19th Century

Innocent Florence Nightingale Tweet Provokes Social Media Anger | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a writer and historian based in Leeds, UK.

A Glance at My Book Collection

My old, and somewhat tatty collection of bound volumes of the London Journal.

One of my favourite things to do is to collect old books, and among my second-hand book collection are copies of G. W. M. Reynolds’s works, some by Victor Hugo, Pierce Egan the Younger (1814–80), and especially old bound volumes of Victorian penny magazines such as The London Journal (I have in fact transcribed a few poems and short stories from that magazine and uploaded them to this site).

G.W.M. Reynolds, the first editor of the London Journal, who later relinquished control to his friend John Wilson Ross

Despite being a penny magazine, one of The London Journal’s attractions was the number of high-quality illustrations included in each image. Sometimes these were copied from famous works of art, and other times they were wholly original. Many of the engravings included in The London Journal were of famous nineteenth-century figures: Lord Palmerston, Walter Scott, Queen Victoria, to name but a few.

Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals. Originally serialised in the “London Journal” between 1845 and 1846. From Stephen Basdeo’s Personal Collection.

Having come across a picture of the famous Lady with the Lamp, Florence Nightingale, in the 27 January 1855 issue of The London Journal, I decided to take a picture and tweet it out to the world.

The Offending Tweet

My tweet about Florence Nightingale

It garnered a couple of ‘likes’ and even one retweet. This is lovely, I thought—other people are interested in the engravings of The London Journal and I’m not just tweeting into the void!

The London Journal

The magazine itself was a fairly liberal magazine. Founded as a weekly magazine in 1845, it was originally edited by the democrat and outspoken anti-racist and anti-imperialist George W. M. Reynolds, referred to above. After Reynolds left to establish his own magazine, Reynolds’s Miscellany, Reynolds friend and like-minded radical John Wilson Ross—who had been with Reynolds since the days of the former’s Teetotaler magazine in the 1840s—took over the editorship.

Reynolds’s Miscellany and The London Journal soon became the two biggest-selling literary magazines among working-class readers in the mid-Victorian period. The London Journal’s circulation, by 1850, was over 500,000 per week—astounding success for any magazine, then or now.

However, some people took issue with the tweet because Mary Seacole was entirely absent from the article in question, as you can see in the tweet below:

Seacole was a Jamaican woman who, like Florence Nightingale, also cared for the soldiers during the Crimean War.

Seacole’s “Absence”

However, I explained to the tweeter in question that Seacole likely was not listed in the article because it was printed in January 1855, and Seacole did not arrive in the Crimea until March 1855 (Seacole, in fact, departed from London on the Dutch steamer Hollander on 27 January 1855—the very day on which the article in The London Journal was published—although the 27 January issue of The London Journal could likely have been written and compiled up to two weeks before its publication date, owing to the fact that it would need to be typeset and printed).

I then went on to point out the politics of the magazine in question and that I didn’t think, in this particular case, that racism played a part in Seacole’s absence from the article in question.

Indeed, as I later found out while writing this article, The London Journal printed many anti-slavery stories in its columns such as, among others, Percy B. St John’s The Maroon’s Cave (1847); The Narrative of Frederick Douglass (1847); and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).

An early issue of the London Journal

The inclusion of these narratives suggests that The London Journal took a strong ant-slavery line even after Ross took control of the editorship after Reynolds (even if Beecher Stowe’s story is somewhat problematic in a modern context, it was viewed as an ‘abolitionist’ text in nineteenth-century America).

Dates are not ‘irrelevant’

I did communicate the above facts regarding the date and the magazine’s political orientation to the respondent, however, this was not the end of the matter. The respondent wrote several facts about Seacole’s life (none of which were relevant to The London Journal’s coverage). The respondent then claimed that the date was ‘irrelevant’.

To claim that dates are ‘irrelevant’ is an odd thing to say when one is dealing with a historical text (or indeed anything historical). In fact, the respondent’s complaint—about Seacole’s absence from the short feature on Nightingale in January 1855—is easily accounted for when the publication dates and the date of Seacole’s arrival in Crimea are considered.

Others soon weighed in agreeing with the respondent, that dates do not matter. I had no other response to add to this other than to repeat that, as the editors did not have a time machine, there is no reason why they would have featured Seacole in an article about nurses in the Crimea before Seacole even arrived there.

In the study of historical sources, dates are not ‘irrelevant’
Victorian editors did not build time machines

The London Journal did, in fact, praise Seacole

As I later found out, however, Seacole was not ‘absent’ at all from The London Journal; a year after the Florence Nightingale article there was a feature—probably written by Wilson Ross (for these editors usually wrote the smaller features)—which praised her efforts:

‘The Mother of the Regiments’ … Mrs Seacole was a real sutler-woman … she often marched under fire, distributing refreshments and restoratives among the wounded, and dressing their injuries with her own hands. She also used to doctor the navvies and the Land Transport Corps, and her practice in cases of camp disease was highly successful … It will suffice to add that a fund, which is described as yet in its infancy, has been got up for her benefit.[1]

(‘Sutler’ is an archaic term denoting a civilian provisioner to the army).

My exchange with the respondent came to an end; it is sometimes best not to bother responding to people who are simply looking for an argument.

Of course there are valid questions about why Seacole was absent in the mid-Victorian press; these do not apply, however, to a feature published in The London Journal a full three months before Seacole arrived in the Crimea.

What prompted this response to an innocent Florence Nightingale tweet?

The usernames of these tweeters have been edited in the images above; the last thing I would want is to cause any trouble for these respondents.

I should say that these were not random anonymous accounts but fellow academics, like myself. It did not escape my notice, furthermore, that the accounts in question were followers of what might be termed Critical Race Theory.

I do not wish to follow some American shock-jocks by writing extended pieces against Critical Race Theory—after all, people are free to hold whatever ideology they wish.

Yet a few words on the subject are appropriate—we allegedly live in a post-truth world, and some critical race theorists have reached a point where facts no longer matter. This is because CRT has, for some people, become their ideology, shaping the way that they view the world. When presented with facts that contradict their pre-conceived narratives, they become argumentative.

Twitter can be good for research and for asking questions from experts, of course. A more productive (and collegial) exchange might have involved asking me about the magazine in general, its political orientation, and whether the magazine featured Seacole at a later date—all of which I’d have been happy to answer.

[1] [John Wilson Ross], ‘The Mother of the Regiments’, The London Journal, 30 May 1847, 206–7.

4 replies »

  1. I’m aware that Twitter is full of people who can’t get through the day without finding something to be offended about, but even for them, this was quite a stretch. I’m sorry you were put in the position of defending a perfectly innocuous tweet.