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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

Ladies, Lamps and the Crimean War

Updated: Feb 17

The Battle of Waterloo, fought on June 18th, 1815, saw the final defeat and exile of Napoleon Bonaparte. Out of a common fear of revolutionary France’s re-emergence, the victorious Allies instituted the ‘Congress System’ which was intended to be the basis of Great Power relations in Europe post 1815. The Congress System was never likely to last, however. Not only did it depend on the fear of France but also the assumption that the real differences between the Allies could be overcome relatively easily. In the revolutionary year of 1848 such illusions helped were swept away and the Congress System collapsed. That year also saw the emergence of France, albeit temporary, as a major European power now ruled by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte. He was keen to overturn the 1815 settlement so needed British help leading to his enthusiastic support of Britain during the complex diplomatic prelude to what would become known as the Crimean War.

The growing power of Russia worried the British more than the prospect of a revised France. The concern was closely linked with the decline of the Ottoman Empire, already causing international tension in the 1850s. No one, not even Russia, wished Turkey to collapse completely but all hoped to benefit if it did. When war broke out between Russia and Turkey in October 1853, British leaders feared that a victorious Russia would attempt to partition Turkey and annex Moldavia and Wallachia (in Romania). This state of affairs was unacceptable so the British and French fleets were ordered to Constantinople.

Russia’s Tsar, Nicholas I, refused to believe the Anglo-French alliance could last. Moreover, he was confident of support from Austria and Prussia, though this soon proved to be misplaced. When, in November 1853, a Turkish naval force was destroyed by the Russians at Sinope, public opinion in Britain rapidly turned in favour of military intervention. The British and French fleets entered the Black Sea in January 1854, and a treaty of alliance was signed with Turkey. In March, Britain and France declared war on Russia.

Perhaps conscious of Napoleon Bonaparte’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 the Allies were deterred from a direct attack on Moscow. Sebastopol in the Crimean Peninsula, however, was the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and thus the most likely source of further Russian naval operations against Turkey. The British and French decision to invade the Crimea was not as foolish as is sometimes suggested.

Likewise, the myth that Britain’s forces performed badly is somewhat unfair and most likely originated with the contemporary newspaper reports from correspondents such as William Russel of The Times. The Crimean War was one of the first to be fully covered in the popular press. Poor leadership, inadequate supplies and missed opportunities made for good stories, but the reports ignored British successes. As an example, the fate of the Light Brigade and its disastrous charge against Russian guns stole the headlines and ignored the successful charge made earlier by the Heavy Brigade.

One British success was not purely military. The treatment of Britain’s wounded soldiers, initially a scandal, was soon re-organised, a feat no other country achieved. Nurses such as Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole became national heroines and had an important effect on the aspirations of at least some middle-class women.

Florence Nightingale OM RRC DStJ is still the better known of these two pioneering women. She was an English social reformer, statistician, and the founder of modern nursing. Nightingale came to prominence while serving as a manager and trainer of nurses during the Crimean War, in which she organised care for wounded soldiers at Constantinople [1].

Crimean War Nightingale arrived at Selimiye Barracks in Scutari (modern-day Üsküdar in Istanbul) early in November 1854. Her team found that wounded soldiers were being poorly cared for by overworked medical staff in the face of official indifference. Medicines were in short supply, hygiene was being neglected, and mass infections were common, many of them fatal.

During her first winter at Scutari, 4,077 soldiers died there. Ten times more died from illnesses such as typhus, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery than from battle wounds. With overcrowding, defective sewers and lack of ventilation, in March 1855, some six months after Nightingale had arrived, the British government had to send the Sanitary Commission to Scutari. The commission flushed out the sewers and improved ventilation. Surprisingly, perhaps, Nightingale never claimed credit for the resulting sharply reduced death rate.

Back in Britain Nightingale still believed that the death rates were due to poor nutrition, lack of supplies, stale air, and overworking of the soldiers. After she returned to Britain and began collecting evidence before the Royal Commission on the Health of the Army, she came to believe that most of the soldiers at the hospital were killed by poor living conditions. This experience influenced her later career when she advocated sanitary living conditions as of great importance. Consequently, she reduced peacetime deaths in the army and turned her attention to the sanitary design of hospitals and the introduction of sanitation in working-class homes.

Mary Seacole, by contrast, was a British-Jamaican nurse and businesswoman who established the ‘British Hotel’ behind the lines during the Crimean War. Coming from a tradition of Jamaican and West African ‘doctress’, Seacole relied on her skill and experience as a healer to provide succour for wounded service men on the battlefield and nurse many of them back to health.

Crimean War Hoping to assist with nursing the wounded on the outbreak of the Crimean War, Seacole applied to the War Office to be included among the nursing contingent but was refused [3]. Seacole resolved to travel to Crimea using her own resources and to open the ‘British Hotel’. Business cards were printed and sent ahead to announce her intention to open an establishment near Balaclava, which would be ‘a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’ [3].

Apart from serving officers at the British Hotel, Seacole also provided catering for spectators at the battles, and spent time as an observer on Cathcart's Hill, some 5.6 km (3½ miles) north of the British Hotel. As a sutler Seacole often visited the troops near the British camp at Kadikoi to sell them provisions. She is also said to have nursed casualties evacuated from the trenches around Sevastopol and from other battlefields. Through her activities she became popular among service personnel and was widely known to the British Army as ‘Mother Seacole’.

Rivals? Some commentators say there was a frosty relationship between these two prominent figures in Crimea. How true is uncertain but we do know that Seacole's own memoir, ‘Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands’¸ only records one friendly meeting between the two women. When Seacole was in Scutari enroute to the Crimea to join her business partner and start their business she asked Nightingale for, and got, a bed for the night. When, however, Seacole later tried to join Nightingale's team, one of Nightingale's colleagues rebuffed her, and Seacole inferred in her memoire that racism was at the root of that rebuttal [3].

From her letters we know that Nightingale did not approve of Seacole’s methods. Nightingale wrote to her brother-in-law that she was worried about contact between her work and Seacole's business, claiming that while ‘she was very kind to the men and, what is more, to the Officers – and did some good (she) made many drunk’ [4]. Moreover, Nightingale reputedly wrote: ‘I had the greatest difficulty in repelling Mrs Seacole's advances, and in preventing association between her and my nurses (absolutely out of the question!)...Anyone who employs Mrs Seacole will introduce much kindness - also much drunkenness and improper conduct.’

Back in Britain When the Crimean War ended abruptly in 1856, Seacole was left with a lot of expensive supplies that she could not sell at a fair price and consequently she suffered a great financial loss [5]. After the war she returned to England destitute and in ill health. The press highlighted her plight and in July 1857 a benefit festival, attracting thousands of people, was organised to raise money for her [5]. Later that year, Seacole published her memoirs, 'The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands' [6].

Recognition Well known at the end of her life, Seacole rapidly faded from public memory in Britain. After almost century there has been a resurgence of interest in her and efforts to acknowledge her achievements, although whether she is an example of ‘hidden’ black history as some may claim is a moot point. Similarly Seacole's recognition as a pioneer of nursing remains controversial with many commentators, especially Nightingale supporters, arguing that Seacole's accomplishments were exaggerated.



1. Strachey, L., (1918), Eminent Victorians, London: Chatto and Windus, p. 123: ‘Miss Nightingale arrived in Scutari - a suburb of Constantinople, on the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus - on November 4th, 1854; it was ten days after the battle of Balaclava, and the day before the battle of Inkerman.’

2.  Cited in Cook, E. T., (1913), ‘The Life of Florence Nightingale’, Vol 1, p. 237.

3. Seacole, M., (1857), ‘Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands’, Chapter VIII, London: James Blackwood, pp. 73-81.

4. From a letter dated August 4th, 1870 held in archive of the Wellcome Institute (Ms 9004/59).

5. Seaton, H.J., (2002), ‘Another Florence Nightingale? The Rediscovery of Mary Seacole’, The Victorian Web, National University of Singapore, Available online (accessed December 17th, 2021).

6. BBC (2014), ‘Mary Seacole (1805 - 1881)’, Available online (accessed December 17th, 2021).


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