A little over a year ago Sir Peter Bazalgette, Chair of the Arts Council, made an important plea for fair funding of diversity in the arts. I believe he is right and my experience as Chair of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal tends to confirm it.
Until we unveiled the statue of Mary Seacole on the 30th June this year there was not a single statue to a named black woman anywhere in the UK. The statue can now be seen in front of St Thomas NHS
Foundation Trust Hospital opposite the Houses of Parliament.
So what is the story behind the statue? In 1979 I was approached by a group of women of Caribbean origin in my constituency who asked me to join them at the grave in St Mary’s cemetery of Mary Seacole who had supported and nursed British troops in Jamaica and in the Crimea (Crimean War 1853-567).
They thought there should have been a statue to her as she was so important to troops in the Crimea.
These women had come to the UK from the Caribbean in 1939/40 as one put it ‘to help the mother country in the fight for freedom’. They helped service and clean the guns and balloons that protected London during the blitz.
I didn’t make any commitments at the time but simply made a mental note that when I had more time I would try and bring their wish to fruition. So when I stood down as an MP I started the Appeal.
It has took us 12 years to raise over £500,000 in cash or commitments much of it from nurses, schools and other small contributors.
Why did I see this as so important? I am a child of the Second World War – born shortly before the outbreak of war.
After the fall of France Churchill was quoted as saying “Very well, then alone”. In fact we weren’t alone. Britain had the support of millions in the then Empire and Commonwealth. True, at that stage of the war there was little help available but it quickly materialised and the Caribbean people were amongst the first to arrive. In later years the numbers grew massively.
The British Indian Army at its height was 3 million strong and all volunteers! Even as a young child after the war I felt that we had not given full recognition to the help we received from empire and commonwealth.
Mary Seacole had spent three days at the War Office trying to get permission to go to the Crimea to carry on the work she had done at the army’s hospital in Jamaica.
Did she give up when refused? No, she organised and paid for her own transport and set up the British Hotel in the Crimea where she covered her costs as a sutler selling her goods but also using skills inherited from her mother in the use of herbal remedies and nursing skills.
She became a heroin of the troops and of Victorian society. She was praised in the Times newspaper and in the magazine ‘Punch’ and when she returned from the Crimea bankrupt the army, led by a committee of senior officers and members of the Royal Family, organised concerts to raise funds and end her bankruptcy.
Neither have today’s army forgotten her. I have a number of leaders of support with financial contributions to the statue from army units whose forbears served in the Crimea and we were honoured to have Sergeant Johnson Beharry VC, also a Jamaican, with us at the unveiling.
There was a small group of opponents fighting to stop the statue being erected at the hospital. I think they were sadly mistaken. Today’s NHS is full of nurses, doctors, hospital workers and others who have come from many parts of the world.
Mary Seacole was one of the early ones who at a me when Britain, through the industrial revolution, had become the dominant world power with a global reach and was therefore already a magnet to many. Immigration did not start in 1948. Opponents thought that having a statue to Mary Seacole at St Thomas’ Hospital would undermine the reputation of Florence Nightingale. Rubbish! The two women had very different roles and both deserve recognition. Indeed Florence Nightingale created modern nursing and she and her family had a noble history in the fight to end slavery.
Mary Seacole came from a different tradition. She had knowledge of herbal remedies and used these skills and compassion to help injured and sick soldiers on the battle field and in their barracks. An early example of a front-line nurse.
You can see a similar role in the famous pain ng by the Irish painter Daniel Maclise portraying the dying Nelson on the Flagship Victory at Trafalgar.
Women on that ship are depicted nursing the injured along with a number of people from other countries. I am sure those women did not join the ship as nurses but that is what they became when the battle started. Are we to condemn them? Are we to dismiss them as just stowaway girlfriends? Not from my point of view.
The Royal Navy tell me there were close to 200 sailors of African origin at Trafalgar.
How many were escaped slaves? I don’t know but if a slave got on a British ship they were no longer a slave. Slavery was not legal in Britain although it was in our colonies. I have been encouraged by the support we received from other institutions linked to Florence Nightingale. The Florence Nightingale Museum located at St
Thomas’ Hospital has included Mary Seacole in a number of their presentations and the legacy programme that is being set up will work closely with the museum to inform the public about our world history and the contribution made to it by people like Mary.
When I started this project I was remarkably naive about the effort, time and money that would be involved. I actually thought I could do it in a year or two. No way! Several people and organisations soon put me right and told me that I should commit to 10.
The rest of this editorial is published in the January – December 2019 issue of I-MAGAZINE.
By Lord Soley of Hammersmith.