Mary Seacole and the Common Soldier in the Crimea

by UKNIWM office volunteer Richard Graham

The National Portrait Gallery has recently acquired a portrait  of this celebrated nurse who, though rebuffed by Florence Nightingale, made her own way to the Crimea to assist the British soldiers. She was one of a number of civilians who, like Miss Nightingale, seem to have distinguished themselves far more than the British commanders: others were Alexis Soyer the chef, the railway contractors Peto & Betts, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who designed a prefabricated hospital. After the war, Mrs Seacole spent some years in Jamaica but then returned to England in 1870, shortly after which she became the personal masseuse to Alexandra, Princess of Wales. She died in 1881 and is buried at St Mary’s Roman Catholic cemetery at Kensal Green in northwest London. Despite being a well known figure during her later life, Mary Seacole’s achievements were largely neglected during the first half of the Twentieth Century. More recently, her life has been looked at with renewed interest and respect, and this portrait is the first of her to be acquired by the NPG.

The UKNIWM database has over 300 records of memorials commemorating casualties of the Crimean War. One notable one is John Bell’s Guards Crimean memorial.

Guards Crimean War Memorial

Guards Crimean War Memorial

This depicts guardsmen of the then three regiments of foot guards and is an early example of a memorial featuring other ranks.

The dispatches of William Howard Russell in The Times had made the British public aware of the conditions ordinary soldiers had to endure. Queen Victoria herself showed her concern in several ways: the institution of the Victoria Cross for which all ranks were eligible, the promotion of the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley in Hampshire and her patronage of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Asylum at Wandsworth for daughters of soldiers who died in the war come to mind.

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