Chapter 1. The first thirty years

In 1869, the year that John Stuart Mill published ‘On the Subjection of Women’, there was born Scotland’s most notorious suffragette, Ethel Moorhead. Perhaps she would have preferred to have it noted that she was born in the same year as Matisse, for she always described herself as ‘artist’.

Her father, George Alexander Moorhead, was an Irishman, born in Naas, Co. Kildare on 30th November 1829 into a big, well-to-do Catholic medical family. His grandfather was a doctor, his father was an army doctor, and his brother Michael Joseph (older by 16 years) also grew up to be a doctor. In due course four of George’s children and at least three nephews were to follow in the family tradition. Naas was a little town of about 420 houses 30 km west of Dublin, with a gaol and an army barracks. It lies about 41 km east of Portarlington, and 76 km south east of Tullamore (Tullamore being 26 km north of Portarlington). These three towns were the homes of most of the family.

According to Medical Registers George qualified as a doctor in Dublin in November 1859, but by then War Office records show that he had already joined the army as an acting assistant surgeon. Aged 28, he was posted to ‘the East Indies’ (India) in May 1859, and by August was an assistant surgeon in the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment of Foot.

What a time to arrive in India! May 1859 was less than a year after the Indian mutiny had been suppressed. The 66th had been sent out in ’57 but had arrived too late to help. The country was still in an extremely unsettled state, with some guerrilla fighting going on, and the British Crown was in the process of taking over control of India from the East India Company and creating the Indian Empire. The first reaction of many of the British was a lust for retribution, fed by stories of the horrible things that the mutineers had done, especially to the women. So George came to a British community that was still in a state of uncertainty, fear and distrust. Was he an adventurer at heart or just the laid-back man whom Ethel described later? Or was it simply that the job came up?

In those days army doctors did not have recognition as a separate group; they were simply part of the army and recruited on a regimental basis. Each regiment had a Medical Officer known as the Regimental Surgeon, and he had an assistant surgeon, a warrant officer. Medical officers did not actually have military rank but “advantages corresponding to relative military rank”, such as choice of quarters, rates of lodging money, servants, fuel and light, allowances on account of injuries received in action, and pensions and allowances to widows and families. They had inferior pay in India, excessive amounts of Indian and colonial service (being required to serve in India six years at a stretch), and less recognition in honours and awards. It was not until 1873 that a co-ordinated army medical service was set up, at which point George Alexander was to become a surgeon major.

Ethel’s mother Margaret Humphreys was the youngest daughter of family friends of the Moorheads living in Portarlington, Ireland. Margaret’s father Captain John Goulin Humphreys, served in the 15th Foot and fought in the Napoleonic wars. He was proud of his family heritage, being the great-great-grandson of Pierre Goulin, a Huguenot ‘officier de Provence’ who fled from persecution to Ireland. Once there Pierre fought the French Catholics at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, and then married a Dublin girl and settled down. Portarlington was established as a settlement for Huguenot refugee families six years after the battle. Captain John and his wife Julia (née Egan) had three daughters (Julia, Sarah and Margaret) and then a son. They lived briefly in Quebec, but were back in Portarlington by the time the third girl, Margaret, was born. The son, also John Goulin Humphreys, died at sea aged 30, en route from Melbourne to Madras. But the girls stayed at home. In September 1823 the oldest daughter Julia married George’s brother Michael Joseph Moorhead when she was 25 and he 35. [i] Michael was remarkable for surviving cholera, and Julia for bearing him fifteen children and nevertheless living to be 76. So Ethel had lots of cousins. Sarah, the second daughter, died in 1855 when she was twenty five. [ii]

Then on 9th November 1864 the youngest Humphreys girl Margaret married George Alexander Moorhead in India. He is said to have come home to Ireland on leave to collect her, but they were married in the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Madras by the chaplain, the Rev J. Colgan. Margaret was very conscious of being a Protestant and the descendant of Pierre Goulin, but she must have been prepared to compromise; her first son was brought up as a ‘Huguenot’ but all the others became Catholics. A month after the wedding Margaret’s father died, so he probably never saw his daughter as a married woman.

British officers were discouraged from marrying young, but more women were travelling out to India at this time, George was 35 by now and Margaret was 32 and a soldier’s daughter. All the same it was a brave step; life was not easy for women in the 1860s. The Moorheads would have lived in a quite spartan cantonment bungalow with a cookhouse out the back, with battered furniture which was lugged from place to place in response to army postings. The garden would boast sparse brown grass and drooping English flowers planted by homesick women. The best place was the verandah, where one could loll in an armchair and watch the sun go down. There was a rigid ex-pat status system, with the top tier for members of the covenanted Indian Civil Service, then the ‘military lines’ (presumably not the other ranks) and then ‘the rest’ – lesser civil servants, railway engineers, missionaries, planters, etc., with Eurasian clerks and shopkeepers clinging to the bottom rung. On the whole the army wives were younger and less stuffy than the civilian women, and apparently they used to pick up deplorable vocabulary from their husbands, like “jolly” and “pluck” and “cool”. Nevertheless life was circumscribed and dull; perhaps a horse ride before it was too hot, then bath, siesta, mutton curry for tiffin, visitors from ten till two with the same old gossip, more bath and siesta, get dressed again, perhaps a supper party. The heat was enervating and managing servants certainly took time and patience. For a bit of excitement horse racing was popular, and they would go to the club for more chat, for croquet or amateur dramatics and concerts, an occasional ball, and great days when mail arrived from “home” – And of course there were babies; poor wee creatures, so many of them dying. White memsahibs were expected to ‘keep up standards’ by wearing a hat and gloves, and they seldom if ever made friends with Indian families. [iii]

In June 1864 George joined the Royal Artillery. Thirteen months later the Moorheads had their first child, Elizabeth, but she died in infancy. Another child was soon on the way; George Oliver was born less than 14 months later (August 1866). He was born in Rawalpindi and this may have been a difficult birth; Margaret was 33, heavily pregnant at the hottest time of the year, wearing the heavy, restricting clothes of the time, not so grand as to be able to afford multiple servants to relieve her of every chore. But the baby was born safely and flourished. Was he, perhaps, christened “Oliver” for Oliver Cromwell? Certainly he was brought up a Protestant, the only one of the children not to be Catholic, and was always close to his mother’s heart. Did George and Margaret strike a deal?

Five months later, on 29th January 1867, George Alexander fell due for some leave and the family returned to Britain. He arranged for the lease of 4 Fisher Street in Maidstone, Kent very likely through the good offices of a cousin or friend Alexander (or Michael) Moorhead. The terrace house was small but comfortable, with a pub at one end of the street and St Paul’s church opposite. It stood to the north of the town centre, overshadowed by the grim grey walls of Maidstone Gaol but with open fields behind. Just along the road stood the West Kent army barracks.

20th February 1867

Dear Julia

Well, they arrived yesterday, thoroughly glad to have their long journey behind them. Baby George is so sweet –with a fine pair of lungs! He bawled when I took him from his mama, but I expect Margaret is used to having an amah at hand, for this did not upset her. She simply took off her veil and travelling cloak and sank into the blue chair by the hearth. The proud father called first for a glass of beer!

As you know we have engaged a young woman, Jenny, to look after baby and help in the house. She is on a month’s trial and I’m sure she will do well, as the Maddisons found her excellent and were sorry to leave her behind when they moved away. Jenny brought in very welcome tea and we chatted for an age, perhaps too long I fear. Of course they had to know all about the family back in Portarlington – a lot to tell after all these years – so I gave her a positive catalogue of the doings of the Moorheads and the Humphreys and all our friends and neighbours in Ireland. Then of course Alexander and I were full of questions about her life in ‘Pindi – Were army quarters satisfactory? How was their health in that heat? Were native servants reliable, and was it preferable to engage Hindus or Muslims?

I think the house will do very well for Margaret. It is but forty miles from Shoebury, and we are at hand to help here. The clement weather will be good for George Oliver, and some good plain food too. She laughed in that rather absent-minded way she has, and asked simply whether she would be able to purchase spices in the local shops! I reassured her that she must not worry about a thing, and we left her to settle in.

So tomorrow I will have to catch up on my baking and house-cleaning, but it was good to see them, safe and well.

With affection, Elizabeth (Author’s Note)

 Within four months Margaret was expecting another baby. Alice Margaret was born on 2nd September 1868. Unlike her brother, Alice had blue eyes, fair curls and the gentlest of natures. She grew up to be “Cissy”, the soft-spoken favourite of the family, everyone’s confidante. She was baptised the following March in St Francis R.C. Church by Fr James Purdon. Her godparents were Michael and Elizabeth Moorhead.

Who were these Moorheads? Dr Michael Joseph had a son Michael and a daughter Elizabeth; they would have been 16 and 15 at this time – rather young for godparents. Alice’s uncle (her father’s younger brother Henry) also had a daughter called Elizabeth who eventually married an Alexander McMullen, but [a] he is said to have gone to Australia and [b] she is likely to have been younger still. There are no other possible godparents in the immediate family tree.

An Alexander Moorhead is listed in the Poor Rates Register as living at 4 Fisher Street, Maidstone, between March 1868 and March 1870, but no other Moorheads appear in the Borough Ward Lists, and none in the electoral register for 1868. Although not a close relation his existence must surely be at least part of the reason for George Alexander choosing to come to Maidstone. Although there was an army barracks in Maidstone it was cavalry who were quartered there at the time, artillery never. One can guess that Dr Moorhead knew in advance that his next posting was to be at the artillery barracks in Shoeburyness, as from Feb 1869. And that area was renowned for malaria epidemics, the fens and mudflats being an ideal breeding ground, so possibly the Moorheads initially decided that Maidstone, where they had some sort of connection, was a safer option for the young family. Also, the married quarters for officers at Shoeburyness only started being built in 1866, so perhaps were not ready for the family to move in.

George Alexander returned to duty in February 1869 with his wife three months pregnant and with Alice still to be baptised. Margaret coped: she always coped. According to Ethel (in her later memoir Incendiaries) Margaret sailed through life without paying much attention to it, doing what needed to be done but often with her mind elsewhere. Ethel was born in Fisher Street on 28th August 1869 and a month later baptised Ethel Agnes Mary by the same RC priest as Alice but with different godparents – Henry Romcee (?) and Sophia Walmsely. Alexander Moorhead was at 4 Fisher Street until mid 1870 but after Margaret must have upped sticks and moved to Shoeburyness within a few months of Ethel’s birth, for a second son, John Goulin Humphrys, was born there on 17th September 1870. One may presume George Alexander was based there. [iv]

Shoeburyness is about forty miles from Maidstone. Initially a Royal Artillery range, it started its development as a permanent army station in 1854 in response to the Crimean War. The war also highlighted the need for a dedicated School of Gunnery for the Royal Artillery to standardise training with the new weaponry. The new School was established at Shoebury in 1859, in a greatly enlarged area of 200 acres. The garrison hospital was built in 1856, and was possibly the most advanced barrack hospital at that time with separate isolation, fever, casualty and general wards and an internal kitchen. Florence Nightingale is said to have inspected it shortly after it opened. Married Officers’ Quarters were built in The Terrace, overlooking the cricket square (1866-1871) and included the surgeon’s house.

Next stop was Mauritius. When John, the Moorheads’ fourth surviving child, was nearly seven months old his father was posted to Port Louis. Mauritius was a British colony, taken from the French after the Napoleonic Wars (so French was still widely spoken). It is a rainy island just 72 km long, its red tropical soil supporting mostly crops of sugar cane. After the emancipation of slavery in 1835 a hired labour force was brought in from India, making up nearly half the population. So the Moorheads would have been employing people from a familiar culture. There Arthur, the third son and fifth child, was born (on 20th July 1872). Ethel was later to describe him as “he with the beautiful face, the handsome black Irish looks, the dashing reckless ways, the queer turn for discovering queer people and the queer way of enjoying the disappointment if they turned out badly.”

April ’73 saw Dr Moorhead promoted to Surgeon Major. The final child of the family, Rupert Edward, was born in Mauritius in March ’75, by which time Margaret was forty two. Ethel wrote that they lived in the Cape at some time; after Mauritius but presumably before her father retired in 1880 [v] with the honorary rank of Brigade Surgeon. At any rate, she remembered her childhood as one constantly on the move.

Much of what is known about Ethel’s early life is to be found in Incendiaries, an article she wrote in 1926 and published in her magazine This Quarter, and this will be quoted extensively here. Her mother, Ethel wrote, was ‘always self-sufficient, had always some spirited restless hunt of her own, her husband and family were always in the background of this hunt. Her husband loved her too much to feel this barrier, whatever it was, but the children had always felt this barrier, and they were never close to her. She and her hunt were aristocratically remote. They, the children, were inferior mortals, except George, the other Huguenot.’ Her mind on some quest or other, Margaret Humphrys dragged six children around the world from India to England and to Mauritius, from there to the Cape, ‘with serenity and an air of being amused’. Whether she had servants to help her or not, and no matter what the impediments, she would simply pack and go.

‘The going was always the great thing in their lives. Her father too would be boisterous in the going and would sing his adieu to the spot.

Fair thee well my own Mary-Ann!
Fare thee well for a while!
For the ship it is ready
And the winds blows free
And I’m bound for the sea Mary Ann!
And I’m bound for the sea!

When the family heard this song they knew the last arrangements had been made for the going.’

‘One of Margaret Humphrys’ great hunts was for rare old “antics” as the old man who came to scrape one of them (and by the way ruined it) called them. During this seizure she spent the days in absence from the family with the Egyptians, Persians, Chinese and Old Dutch. She then ransacked the curio shops for specimens which she carried home. The family were using and surrounded by antiques; even the kitchen was supplied with old toasters of lace-like design, with old iron heart stands, and there old copper pans and kettles abounded. The rooms and stairway were hung with old prints – decent and indecent as some of the best are. When the children rebelled at her excesses she took possession of the biggest room in the house and smuggled in her specimens and kept it locked. When some wonderful enamel or bronze had to be shown she took in the most sympathetic of the gang, her eldest daughter Cissy. Father was plainly uneasy about the antique craze, fearing it would drag them to the workhouse, but he would not side with the children in disparaging remarks. One of them, hoping to please him, had said that the old Dutch cabinet was hideous and he had said sharply “How dare you say that!”

Once in their travels they stopped at a house which had a big empty aviary. Margaret Humphrys filled it at once with all kinds of birds. No one could have believed how or where she got them, and everyone would have thought that dragging six people around was sufficient. They were exquisite birds of all colours and kinds. She provided nests for them and got up at three and four in the morning to boil eggs for the younglings.’

George, the oldest boy, grew tall and good looking, with green eyes and black hair. He made life romantic for himself as a writer, an artist, a volunteer, a sportsman (he carried a gun in the garden to shoot birds on the wing), a “perfect gentleman”. He was like his mother in being remote, superior and easily amused, and he would make remarks about the others with his mother which rankled for years. Ethel, he said, had a grin from ear to ear, and she tried hard to reduce it thereafter. Rupert’s girlfriend, he said, had “fingers like sausages”. His siblings tried to retaliate by hiding behind a bush and chanting “Georgy Porgy Pudding and Pie”. And later by giggling about his downy new moustache. Though he never condescended to join in with the others they watched his romantic life with fascination.

Ethel never mentions her brothers John and Rupert in her memoir; she just calls them “the others”. In fact, John disappears from records, being the only son not known to have qualified as a doctor. He died in Imhambane, Mozambique, at the age of twenty three.

Ethel was eleven when her father retired from the army (in 1880) with the honorary rank of Brigadier Surgeon. He received a half pension and found a civilian job at the 68th Brigade depot in Galway. It would have been now that the older children were sent to school. All that is on record is that Cissy, at least, went to a convent. 

Dear Mama and Papa

Here we are in Tullamore with Aunt Julia and Uncle Michael for the half holiday. It’s wonderful not to be woken by the nuns for early prayers! We had a leisurely start and then went out on our bikes with Daisy and Gus, scooting round the town and along the canal to the castle. My goodness, we were ready for our dinner!  Henry has medical exams next week, so he didn’t come home this weekend. 

St Theresa’s is all right now we have become accustomed to it, though Ethel sometimes has problems getting on with two of the teachers because she thinks they are bossy. We have to work hard but neither of us minds doing that, and we are earning pretty good marks I’m proud to say. Back to school in Dublin tomorrow; Aunt Julia will take us.

Have you heard from our Protestant brother, learning Latin at his crammer? I’ll take a bet he hates it! We think of you all every day.

With much love from us both, Cissie  (Author’s Note)

George Oliver ‘had so many notions of the kind of hero that he wanted to be that his parents decided to make him a doctor.’ It was a family tradition, after all. He did well enough at his studies, and when he was 18 he was enrolled in his first classes in Edinburgh. He gained the Triple Qualification in March 1888, licensed to practise by the Royal College of Physicians (Edinburgh), the Royal College of Surgeons (Edinburgh) and the Faculty of Physical Surgery (Glasgow). This licentiate qualification was parallel to, but cheaper than, a university degree, and was especially popular with army doctors. He joined the mercantile marine, went to Kerksdorp, Transvaal, and two years later to Vryburg, South Africa and only ever came home once.

Windsor Street, September 1884

Dear Daisy

We had such a party last Tuesday, for George’s eighteenth birthday. I wish you could have been with us. I find myself running our household these days, for Mama is far too busy with her precious antiques! She’s found a new shop in the Portobello area of Edinburgh, and spends hours with the proprietor, rummaging through the back of the shop and making forays to the street market. Anyway, Papa decided this should be a real occasion, and I was given carte blanche with the budget, so we dined sumptuously – oysters and goose! Afterwards, Papa gave George his family ring – the one with the Moor’s head looking west and the laurel wreath and the motto “Auxilio Dei”; I wonder if your big brother Michael still wears his family ring, away in Minnesota? Do you hear from him? Four years now until George qualifies; our family is certainly carrying on the doctoring tradition. Alice is determined to become a doctor too, and she is working away at her Latin in order to qualify for entry. You would never guess, if you did not know her, what a determined streak lies within our Cissy’s fair, gentle exterior! Arthur teases her constantly, as he says she will faint at the blood when she comes to practical studies. As for me, I am enjoying living in Edinburgh for it is a beautiful city with much going on to keep one occupied, but I hope to visit you in Ireland before too long. I have been painting again, and really enjoy this – will send you a sample one of these days.

Your affectionate cousin, Ethel  (Author’s Note)

There is no record of where the family lived between 1882 and 1888, though it is probable that they moved to Edinburgh in 1884 when George Oliver commenced his studies. Dr Michael Moorhead died in 1885, and his brother, Ethel’s father, was at the funeral in Ireland.  So perhaps were the rest of the family; it seems they were back and forth to Ireland. Certainly Ethel was in Dublin for her cousin Sara (“Daisy”)’s wedding in November 1890. By 1888 the family was definitely living at 20 Windsor Street in Edinburgh. This was a terrace house in quite grand style, with five steps up to the porticoed front door, and near the centre of town.

By this time, Alice, age twenty, was in her first year of medical studies, also in Edinburgh. Her mother had been predictably shocked at the idea of a woman wanting to study medicine, but her father had chased round enthusiastically to find a tutor for the Latin and algebra she had not been taught at the convent. Alice was in the first batch of women to study at the medical college for women in Edinburgh. She did very well; she was first medallist in anatomy, materia medica and public health.

Another young woman student also excelled: Emily Thomson, who was first medallist in clinical medicine & clinical surgery. Emily was perhaps four years older than Alice, the daughter of a schools inspector from Forfar who was at that time the principal of Agra College in India, where she had been born, so they had childhood memories of colonial life abroad to share and they obviously got on well together. Life was not easy for female medical students and the two could not study gynaecology anywhere in Scotland, so they went to Dublin for this part of their education. When Alice registered as a doctor there were only 101 woman doctors practising in Britain. Both women became licentiates in 1891, then Emily added a university degree to her Triple Qualification in 1899. Emily served as a locum at the Edinburgh Hospital & Dispensary for Women & Children (later the Bruntsfield Hospital), founded in 1880 by Sophia Jex-Blake (one of the first women in Scotland to graduate as a doctor). Alice became house physician at Leith Hospital. Then the pair took a tour round Europe, visiting celebrated hospitals en route, before coming together to Dundee late in 1892 and setting up the first female general practice in town, at 93 Nethergate.

Alice Moorhead (date unknown). Photograph copyright Martin Emmison

One other medical student who was to have a part in this story was Hamilton Graham Langwill, a minister’s son who lived down the road from the Moorheads, in Hermitage Place, Leith. He graduated from the university with first class honours two years before Alice (1889) and his first job was also at Leith Hospital. They must surely have known and liked each other, but he chose a different bride, and was married in York in 1901; it was not until 1908 (when he was a widower and his widowed mother died) that Hamilton eventually proposed to the 40-year-old Alice. Perhaps his Presbyterian parents had disapproved too strongly of a Catholic bride for their son.

Arthur the third son, chose to study at university. Edinburgh University was currently considered the leading medical centre in Europe, with the new building in Teviot Place opened just four years before. In those days anatomy was the dominant discipline, and since the professor of anatomy was in charge of building his department was especially magnificent. The entrance exams comprised English, Latin, maths and another language. Then, for the degrees of MB and ChB candidates studied ten different subjects over the first three years, paying six guineas for each Division. Medical subjects included Bubonic plague and malaria, while Sanitation included diphtheria and, rather exotically, oysters. There were also practical placements to be completed: in order to graduate students must have completed at least nine months’ practice in their final year. Arthur qualified in 1893. Two years later he went off to Bengal with the army as a Surgeon Lieutenant.

The family stayed at Windsor Street until 1894, when they moved St Helier, Jersey (possibly at the invitation of an old army friend) where they remained for four or five years. They lived first at High View, St John’s Road, then moved to Queen’s Cliff Villa not far away. The Jersey Almanack listed Dr G.A.Moorhead as a ‘notable inhabitant’. Arthur’s entry papers for the army were submitted from Jersey. He was said to be ‘of regular & steady habits and likely in every respect to prove creditable…’ and his referees were (1) Col. J. Bailey, late Staff Surgeon, Rifle Brigade, The Villa, Victoria Crescent, Jersey.  (2) Rev J. Hourigan, Acting chaplain, St Mary & Peter’s R.C. church, Jersey.

The family next went to Glasgow in 1897. According to a Dublin family member George Alexander was still practising as a doctor although he was now 68, and certainly he was on the medical register until 1900. By now George Oliver was settled in South Africa, Alice (Cissy) was practising in Dundee, John had died in Mozambique and Arthur was on the N.W. Frontier in Pakistan, where the Tochi Valley was garrisoned following the Waziristan Expedition. He sent home some dashing photographs of himself on horseback in Multan. Only Ethel and Rupert remained at home, and Rupert was doing his medical qualification in Glasgow. They lived first at 2 Holyrood Crescent and then at 191 Wilton Street, both substantial terraced houses not far from Kelvin Bridge. At that time St Mary’s Cathedral across the road from Holyrood Crescent was having its spire added; perhaps it was the noisy building works that inspired the Moorheads to move away to their second house. And then in 1900 Dr Moorhead retired and the family moved to Dundee.


[i] He was the doctor in Tullamore Workhouse in Arden Road from 1841 until he died, although medical directories state that he only gained his medical qualification in January 1859. (Lack of earlier records could account for this disparity.)

[ii] Family information from Genealogist Patricia Moorhead, National Library of Ireland

[iii] The Memsahibs – Pat Barr; Secker & Warburg 1976

[iv] Records Office: 30/5/59 – 29/1/67 East Indies, 8/4/71 – Mauritius. Service on full pay 7 years 8 months abroad; 2 years 1 month at home. If he only had 2 years + 1 month leave this would have expired in Feb 69; what happened to the other 2 years before going to Mauritius is unclear. Shoebury Garrison is not mentioned anywhere, but this would be handy for conceiving John! The family stayed in Mauritius until at least March ’75.

[v] Peterkin / 82 Medical Register