‘Never did woman seem happier’: how Crimean War veterans celebrated Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole in Walworth

Kit Heren (26 May, 2021)

A new book discusses a benefit event for Ms Seacole held by the army at the former Royal Surrey Gardens in Penton Place in Walworth

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A new book has been published about Mary Seacole, the pioneering Jamaican nurse who helped look after British soldiers in the Crimean War in the 1850s.

The Marvellous Adventures of Mary Seacole is the script of a one-woman play by author and actress Cleo Sylvestre, which she has been performing for years.

The book refers to a benefit event for Ms Seacole held by the army at the former Royal Surrey Gardens in Penton Place in Walworth. Most of the gardens are no longer there; they were sold for redevelopment in the 1870s although Pasley Park remains.

The Crimean War saw outbreaks of cholera that killed hundreds, as soldiers from Britain, France, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire came together to fight Russia. A government minister appealed for nurses to go to the region to treat the sick and wounded.

Mary Seacole. Image: Stephen Bourne

Ms Seacole travelled to Crimea from England under her own steam, after struggling to secure sponsorship for the trip. While there she cared for soldiers on the battlefields of the hard-fought and bloody war, and also brewed tea for the wounded while they were waiting to be treated.

Ms Seacole came back to England after the war ended in 1856. She was given medals for her efforts and gained the admiration of Queen Victoria, according to Stephen Bourne, a historian of black British heritage who wrote the 2005 book Speak Of Me As I Am about black history in Southwark.

But she was “almost destitute”, Mr Bourne said. To help her, Lord Rokeby, who had been an important military commander in Crimea, threw a four-day festival in her honour in the Royal Surrey Gardens in Walworth, with thousands of performers, including nine military bands and an orchestra, according to a report in the Times.

Ms Seacole sat along a banqueting table between Lord Rokeby and Lord George. At the end of the concert, “the name Mrs Seacole was shouted by a thousand voices” as the party rose to say cheers.

“The genial old lady rose from her place and smiled benignantly on the assembled multitude amid a tremendous and continued cheering”.

The reporter continued: “Few names were more familiar to the public during the late war was than that of Mrs Seacole.

“Never did woman seem happier, and never was hearty and kindly greeting bestowed upon a worthier object.”

The festival is reported to have raised hundreds of pounds for Ms Seacole personally to “recommence her career of usefulness and activity”. But Ms Sylvestre’s book claims that Ms Seacole did not receive any of the money, because the company that organised the event went bankrupt shortly afterwards. Other accounts report that she was given a quarter of the profits from the festival.

Ms Seacole later wrote an autobiography, called the Wonderful Adventures Of Mrs Seacole In Many Lands. She continued to have financial difficulties and various other fundraisers were launched for her benefit after the Royal Surrey Gardens event.

Ms Seacole went back to live in Jamaica between 1859 and 1865. She returned to London after that and died in the Paddington area in north-west London in 1881.

Ms Sylvestre’s book The Marvellous Adventures of Mary Seacole is available to buy online and in bookshops.

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