It’s a familiar story: a school in Britain has changed the name of one of its houses. The school—apparently after discussions with pupils (aged 5-11 years)—decided to drop the former patron of the house, a popular children’s novelist recently denounced for failing to accept the current support for “trans-sexuality”, and for stating that women should be called women. At the same time, the school has also—again apparently following the children’s opinion—changed the name of another house, abandoning the name of Sir Winston Churchill, to replace it with that of a current popular footballer. The decisions, the Daily Mail reported, were made because Churchill and JK Rowling “are deemed controversial figures.”
But I am not sure that the school—a Church of England primary school in Richmond, an attractive area just outside of London with a strong Liberal Democrat tradition—knows quite what it has now chosen. The new heroine is a woman known for her faith, patriotism, devotion to the Britain Empire, and commitment to free enterprise.
Mary Seacole was a devout Catholic, who after a life of travel and adventure wanted to help British troops in the Crimean War; she teamed up with a business colleague to establish a store selling modest comforts and offering hot drinks and a place to relax. She also had skills in home nursing, which she put at the service of the wounded. The soldiers loved her and called her Mother Seacole. She became something of a legend among them and also back in Britain where for a time her fame rivaled that of Florence Nightingale. After the war’s end she was awarded the Crimean Medal, which she wore with pride, often seen walking by the Thames with it pinned to her coat.
How much does the school know of Mary Seacole, her opinions, and her convictions? She seems to have been chosen because she was of mixed race—and is thus described today as being black. Her father was a Scottish soldier in the British army and her mother was a free black woman known for being a healer and practitioner of Caribbean and African medical practices. It seems possible that the school is unaware of Mary Seacole’s staunch Catholicism; indeed not very well informed about her in general. They could have discovered the former by checking where she is buried: in the Catholic section of the cemetery at Kensal Green.
And the story of her life is well documented in her splendid book The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, published in 1857, extracts from which are widely available. She was, in fact, very politically-incorrect, describing the Maltese as lazy, the Greeks as “cunning-eyed” and opining that the only industrious creatures in Turkey were the fleas.
In the Britain of Mary Seacole—she was born in 1805, the year of the victory at Trafalgar, and died in 1881—it was normal to feel free to write with honesty and vigor. Mrs Seacole was a patriot, devoted to the British Empire, and proud of its Army, which she served with courage and devotion. Her ideas and opinions do not sit very well at all with the fashions of today. In fact, ironically, they were rather more in tune with those of Sir Winston Churchill.
I first learned about Mrs Seacole years ago and have admired her ever since, writing an enthusiastic feature about her for the Daily Telegraph some forty years ago. It’s fun that she is now deemed to be an icon for Black History Month. More importantly, I would love today’s children to learn to share her faith, her patriotism, and her values. I’d love them to read her book, visit her grave, and discover the heroism of the soldiers for whom she cared with such love.
She was a woman of strong Christian convictions, lived, honored and shared without embarrassment. I think she would have been appalled at today’s fashionable support for aborting babies, mutilating teenagers in the name of “transitioning” from one sex to another, and giving little girls contraceptive drugs.
I hope the children at Trinity Church of England Primary School will come to honor this splendid woman, and to follow her example in prayer and in service to others. Let’s have more schools honoring staunch, traditionally-minded women, outspokenly proud of the British Empire, glad to serve alongside the British Army, and strong in the Catholic Faith.
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