A statue for Mary Seacole

Soon, the UK will have its first statue of a named black woman: Mary Seacole.

Clive Soley
14 November 2014

A portrait of Mary Seacole c. 1869, by Albert Charles Challen/WIkimedia

Mary Seacole was an Afro-Caribbean nurse who served in the Crimean War (1853 to 1856) as what the Appeal has come to describe as Britain’s first battlefield nurse. She was one of the first black women to write an autobiography.

Her nursing skills were renowned at the time and she carried out basic research into the causes of cholera and other diseases. She was also an entrepreneur, funding her nursing in the Crimea by setting up and running the British Hotel for allied troops. Mary was famous and popular with the troops to the extent that when she returned from the Crimea they organised concerts in London to raise money for her when she was bankrupt. She became a confident of Queen Victoria and was distinctly proud of the role she had played.

Her memorial will be the first to a named black woman anywhere in the UK.

The sculptor for the project is Martin Jennings FRBS. Martin has an international reputation, following his Sir John Betjeman statue at St Pancras Station, and the Philip Larkin statue in Hull. Martin is under contract to us to produce the Mary Seacole statue which will be sited in front of St Thomas’s Hospital, across the Thames River, opposite the Houses of Parliament.

Shortly before the Russian occupation of Crimea, Martin went to the site of the British Hotel there to make a casting of the ground which is being used to create the disc that will stand behind the statue against which Mary’s shadow will fall. We were very lucky to have the full support and backing of the Ukrainian Embassy and to be part-funded by Ukrainian Airlines. Even luckier to get there before the Russians did!

We anticipate the memorial being erected and unveiled in the late summer of next year and we hope that a member of the Royal Family will unveil it. ITV are making a one-hour programme about Mary’s life to coincide with the unveiling.

I am interested in demonstrating that our project is very much about education, history and ethnicity. Here the message is less about the obvious artistic merit of the memorial, and more about Mary Seacole's background and experience that acts as an inspiration for young people today. A case in point: Tim Campbell, hired by Lord Alan Sugar in the first series of the BBC's "The Apprentice" and founder of the Bright Ideas Trust, has told us he's cited Mary Seacole as a role model in motivational training he runs for young people (16-30 year olds) looking to start up their own businesses. The charity will continue after the memorial is completed, and Tim's endorsement underlines the important fact that this Appeal is as much about education and ethnicity as it is about honouring a significant historical figure. In today's social and economic climate, this is an important point.

A great deal of the £500,000 needed to complete the project has been raised from relatively small donations of £5000 or less and we are particularly proud of the contributions made by schools, hospitals, the nursing profession and some army units who can trace their history back to the Crimean war and have records of Mary Seacole’s work. We have also received some very generous and large grants from organisations that make us confident that we can raise the remaining £100,000 and, hopefully, have enough to underwrite an educational legacy fund. BUT we do need more contributions, and we need them now! Details of the charity, our progress to date and ways to donate can be found on our website.

Finally, a bit about how the project got started: I became involved in 1979 when I was the MP for Hammersmith. A group of Caribbean women who had served in the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service during the Second World War asked me to help identify Mary Seacole's grave in St Mary's Cemetery, Kensal Green. Many of these women had serviced the anti aircraft guns and balloons that were deployed on Wormwood Scrubs from 1939. They thought that Mary was a great example of the way people from all lands played a key role in Britain’s international history. We identified the grave and an annual celebration is now held there.

When I left the House of Commons I decided that we should create a memorial, not just because Mary is important to the black community who see her as a role model for young black Londoners, but also because I see her as a unifying symbol across the whole of Britain in so far as she typifies those people who come from across the world to be part of our society and who have added so much of value making it such an open, diverse and inclusive one that we all appreciate and enjoy today.

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