'The Greatest Black Briton' Mary Seacole deserves a place on our £50 note
The Bank of England should grant Mary Seacole the honour of being the first woman of colour to appear on a British bank note, writes Wes Streeting MP.
165 years ago this month, the Crimean War broke out. It left the legacy of the Charge of the Light Brigade, the nursing of Florence Nightingale, modern war correspondents and the establishment of the Victoria Cross. As Black History Month draws to a close, the Bank of England has an opportunity to honour another legacy of the Crimean War when it chooses the face of the new £50 note: that of Mary Seacole, previously voted the Greatest Black Briton.
Influenced strongly by her Jamaican mother, a ‘doctress’ specialising in the use of traditional and herbal medical techniques, Seacole was inspired to pursue nursing and improve medical treatments for the sick and injured by combining traditional Jamaican medicines with newer European techniques. She became distinguished for nursing victims of the cholera epidemic and the yellow fever epidemic in both Kingston and Panama.
Following the start of the Crimean war, and upon learning of the inadequate medical facilities for soldiers in Crimea, Seacole travelled to England and requested that the British War Office send her as an army nurse to the area. This request was refused.
Undeterred, she funded her own travel to Crimea and later established the British Hotel, close to the battlefield, to provide more comfortable facilities for those sick and injured. In fact, soldiers were so grateful for her efforts and kindness that they referred to her as ‘Mother Seacole’.
Such was the respect for her at the time that when she returned to England with little money, many of the soldiers wrote to the newspapers about all she had done for them, and 80,000 people attended a charity gala in 1857 to raise money for her.
Her selfless persistence and interest in helping the sick and wounded, her entrepreneurial spirit and her perseverance in the face of racial discrimination against both black people and those of mixed race in the 19th Century are just some of the reasons why she deserves greater recognition.
The Bank of England has an opportunity to provide such recognition when it chooses a famous face from history to join Her Majesty the Queen on the new £50 note. In doing so, they would grant Mary Seacole the honour of being the first woman of colour to appear on a British bank note and would be making an important contribution to ongoing efforts to ensure that our modern understanding of British history is one that recognises, honours and celebrates diversity in British history.
There is clear public support for Mary Seacole to be the face of the new note, as shown by the change.org petition with nearly 130,000 signatures in support of the idea. The proposal has also been backed by the Mary Seacole Trust and Operation Black Vote.
Today they are joined by a cross-party group of MPs. We hope that when the Governor of the Bank of England makes his decision, he will seize this opportunity to celebrate the life of Mary Seacole and demonstrate the Bank of England’s commitment to celebrating our diverse modern nation by honouring a small part of our diverse history.
Wes Streeting is the Labour MP for Ilford North and a member of the Treasury Select Committee
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