Turbulent Scots: Ethel Moorhead, 1869-1955

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the Turbulent Londoners posts, where I celebrate the lives of Londoners who have played a part in the city’s rebellious history. As I recently moved to Edinburgh, I’ve decided to take a look at some of the women who made an impact on Scotland’s radical history. Next up is Ethel Moorhead, radical suffragette and artist.


Ethel Moorhead in 1904 (Source: Martin Emmison).

On a recent visit to the National Wallace Monument in Stirling, a towering celebration of Scottish nationalism and masculinity, I did not expect to find any reference to the kind of history I write about on this blog. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find a reference to artist and suffragette Ethel Moorhead in the electronic display about the Wallace Sword. In September 1912, Ethel smashed the glass case containing the sword that allegedly belonged to William Wallace in a protest demanding the right to vote for women, and was sentenced to 7 days in prison for her troubles. I set out to learn more about this brave woman who clearly had a flair for the dramatic, and I was not disappointed. Ethel was one of Scotland’s most famous suffragettes, and for good reason.

Ethel Moorhead was born in Kent in 1869, one of six children of a military surgeon. Her childhood, and much of her adult life as well, was spent moving; the family never stayed in one place for long. By the end of the 1800s, however, they were in Scotland. Encouraged by their father, Ethel’s sister Alice qualified as a doctor in 1893 and began practicing in Dundee. Ethel studied art in Paris during the 1890s, supported financially by Alice, but at the turn of the century she was living in Dundee with her parents and one of her brothers. Her first paintings were exhibited at the Dundee Graphics Art Society in 1901, and were well received. She had a studio in Dundee and exhibited her work in galleries across the UK. Her mother died in 1902, and Alice looked after her father until his death in 1911. During this period the pair were close, and Ethel’s father supported both her painting and her activism.

Ethel joined the Dundee branch of the Women Social and Political Union in 1910, and threw herself into the militancy the WSPU was famous for. She was arrested and imprisoned multiple times, often under false names, went on hunger strike several times, and gained the dubious accolade of being the first suffragette to be force fed in Scotland. In December 1910, she threw an egg at Winston Churchill during a political meeting in Dundee (the egg missed). A month later, Ethel became Dundee’s first tax resister. Suffragettes argued that women should not have to pay taxes to a government that they have no say in, so some refused to pay their tax bill. Bailiffs would confiscate goods from the women’s houses to cover the missing tax. A silver candelabra was taken from Ethel, then promptly bought back by her friends when it was put up for auction.

Ethel moved to Edinburgh after her father’s death. In March 1912 she was arrested in London for smashing 2 windows. In September, she wrapped the stone she used to smash the case of the Wallace Sword in a piece of paper that read “Your liberties were won by the sword. Release the women who are fighting for their liberties.” Her actions symbolically linked the suffragette’s fight for the vote with the Scottish fight for freedom. In an October, Ethel was ejected from a meeting in Edinburgh’s Synod Hall for trying to ask questions. She later tracked down the man responsible, a teacher, and attacked him with a dog whip in his classroom. In December, she went on hunger strike after being arrested in Aberdeen.

Ethel Moorhead (centre) on trial in Glasgow in 1913 with Dorothea Chalmers Smith (Source: National Records of Scotland, HH16/40).

Although she never had a leadership role in the WSPU, by 1913 Ethel was one of the most famous suffragettes in Scotland due to her brazen defiance of authority. In January, she was sentenced to 30 days in prison for throwing cayenne pepper into the eyes of a police constable, but was released after just 2 days because she was on hunger strike. In July Ethel was sentenced to eight months in prison for attempted ‘fire raising’, but was again quickly released because of a hunger strike. This was the period when the Cat and Mouse Act was in full effect – hunger striking suffragettes were released from prison, then rearrested once they recovered.

Ethel was not a well behaved prisoner. She had a reputation for destroying her cell, and refusing to cooperate with prison authorities. She complained about her treatment and prison conditions frequently and publicly. Suffragettes argued that they should be treated as political prisoners rather than criminals, and often actively resisted the prison system. The hunger strikes were a part of that. Ethel was rearrested in 1914, and became the first suffragette in Scotland to be force fed in Calton Jail in Edinburgh. She was released after catching double pneumonia, and her treatment caused outrage in Scotland. Force feeding had been used on hunger striking suffragettes in England since 1909, and people were enraged that Scottish authorities would also resort to such cruel and violent treatment. It did not deter Ethel however, and she was almost certainly involved in Fanny Parker’s attempt to burn down Robert Burns’ cottage in July 1914.

The medal awarded to Ethel Moorhead by the WSPU in recognition of the multiple times she went on hunger strike whilst imprisoned for the cause of women’s suffrage (Source: Martin Emmison).

At the outbreak of the First World War the British government gave suffragettes an amnesty in exchange for a promise that they would halt their activism. Ethel threw her energies into the National Service Organisation, set up by another suffragette group, the Women’s Freedom League. The Organisation helped women to find war work, and also campaigned for them to be paid fairly. After the war, Ethel spent many years travelling Europe. She launched and co-edited This Quarter, an art and literature journal. She died in a care home on 4th March 1955.

On hearing the word ‘suffragettes,’ many people will think of the Pankhursts, but might not know any other names of women who fought for the right to vote. Many women deserve to be remembered for their brave and defiant actions, not least Ethel Moorhead, who fought with words as well as eggs, stones, and dog whips.

Sources and Further Reading

Henderson, Mary. Ethel Moorhead: Dundee’s Rowdiest Suffragette. No date, accessed 23 February 2022. Available at: https://ethelmoorhead.org.uk/

Leneman, Leah. “Moorhead, Ethel Agnes Mary.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23 September 2004, accessed 23 February 2022. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/59253 (Subscription required to access).

National Records of Scotland. “Ethel Moorhead (alias Edith Johnston, Mary Humphreys, Margaret Morrison) (1869 – 1955)”. No date, accessed 23 February 2022. https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/files/exhibitions/women-suffrage/ethel-moorhead.html