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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 February, 2004, 11:07 GMT
So who is the greatest black Briton?
Mary Seacole has beaten the likes of Dame Shirley Bassey and Sir Trevor McDonald to be voted the Greatest Black Briton of all time. But who was she?

The original "lady with the lamp" who tended wounded soldiers in the Crimea was a Jamaican-born nurse who made her own way out to the war.

I trust that England will never forget one who has nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succor them
1856 column by the Times' William Howard Russell
But as she was denied the chance of enlisting with Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole's contribution has hitherto been overshadowed.

Born Mary Grant in Kingston in 1805, her father was a Scottish soldier and her mother a Jamaican healer who ran a guest house where she cared for invalid Army men and their wives.

She learned much about diseases and caring for the sick and injured from her mother, and from an early age was renowned as a skilled "nurse and doctress".

After being widowed, Mary Seacole travelled widely, including several trips to Britain and a stint in Panama. It was here that she saved her first cholera patient - a disease she studied extensively, and herself contracted and recovered from. She returned to Jamaica in 1853 to help during a yellow fever epidemic, where the medical authorities asked her to provide nurses to treat sick soldiers.

War wounded

She then travelled again to England in 1854. On learning of the Crimean War and the dire state of medical care in the battle zone, she resolved to help. But the authorities refused her offers of assistance.

Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?
Mary Seacole

Disappointed but undeterred, Mary Seacole successfully raised funds for her passage to the Crimea. There, she and a distant relative set up the British Hotel, which provided soldiers with food, shelter and nursing care.

When the war ended suddenly in 1856, she returned to London bankrupt and in ill health. Her plight was highlighted by the Times newspaper, and a four-day military festival was held to raise money to pay off her debts. Thousands turned out for the event in Royal Surrey Gardens.

The following year, Mary Seacole published a best-selling autobiography, called The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. She was awarded the Crimean Medal, the French Legion of Honour and a Turkish medal.

Until her death in 1881, she divided her time between England and Jamaica.

Her grave is in St Mary's Catholic cemetery, Kensal Green, London. Her win in the great black Britons poll has given a fillip to plans for a public garden in her memory in Scrubs Lane, close to where she is buried.


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