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date: 04 October 2023

Seacole [née Grant], Mary Janefree


Seacole [née Grant], Mary Janefree

  • Alan Palmer
  • , revised

Mary Jane Seacole (1805–1881), by unknown photographer

Winchester College/Mary Seacole Trust/Mary Evans

Seacole [née Grant], Mary Jane (1805–1881), nurse, doctress, and businesswoman, was born Mary Grant, probably at Haughton, near Lacovia, St Elizabeth parish, Jamaica, although Kingston, Jamaica, is sometimes given as her birthplace. Her likely year of birth was 1805. Some sources give a precise birth date of 23 November 1805 but documentary evidence to support this is lacking. She was the daughter of John Grant, a Scottish soldier, and Rebecca Grant (1790–1848), the mixed-race proprietress of a boarding-house for officers and their families. Mary’s parents shared a surname though were not married. She later wrote, ‘I am a Creole, and have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins’ (Seacole, 1). It has been suggested that her father was likely to have been Captain John Alexander Francis Grant (1776–1806), of the 85th regiment (Rappaport, 23). Her mother, who was only about fifteen when Mary was born, had, with other fathers, six further children, notably Louisa Grant (1815–1905), Mary’s half-sister. Much of Mary Grant’s early life remains obscure; her childhood up to the age of twelve was spent mainly in the household of an old lady in Kingston, whose identity is not known, but who played a part in her education and was her patron. From her mother she subsequently acquired nursing skills and an understanding of the Creole medical tradition, based on herbal treatment. She is known to have made two voyages to London in the early 1820s, taking stocks of provisions to sell there, before returning to Jamaica. She subsequently sailed to New Providence in the Bahamas, Haiti, and Cuba to buy and sell merchandise, before nursing her dying patron in Jamaica during the latter’s final illness.

Mary Grant married at Kingston, Jamaica, on 10 November 1836, one of her mother’s resident guests, Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole (bap. 1803, d. 1844), a provision merchant born in Prittlewell, Essex, the son of Thomas Seacole, a surgeon and apothecary, and his wife Ann, née Akers. They set up a provision store at Black River, but her husband was in poor health and she was soon widowed. There were no children of the marriage, though Seacole was later accompanied in the Crimea by a young woman, Sarah or Sally, sometimes identified as her daughter and possibly born about 1840. With her half-sister, Louisa, Seacole ran the family boarding-house for several years, supervising its reconstruction after Kingston’s great fire in 1843.

Following her mother’s death (March 1848), Mary Seacole converted to Roman Catholicism, and was baptized Mary Jane Sicole Grant at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, Kingston, on 16 August 1848 (Rappaport, 83–4). By then she was running her own boarding-house in Stanton Street, Kingston, whose patrons included British army officers and their wives from the Up Park Camp, some of whom were convalescing from fevers. Her herbal treatments gained her a reputation as a doctress, while her care for her ailing guests likewise indicated nursing abilities. These made her a familiar figure among the regiments posted to Jamaica. She also gained medical knowledge through contacts with military surgeons. During the cholera outbreak in Jamaica in 1850 she was able to observe the methods of a doctor who was among her boarders, broadening her experience of nursing fevers.

In 1851 Seacole went to Panama where her younger half-brother, Edward Ambleton, had a hotel at Cruces, providing for gold prospectors travelling to and from California. In Cruces she set up a restaurant and dispensed medicines and treatments to victims of a cholera outbreak, before moving in 1852 to Gorgona, where she purchased another hotel, with accommodation for female travellers. In 1853 she returned to Jamaica where army officers and their family members, who contracted yellow fever during an outbreak on the island, boarded and were cared for by her in her lodging house. Later in 1853 she went back to Panama and became involved in gold mining speculation, at Escribanos, where she was an investor and prospector. By her own account, it was to look after her share in a mining investment on the Palmilla river that she needed to go to London, sailing in August 1854 and arriving in October.

By then Britain was at war with Russia, and regiments that Mary Seacole had known in Jamaica were serving in the Crimea. With her experience of diseases in Jamaica and Panama, many of which were also prevalent in the Crimea, she offered her services to the War Office and then to Elizabeth Herbert, who was organizing a group of nurses to join Florence Nightingale’s vanguard of nursing sisters, but she met rebuffs. At her own expense she took a ship to the Crimea, arriving in February 1855 at Balaklava, where her husband’s kinsman, Thomas Day, was employed on shipping business. By late April ‘Seacole and Day’ had opened the British Hotel, at Spring Hill near the village of Kadikoi, halfway between the harbour and British headquarters. The British Hotel, which comprised an iron storehouse and adjoining wooden sheds, housed an officers’ club and a good, clean canteen for the troops. Seacole and Day also ran a sutler’s business, supplying provisions to those serving there. While Thomas Day remained at Balaklava, Seacole managed its facilities. Her independent status ensured a freedom of movement denied the formal nursing service; by June 1855 she was a familiar figure at the battle front, riding forward with two mules in attendance, one carrying medicaments and the other food and wine. She brought medical comfort to the maimed and dying after the assault on the Redan, in which a quarter of the British force was killed or wounded, and she tended Italian, French, and Russian casualties at the Chernaya two months later. Yet, on the day after the Chernaya battle, she could still supply ‘a capital lunch on the ground’ for a cricket match between the guards division and other regiments (Astley, 268). When allied troops entered Sevastopol on 9 September Seacole obtained a special pass to go forward with her mule-train, becoming the first woman to enter the burning city: ‘Every step had a score of dangers’, she later wrote, ‘and yet curiosity and excitement carried us on and on. I was often stopped to give refreshments to officers and men, who had been fasting for hours’ (Seacole, 210).

Mary Seacole remained in the Crimea until July 1856. By then she was in financial difficulties, for the armistice found her and Day with surplus stocks of food and equipment, and outstanding bills to pay. On returning to England she planned to open a canteen at Aldershot, a venture that failed through lack of funds. By November she was bankrupt, though was discharged in January 1857 with a first-class certificate, an acknowledgement that her insolvency had been owing to bad debts. From July 1855, however, William Howard Russell and other war correspondents had made her name familiar to British newspaper readers, and both The Times and Punch supported appeals to reimburse Mary Seacole for her losses in the Crimea, in recognition of her kindness to the sick and wounded. Russell wrote that she deserved a subscription for her ‘courage, devotion, goodness of heart, public services, [and] great losses undeservedly incurred’ (The Times, 11 April 1857). He had observed her bringing wine, bandages, food, and other comforts to wounded men; her skill in managing wounds and broken limbs; and the effectiveness of her cures for the maladies prevalent particularly among the navvies in the camp. He had earlier written of her claims for some official recognition, in the form of a medal or decoration (The Times, 16 May 1856). At her first bankruptcy hearing, and subsequently in public and in portraits, she wore four medals, generally identified as the Turkish order of Medjidie, the French Légion d’honneur, the British Crimean war campaign medal, and the Sardinian Crimean war medal. How she acquired them remains a matter of controversy; as a woman, she was ineligible for the British medal, and there is no record of the French award. Nevertheless, contemporaries are not known to have questioned her right to wear them, even when she did so at military events.

by Count Victor Gleichen, 1871

Institute of Jamaica; photograph National Portrait Gallery, London

Seacole was encouraged to write an autobiography, which was published by Blackwood in July 1857 as the Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. It was dedicated to one of the British military commanders in the Crimean campaign whom she came to know and who had first promoted the subscription for her in November 1856, General Henry Robinson-Montagu, sixth Baron Rokeby; the book also carried an introduction by W. H. Russell, who more than anyone else had testified to the value of her activities in the Crimea. The Wonderful Adventures, in which Seacole drew attention ‘to the position I held in the camp as doctress, nurse, and “mother”’ (Seacole, 124), sold well. Its publication was accompanied by a fund-raising event at the Royal Surrey Gardens at the end of July 1857, the proceeds of which, however, were lost when the Royal Surrey Gardens company became insolvent.

Nothing came of Seacole’s plans to go to India in the wake of the ‘mutiny’ in 1857, and in 1859 she returned to Jamaica, from where she went on to Panama to run a provision store, but the venture was a financial failure. In 1865 she moved back to Kingston, Jamaica, and stayed with her half-sister, Louisa, before going to London in October 1865 to seek treatment for an eye problem (Rappaport, 270). In London, in late 1866 and early 1867, she publicly defended Edward Eyre, the governor of Jamaica who had brutally suppressed the Morant Bay rebellion against the plantation system on the island (ibid., 268–9). In 1867 her disinterested services to ‘the Army, Navy and British Nation’ were recognized by a Seacole fund, approved by the queen and under the patronage of the prince of Wales and two royal dukes. Another royal patron, Count Gleichen, whom she had aided when he suffered from cholera in the Crimea when serving in the naval brigade, sculpted a bust of her in 1871. She lived in some comfort as an annuitant, though was also said to have practised as a masseuse, Princess Alexandra reputedly being among her patients. She died of ‘apoplexy’, at her home, 3 Cambridge Street, Paddington, London, on 14 May 1881, and was buried at Kensal Green Roman Catholic cemetery.

In 1973 Mary Seacole’s grave, which honours her ‘care for the sick and wounded in the West Indies, Panama and on the battlefields of the Crimea’, was reconsecrated on the initiative of Jamaican nurses. The government of Jamaica posthumously awarded her its Order of Merit in 1991. An online poll in 2004 voted her ‘The Greatest Black Briton’. In 2007 an English Heritage blue plaque was erected at 14 Soho Square, London, the address where she was living when she began writing Wonderful Adventures. A memorial statue, unveiled in the gardens of St Thomas’s Hospital, London, in 2016, represents the ‘first statue of a named black woman in the UK’ (Soley and others, 7).


  • M. Seacole, Wonderful adventures of Mrs Seacole in many lands, ed. Z. Alexander and A. Dewjee (1984)
  • M. Seacole, Wonderful adventures of Mrs Seacole in many lands [incl. introduction by W. L. Andrews] (1857), repr. (1988)
  • M. Seacole, Wonderful adventures of Mrs Seacole in many lands, ed. with introduction by S. Salih (2005)
  • W. Simpson, The autobiography of William Simpson, ed. G. Eyre-Todd (1903)
  • J. D. Astley, Fifty years of my life in the world of sport, 1 (1894), 268
  • A. B. Soyer, Soyer’s culinary campaign: being historical reminiscences of the late war (1857)
  • A. W. Palmer, The banner of battle: the story of the Crimean War (1987)
  • tombstone, St Mary’s Roman Catholic cemetery, Kensal Rise, London
  • H. Rappaport, In search of Mary Seacole (2022)
  • J. Robinson, Mary Seacole (2005)
  • L. McDonald, Mary Seacole: the making of the myth (2014)
  • A. J. Josephs, ‘Seacole, Mary Jane’, Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, ed. F. W. Knight and H. L. Gates, Jr. (2016)
  • C. S. Soley and others, A statue for Mary: the Seacole legacy (2016)
  • census returns, 1871, 1881


  • A. C. Challen, oils, 1869, priv. coll.; on loan to NPG
  • V. Gleichen, terracotta bust, 1871, Institute of Jamaica, Kingston [see illus.]
  • T. D. Scott, engraving, repro. in M. Seacole, Wonderful adventures (1857), cover
  • Maull & Co., carte de visite photograph, c.1873
  • photograph, n.d., Winchester College, repro. in H. Rappaport, In search of Mary Seacole (2022), 319 [see illus.]
  • M. Jennings, statue in bronze, 2016, St Thomas’s Hospital gardens, London

Wealth at Death

£2615 11s. 7d.: probate, 11 July 1881, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]