The business of the St. Thomas's Hospital and the proposed Mary Seacole statue is one of those strange debates that tell us more about our prejudices of the present than of the past.
If they are looking to remember a lady who had a role in nursing in the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856; who has been forgotten and might have a statue to overlook the House of Commons they should think about Lucretia Whittam.
In 1854 when she embarked among the 38 "forlorn hope" of "chosen ladies" to go with Florence Nightingale she was over 50 and had been widowed the year before. Her husband, George, had been one of the most senior Clerks to the House of Commons. He had succeeded his father in that work.
So this was a lady, resident in Cadogan Square, Belgravia, London and evidently wealthy and very well connected. Not only that but her father had been Francis Rogers Parslow, a leading London surgeon and senior in the medical profession. Few would have had better "clout" than this lady.
Florence was not simply the leader with the led, she had with her what looks to me like a highly capable team of ladies, some well connected such as the two Le Mesurier's. It is not easy to be certain of who exactly many of the other's are but an extensive search shows that ladies of standing with major housekeeping experience are probably there as well.
If there is one common element to this team it is that they are likely to have been devoutly religious and holding to the ideal that their lives were ruled by, for and always with God. It may be this that makes them anathema to modern history or perhaps that as intelligent, capable, indeed formidable ladies of some status, one way or another, they do not fit our current dogmas about the past.
One interesting feature of all this is derived from the picture below. It is an extract from the Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper of 5 November 1854, the same day as the ladies landed in The Crimea. It shows that the Nightingale story was already in place before they had emptied their first bed pans.
My interest in this is that when quite young I knew ladies, born in the 1860's to 1890's, perhaps not of high social status, but who were of this stamp. There were some remarkable women who lived their lives for others. Not only now are they long gone and forgotten but we do not understand them or recognise the vital role they played.
Such were the ladies who went to the Crimea and served at least for a time, but it is then of interest to those who came later to join them. It seems that Mary Seacole was among them to make her contribution. She is not unique and one of many forgotten. Another group is that of the Catholic Nuns and we should recall the strong prejudices of the time against the Catholics and the Jews.
The nuns would have been key to supporting the many Irish Catholic soldiers. If there is to be a statue it might make more sense for it to be a group one representing different elements among the ladies who went to The Crimea to do their work for God, the Queen, the Army and for justice.
There are others in the frame as well. Nightingale for all her work and determination must have needed other high powered people onside, including ladies, with the right connections to get to the confused and incompetent coalition government and civil service and to the media of the day.
There is a candidate for this who sticks out a mile, who lived in Lowndes Square adjacent to Lucretia's Cadogan Square and with the same connections. Also, in neighbouring streets were others of her family again with extensive connections of the right sort in Westminster and in the military.
It is Harriet Whitbread, about whom a book could be written, second wife of William Henry Whitbread, head of the brewing firm and heavily involved in politics and charitable works. A niece was at Court, one of the society beauties of the day, a daughter married to the heir to the Earldom of Antrim, her former deceased husband once Master of the Senior Lodge in India and noted scholar.
Another daughter married to Charles Conrad Grey as in the family of Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey and former Prime Minister whose son, also Charles Grey was Private Secretary to Albert, Prince Consort, who acted as private secretary to Queen Victoria while another son and the heir, Edward, was in the Cabinet from time to time. In short a direct line to the top, the very top. Harriet was some lady.
When later, the Shah of Persia visited England, he asked for the privilege of meeting her. He was following in the footsteps of many of the Princes of India who also took quality time to meet with her and discuss matters relating to Asiatic Studies and literature.
To connect Harriet to Florence the answer is one word, Hampshire. The Nightingale estate at Embley was near to branches of Harriet's own family and Harriet had been there as a child and acquainted with Hampshire society in general. Did she bump into Jane Austen at any time? Jane does mention her family.
Lucretia Whittam lived until 1891 dying at the age of 88, how much continuing contact she might have had with Florence is not known, but they were near enough in London to talk rather than write.
There are times when the detail can tell us more than the interpretations or theories.