National Records of Scotland (NRS) holds a wealth of records about suffragette activities in Scotland, including their prosecution, imprisonment, newspaper reports and cases of force-feeding. In 2018 we celebrated the centenary of some women gaining the parliamentary vote with the exhibition ‘Malicious Mischief? Women’s Suffrage in Scotland’. As part of the exhibition, a mini-website was produced that gave visitors access to: a timeline of women’s suffrage; selected transcriptions of census returns from the 1911 census; and images of the complete files relating to the suffragettes featured in the exhibition. Originally this resource was only accessible in-person, onsite in the Matheson Dome, but has now been published and is available online. To celebrate, I’d like to highlight one of the suffragettes prominently represented in NRS’ archives – Ethel Moorhead.
One of the most infamous suffragettes in Scotland, Ethel Moorhead appears in NRS records under many aliases – Edith Johnston, Mary Humphreys or Margaret Morrison. Moorhead repeatedly made the papers through outrageous militant acts. This led her to being dubbed the Scottish leader of the suffragettes, despite no such position existing. Convicted a total of five times, Moorhead’s antics allowed ample opportunities to advertise women’s suffrage as her arrest, prosecution, release and re-arrest were followed closely by the press.
7 September 1912
As Edith Johnston
- Moorhead smashes the case containing the ‘Wallace sword’.
- Convicted of Malicious Mischief at Stirling Sheriff Court (Sentence: £2 fine, or seven days’ imprisonment).
- Moorhead was imprisoned but did not hunger-strike.
2 November 1912
As Ethel Moorhead
- Convicted of the assault of Mr Peter Ross at Edinburgh Police Court (Sentence: £1 fine or 10 days’ imprisonment).
- The fine was paid for her.
Born on 28 August 1869 in Maidstone, Kent, Ethel Moorhead was one of six children of George Moorhead, an Irish Army surgeon, and Margaret Humphreys. Raised in India, Mauritius and South Africa where her father was employed, Moorhead trained as an artist in Paris between 1898 and 1901.
The family moved to Dundee in 1900 and Moorhead returned home to look after her elderly parents, exhibiting her artwork in her studio and across Britain. Her mother died in 1902 and Moorhead cared for her elderly father until his death in 1911.
“If women don’t count, neither shall they be counted”
Records in NRS show that although Moorhead’s militant actions appear to have escalated after the passing of her father, she participated in agitating for votes for women before his death. In 1911 the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) organised a boycott of the 1911 census, a form of passive suffragist protest. The League proclaimed “If women don’t count, neither shall they be counted” and refused to provide any form of information to census registrars. Although arranged by the WFL many suffrage organisations participated, as letters from individual registrars reveal. Suffragette Ethel Moorhead was one such participant.
St Peter Registration Office
57 Perth Road
In accordance with your instructions in your letter of the 6. inst. – I called upon Mr Moorhead this evening about six o’clock.
While I had just read the first paragraph of your letter, Miss Moorhead, his daughter (whose refusal to fill up a Census Schedule I have already reported to you) came hastily into the Room, challenged my right to enter her home without first obtaining her authority, & peremptorily commanded me to leave at once, at the same time declaring that no information would be given to me. I begged her not to interfere with me in the performance of my duty and told her I would listen only to her father, & that I would go whenever he asked me. Then she ran off to another room, and almost instantly returned with a large brass bell, which she kept continually clanging to drown my voice while I was endeavouring to make myself heard to her father.
She asked her father not to give me any information. I continued to address myself to her father, & in response to my request I began to read from the Schedule the particulars required, when she suddenly snatched the Schedule out of my hand, and crushed it into the fire.
While she was doing this I elicited from her father that he was 80 years of age, & that he was born in Kildare.
Any further information it was impossible for me to obtain, owing to Miss Moorhead’s loud & offensive tongue & the clanging of her bell.Received 8 April 1911, Letter book concerning 1911 census. Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, GRO6/380/16
This is part of a transcription of a letter concerning Ethel Moorhead’s attempt to obstruct the census registrars efforts. The full transcription, and further examples, can be read here.
After the passing of her father, and as the pursuit of women’s suffrage wore on, the militant actions of the suffragettes escalated. On 15 October 1913, Moorhead and Dorothea Chalmers Smith or Lynas were convicted of house-breaking and attempted fire-raising and sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment. Both immediately went on hunger strike and were released under the controversial ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ after five days fasting. Once she recovered Moorhead disappeared but was re-arrested in February 1914. Committed to Calton Gaol, Edinburgh, she became the first suffragette to be force-fed in Scotland.
3 December 1912
As Mary Humphreys
- Threw a stone, breaking the window of a motor car carrying a Mrs Crombie and two men. Moorhead thought the car held David Lloyd George (who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer at this time).
- Convicted of Malicious Mischief at Aberdeen Police Court (Sentence: 40s fine or 10 days’ imprisonment).
- Moorhead went on hunger-strike but was released on payment of part of her fine after serving foru days of her 10 day sentence.
4 February 1913
As Margaret Morrison
- Threw pepper in a policeman’s face, smashed 12 window panes in Level Police Office and threw a bucket of water over a sergeant in the office.
- Convicted of Assault, Breach of Peace, Malicious Mischief and Assault at Cupar Sheriff Court (Sentence: £20 fine or 30 days’ imprisonment).
- Released after two day hunger strike.
By force or ‘artificial’ feeding
While England had resorted to force-feeding in 1909, it was widely believed that Scotland would not adopt this measure. In reality Scottish authorities had been discussing the possibility of force-feeding as early as 1909 but due to a number of circumstances it was not carried out until 1914.
15 October 1913
As Margaret Morrison
- Convicted of house-breaking and attempted fire-raising in a mansion house in Glasgow at High Court Glasgow (eight months’ imprisonment).
- Released under ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ after five days hunger strike.
19 February 1914
As Ethel Moorhead
- Moorhead was released from her eight months’ imprisonment in October 1913 on licence after five days on hunger-strike. She refused to present herself for re-arrest, but was caught and imprisoned in Edinburgh Calton Gaol for the remainder of her sentence. Again, she went on hunger strike and was forcibly-fed. The authorities were unable to hold her on this occasion and she was released on licence suffering from pneumonia.
No suffragettes served their full prison sentence when hunger-striking and the authorities were left in the embarrassing position of being unable to retain their prisoners. Force-feeding was adopted in an attempt to keep suffragette prisoners healthy enough to serve the duration of their sentence, but it was ineffective. Moorhead was force-fed for only four days before being released with double pneumonia.
According to press reports and official memos, doctor Grace Cadell attributed this diagnosis to food entering her lungs through improper feeding. However, the medical officer responsible, Dr Ferguson Watson, furiously denied this. He claimed that Moorhead subjected herself to the possibility of ‘getting a chill’ by smashing her cell windows and being inappropriately dressed.
The reaction of suffrage campaigners, those sympathetic to the cause, as well as press reports, reveal the outrage and disappointment at the actions of the authorities.
After the outbreak of the First World War, action for suffrage was mostly set aside. While some joined anti-war groups, most women campaigners diverted their energy and organisational skills into supporting servicemen’s families, nursing and other voluntary work. Ethel Moorhead helped to run the Women’s Freedom League National Service Organisation, campaigning for women war workers to be properly paid.
In the 1920s she went on to travel with her protégé Ernest Walsh and co-edited an English language review of art and literature. She died in a nursing home in Dublin on 4 March 1955.