This week my poem is about Mary Jane Grant, more famously known as Mary Seacole. It’s to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the unveiling of the Mary Seacole statue situated at the front of St Thomas Hospital. She will forever stride there, in front of a huge, slate moon, her sturdy boot thrust forward, firmly planted.
Inside, the book about the statue (published by the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal and available from the gift shop, priced £20.00), there’s a chapter on the making of the sculpture. The sculptor, Martin Jennings, travelled to the Crimea and with the aid of old maps, located Mary Seacole’s original base in the Crimea and made an impression of the 160-year-old battlefield.
I looked again at the Mary Seacole statue and the huge bronze disc behind her, incredible to think what took place on that piece of earth.
‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death’, by Roger Fenton, 1854.
Sketch of Mary Seacole’s ‘British Hotel’ by Lady Alicia Blackwood.
‘British 11th Hussar, Crimea’ by Keith Rocco
‘Charge of Light Cavalry at Balaclava’, The Illustrated London News 23rd December 1854
Postcard of a painting by A. Protain, from the Regiment Museum, Carlisle Castle, ‘The Border Regiment & King’s Own Royal Border, Off duty in the Crimea’, 1855
A year after the end of the Crimean War in 1857, Mary Seacole’s wrote her memoirs, ‘Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’ (book available from the gift shop, priced at £9.99). Despite the competition, (the other journals and chronicles about the Crimea) her book ran to two editions. I can understand why. I found her writing lively and poetic. I came away with the sense of a strong, unique, proud woman, intelligent, passionate, interesting and full of compassion. I thought that it was apt that her surname was Seacole because of her adventuress spirit. Also, the meaning of the word ‘Cole’ in Hebrew is ‘voice’ as well as being a plant in the mustard family. My colleague came up with the phrase ‘aquatic mustard’ which I knew I had to use. Along with some of her own words. Especially, ‘wintery forest’…
‘But at last it comes and we slowly wind through a narrow channel, and emerge into a small land-locked basin, so filled with shipping that their masts bend in the breeze like a wintery forest.’
Here’s my poem:
A compassionate soul,
Mix of Jamaican and Scottish,
Doctress and a soldier,
Her nature was impulsive,
Hardworking and entrepreneur,
A ‘dusky’ woman in a Victorian world,
She knew her expertise would be useful in the Crimea,
Herbal remedies from her mother,
Knowledge from army surgeons,
And all her wonderful adventures,
When she treated tropical disease,
Cholera and dysentery,
Even dissected a baby,
Thus, she ‘judiciously decided’
To join her sons at war,
Despite the difficulties,
Travelled by ‘Albatross’ and ‘Medora’,
In her favourite yellow dress,
As red streamers danced in the wind and rain,
Escaped from her hat,
This strong and hearty woman,
Powerhouse of the blue expanse,
Planned to build a soldier’s mess,
A taste of home amidst the carnage,
Offered her service as a doctress and nurse,
Alongside the other ships,
Their masts bent as in a ‘wintery forest’
Her words, not mine,
As she scanned the battle line.
Despite the adversity and heartbreak in her life, she wrote, ‘I do not think I have ever known what it is to despair…’ and ‘all my life long I have followed the impulse which led me to be up and doing…’She certainly did up and do.