Move over, Miss Nightingale ... or, rather, move up.

There are plans to place a statue of Mary Seacole in the grounds of St. Thomas’s Hospital, the hospital most closely associated with Florence Nightingale. A paper recently presented to the hospital’s Directors confirms that the hospital Trust has ‘agreed in principle to the inclusion of a memorial in the garden at St Thomas’ and to supporting the consultation and planning application.’ It seems that the town planning application is soon to be submitted to Lambeth Borough Council. It is to be hoped that it will be rejected on aesthetic grounds. It is the wrong statue in the wrong place, and the proposal belittles its subject.

Everyone wants a prominent statue of Mary Seacole in London. There would be no better confirmation of the trend away from automatically honouring generals as heroes of war. As Orlando Figes pointed out in his recent history, this trend began with the dedication of the Crimean War memorial in Waterloo Place in 1915. As he says: ‘It was the first war memorial in Britain to raise to hero-status the ordinary troops’. It’s in this doubly historic setting that Mary Seacole deserves to be reunited with her comrades. Even if it is true, as some claim, that she was keen to mix with officers they seem to have been predominantly regimental officers who shared the fate of NCOs and men as cannon fodder. And she almost certainly did come under fire when she was searching for the wounded. It seems to me that to hide her away in a garden at St. Thomas’ while there is an obviously appropriate site is insulting. The proposers claim that ‘There is a precedent for the siting of figures from history that already exists on site at St Thomas’’. Are they saying that St. Thomas’ is a traditional last resort for historical figures whom nobody else will accept? How many places have turned her down, for goodness sake? We should be told.

The merit or otherwise of the statue proposed is a separate matter. It will appear to many people that the giant disk behind her, stripped of its artistic symbolism, is there largely to solve a potential light pollution problem in the proposed site. There would be no question of using such a design if she was in her rightful spot.

But how to get her in to Waterloo Place? There is room, but more space could be made by moving someone out. There are two candidates: Sidney Herbert and Florence Nightingale. Nightingale had recently died when the war memorial was built, and it was considered appropriate to redesign the layout to accommodate her; Sidney Herbert’s statue was moved there from Pall Mall at the same time. I fancy that it was under the watchful eye of her first biographer, Sir E. T. Cook, later to be further honoured for his contribution to First World War censorship, that this new step to bury Nightingale’s reputation as a post-Crimean War radical politician was accomplished. Cook’s biography had already, the previous year, neatly ‘redacted’ the evidence of her long and successful outmanoeuvring of the medical authorities who opposed public expenditure on sanitation and of her conflicts with Queen Victoria and Sidney Herbert. In cooperation with Nightingale’s family, who wanted to help the nursing school that bore her name, Cook repositioned Nightingale as a wartime nursing heroine. No whistleblower she, not in 1915 wartime Britain! Woodham Smith, who was writing during another war when unity was also at a premium, simply copied the official line from Cook.

But Nightingale’s political achievements won’t remain hidden forever. When our attitudes of class war, racism, and sexism have faded away she will emerge as the driving force behind the dramatic improvement in life expectancy that took place in Britain between the end of the Crimean War and her death, as well as behind many other reforms including the liberation of women.  The first step to Nightingale’s public rehabilitation? Move her monument to the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Nobody else comes near her in qualifying for it. Whether or not that happens, Mary Seacole should be in Waterloo Place.

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