Mary Jane Seacole OM (née Grant; 1805 – 14 May 1881) was a Jamaican business woman and nurse who set up the British Hotel behind the lines during the Crimean War. She described this as “a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers”, and provided succour for wounded servicemen on the battlefield. She was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991. In 2004 she was voted the greatest black Briton.
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Staring proudly across the River Thames towards Big Ben, her cape caught in a gust as she strides away from a backdrop of the Crimean battlefield. This is how the Crimean War heroine Mary Seacole will be memorialised in a powerful 10ft bronze statue by the distinguished sculptor Martin Jennings, to be unveiled outside St Thomas’ hospital in central London on Thursday.
The campaign to commemorate the nurse once voted the greatest black Briton began when a group of Caribbean women approached their local MP in Hammersmith. Seven years later, the sculpture – the first public statue of a named black woman in the UK – is complete thanks to donations from tens of thousands of people. Happy days.
Except a small faction of hand-wringing Florence Nightingale experts and fans are not at all happy. To them, placing Seacole’s statue outside the hospital where the Lady with the Lamp established her revolutionary nursing school is an affront.
Seacole’s statue stands in front of a 4.5 metre-high disc, cast from shell-blasted Crimean rock. “There’s a kind of anomaly to a sculptor in the early 21st century making a monument to a great figure of the mid-19th. You need to acknowledge the historical gap, and a good way of doing that was to locate her in her time and place.” Jennings sees her as a figure against a battlefield, of the Crimean war, but also of gender and race
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