrected and erroneous remarks about Nightingale removed.

Brunel University plaque, in Mary Seacole Building

The plaque features the Challen picture of Seacole, where she proudly wears 3 medals. The text reads (comments will follow):

“Mary Seacole (1805-1881) was a pioneering nurse1 and heroine2 of the Crimean War. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, she overcame prejudice associated with her class, ethnicity,3 sex and lack of formal qualifications4 to establish herself as a pioneer of the nursing profession.1

“Known as ‘Mother Seacole’ she nursed the sick and wounded on the battlefields of the Crimean War5 and established a ‘hostel’ for sick and wounded convalescent officers.6 She was awarded… the Crimean Medal, the Legion of Honour and a Turkish medal.7


1. “Pioneering nurse.” What did she pioneer?

2. “Heroine”? Seacole wanted to be a “heroine” (WA p76) but never claimed any heroic acts in her memoir. People who commented on her at the time reported her as kind and generous, but never heroic.

3. “Class, ethnicity,” but she was middle class, a businesswoman, property owner and employer, a lady who traveled with her “black maid.” She was 3/4 white and proud of her Scots blood, negative about her Creole roots (she never said “black” or “African”), for reasons that are understandable. She was married to a white man and her business partner and customers were white. The family boarding house, Blundell Hall, was an imposing building at a good location, now the site of the National Library of Jamaica.

4. “Formal qualifications” in nursing were not available to anyone at the time.

5. “She nursed the sick and wounded on the battlefields of the Crimean War”!! But this presupposes that doctors and orderlies moved their sick patients out of the hospitals onto the battlefield (before or during battle?) hoping that they would not be shot, but that Mrs Seacole might go past and treat them.
Seacole provided first aid services, by her own description acting as a doctor (stitching up wounds, giving medicines, unnamed) to the wounded, post-battle, on 3 occasions: 18 June, 23 August and 8 September, 1855, a matter of several hours each (WA Chapter 16). Her total “battlefield” assistance would have been less than a shift of work Nightingale and her nurses did in the hospitals. She did not call herself a “nurse,” but “doctress,” referring to her practice in herbals.

6. She “established a ‘hostel’ for sick and wounded convalescent officers.” But in her memoir she stated the intention of doing that (WA p81), but opted instead for a restaurant and store, on the advice of chef Alexis Soyer (Culinary Campaign p 233).

7. “She was awarded the Crimean Medal, the Legion of Honour and a Turkish medal,” refuted above.

Brent Libraries pamphlet

A 12-page pamphlet by Ziggi Alexander and Audrey Dewjee, Mary Seacole: Jamaican National Heroine and “Doctress” in the Crimean War (London: Brent Library Service 1982), contains several false claims about Seacole, with the suggestion that Nightingale added to the discrimination Seacole had already experienced, and ending with a completely fictional account of an “average day” in Seacole’s Crimean War life. Thus:

  1. “Because of her parents’ close ties with the army, Mary Seacole was able to observe the military surgeons at work” (p 3), but nothing is known of her father’s ties with the army, and her mother’s were confined to having army and navy doctors as customers at her boarding house.
  2. “En route to Balaclava, she paid a brief visit to the hospital at Scutari, where she had an interview with Florence Nightingale, but it was obvious even at this late stage that Mary Seacole was not going to receive any official support or encouragement for her work” (p 8). But Seacole never asked for a job from Nightingale (see their one encounter in WA 89-91), who had neither the authority to give her one, nor space to house her if she had.
  3. That Dr John Hall “observed” that soldiers preferred Seacole’s “remedies and skill” to the treatment available at the hospitals, citing his supposed testimonial letter as if it were authentic (p 10). The letter, however, exists nowhere but in Seacole’s own memoir (WA 170). Letters by War Office officials were copied and docketed at the War Office (this was not); it is not mentioned in S.M. Mitra’s The Life and Letters of Sir John Hall MD, KCB, FRCS, nor is it included, nor is there any mention at all of Seacole, in Hall’s own journal (available at the Wellcome Trust Ms 8520). This was too far-fetched for Seacole biographer Jane Robinson, who noted, as for other supposed testimonials, “the lack of corresponding copies” in the author’s papers, so that they were “inadmissible” as independent tokens of esteem” (Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea, 121).

Another good reason for soldiers not wanting to go into hospital was that their pay was stopped.

The most audacious misinformation in this pamphlet is the fictional “day”:

On an average day, Mrs Seacole got out of bed at dawn to prepare the food to be sold. Between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. breakfast was served to off-duty soldiers. After breakfast, the sick and wounded who were able to make their own way to the “British Hotel” were attended to. Often Mary Seacole would make time to visit the military hospital before lunch, taking the patients books and papers borrowed from friends and officers (11).

Seacole nowhere describes anything like this in her memoir, and never mentioned serving breakfasts to anyone, although she gave copious details on the dinners she made for officers and preparations for their parties and excursions; she made no mention of visiting “the military hospital,” [which one?] before lunch, or at any time, nor did she report distributing books and papers (Nightingale organized reading rooms for soldiers and arranged for subscriptions). The one (partially) accurate statement is that she saw “sick and wounded who were able to make their own way,” for she described leaving off food preparation to go to the store periodically to attend to requests (WA 140). Few soldiers, however, would have been wounded, for Seacole missed the major battles of the war–only three, the two assaults on theRedan and the Battle of the Tchernaya–took place while she was running the British Hotel.