Chapter 3. Votes for Women!

George Moorhead with some of Margaret’s “antiques” in the background. Photograph copyright Martin Emmison

Her mother and sister dead and her father subject to bouts of illness with death looming, Ethel became increasingly jittery. George Alexander himself regarded death with insouciance. He had done his best for his children, but except for Ethel they were gone, and his dearly loved Margaret was gone as well, and he asked no more of life. Ethel was still with him, still painting with success, and he enjoyed her company and her new enthusiasm for feminism. In 1910 she joined the Dundee Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) and made her maiden speech at a meeting there in March. In December she was at a women’s political meeting in Dundee where, Votes for Women recorded, [i] ‘Winston Churchill spoke of the gallant Liberal Party. Miss Moorhead rose and reminded him that said gallant party was forcibly feeding women in prison, and to express her indignation she threw an egg at the Home Secretary who had ordered this brutal treatment.’ Disappointingly the egg missed, The Courier reports; [ii] it fell on the platform at the feet of ex-Lord Provost Barrie. Ethel was ejected with great violence by three Liberal stewards, while attempting to hit Mr William Smith the Liberal Organiser with her umbrella. Many women stood on the seats to watch; Mr Churchill was a silent observer of the proceedings. The stay-at-home daughter (now aged 41) was coming out of hibernation.

Dundee was always quite active in campaigning for female suffrage. Back in 1870, following a lecture in the Kinnaird Hall, over 600 had put their names to a petition for a Bill to enfranchise women householders & ratepayers. Women had been excluded from voting since the first Reform Act of 1832 which prefixed the word ‘male’ to the word ‘person’. [iii] There had been much enthusiasm following the second Reform Bill, but the third Bill in 1884 merely widened men’s franchise. Women felt the need to make their voices heard more loudly. In 1904 the Women’s Suffrage Society (WSS) had been formed; a sympathetic Dundee Advertiser reporter “Marguerite” commented: “I have been so long a voice crying in the wilderness on this matter….”. This was followed in 1906 by the militant Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) which opened its Dundee office in the Nethergate in 1910, with Helen Wilkie as organiser. In October the following year Christabel Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence visited the city and a few days later Christabel organised three hundred women, including many from the Jute & Flax Workers’ Union, to go on a demo in Edinburgh. In 1907 the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) was formed by women who didn’t like the authoritarian management of the movement by the Pankhursts. Their president was Charlotte Despard. WFL depended more on working class women, and less on paid organisers and was less violent; a large number of Dundee’s WSPU members moved over to join its ranks. Although many WFL members deplored the more outrageous acts of the WSPU the two organisations worked together amicably enough, with HQs in Cowgate and Nethergate. Many women found in this campaign a new meaning and purpose in life. Both groups held meetings – as many as eighteen in a day – and demonstrations where they suffered rough handling by the men, published newspapers [iv] and wrote letters to the press. They heckled at meetings (how unladylike!), the WSPU waved banners in white, purple and green and the WFL waved white, green and gold; they were determined to be heard. The non-militant local Women’s Liberal Association supported the cause too. Scotland was a focus for the suffrage campaign because Asquith and several other Cabinet Ministers held Scottish seats, and Dundee was not backward in coming forward. But all the while women were seen as women: the papers commented on their pretty frocks at their fund-raising stalls; in 1914 the Dundee branch of the WSPU reported in Suffragette: “Garden fete held last Saturday; most enjoyable”.  It was generally held in society that women held fetes; men had more important things to do.

December 1907 saw a deputation to the Council led by feisty Dundee schoolteacher Lila Clunas (age 31): “Anyone of intelligence must support it [suffrage]” she said, but The Advertiser didn’t approve. Churchill came first to Dundee in 1908, campaigning in a by-election; he spoke many times, and also received deputations from the Women’s Freedom League led by Lila Clunas and Agnes Husband, a member of the School Board and at fifty six one of the older active suffragists, but after one meeting he commented: (according to the Advertiser) ‘The women’s cause is marching backwards” In 1909 Lila Clunas joined a deputation to Asquith in London. Matters became heated, and it is said she took a swipe at him; whatever the truth of this, she was arrested, and was the first Dundonian to be imprisoned in Holloway. The sentence was three weeks, but she went on hunger strike and was released early.

There was a huge correspondence in local papers, both for and against women’s suffrage.

The most remembered event in Dundee’s suffrage story happened that same year, when Isabel Kelly tried to get into a meeting in the Kinnaird Hall by sliding down a rope from the upstairs, dressed as an acrobat. She and her colleague Margaret Fraser Smith were arrested, tried, imprisoned, went on hunger strike and were released to loud cheers from the crowd that gathered to greet them. Judging by her future behaviour, Ethel must have enjoyed all this. It can be seen that the campaign was getting going in Dundee.

In 1911 Ethel decided to withhold her taxes – ‘No Taxation without Representation’ was a WSPU motto, and she was the first Dundonian to put it into practice. Before long two sheriff officers were at the door to poind goods to pay for the taxes. They were persuaded to leave with a single tall, three-branched silver filigree candelabrum. Ethel’s friends rallied round to support her, and off they went to the auction of poinded goods in the Greenmarket, where a considerable crowd had gathered.

The Evening Telegraph & Post [v] reported ‘Amusing Scenes’:

‘A few minutes after the arrival of the first taxi the ‘toot’ of a second was heard and a deputation of Suffragists, including Miss Moorhead and Miss Fraser Smith, drove up to the scene of the sale. On the car was displayed a large placard in the WSPU colours, “No Vote, no Tax”. The two cars were quite close together, the one at right angles to the other.

Prompt to twelve o’clock the sheriff officer rose in his seat and said – This is a sale by Sheriff’s warrant and the terms are cash down. How much am I offered for this candelabra?

The chauffeur of the WSPU car – Can I bid?

The sheriff officer – Yes

The chauffeur – Five shillings

The officer – I refuse it

A voice – I bid £1.

The officer – I refuse that. I take nothing less than £5. (Cries of “Oh!” and voices of dissent from the Suffragettes.)

In turn they remonstrated with the Officer, holding that he was bound to take any bid and proceed as any auction usually does.

The Officer – You can talk as much as you like after I am away, but you need not try to teach me my business. I know what I’m doing, and I am not going to sell this article for less than £5. If I do not get £5 it is withdrawn.

The Suffragettes again remonstrated but to no effect.

‘I want £5 for this article’ said the officer.

A voice – five what?

The Officer – £5. Will anybody bid £5?

A voice – Five pence (Laughter)

The Officer – Then there is no sale

A voice – You have a bona fide bid of £1. Awa’ and sell it.

[… Slowly the bidding rose by small bids …]

The Officer – Is there any advance on £4.15s?

A voice – They seem to have plenty of spondoolicks

Another Voice – Of course man. I was thinkin’ o’ marryin’ ane o’ them masel (Great laughter)

The Suffragettes smiled and were silent.

No advance on £4.15s. Then there is no –

£5 came from one of the quartette.

Any advance on £5, going, going – down came the hammer – gone.

[The Officer was paid and with a smile handed over the article.]

Now I want my change out of that £5.

‘What change?’ said the officer

Miss Moorhead explained that her taxes were only £2 odds plus the expenses of the poinding. She wished to know what the total sum was, and asked that a detailed statement be given her.

The Officer – You know I cannot give you a detailed statement here. I have simply done my duty.

The handing over of the article was greeted with cheers from the crowd, and as the taxi with the officers drove off the occupants raised their hats to the ladies.

Miss Fraser Smith then addressed the crowd from the front of the car.’

Ethel and her friends must have been on a high after this outing. Very likely they went back to The Weisha for tea (or something stronger). Mrs Rennie and Helen Wilkie had arrived too late to see the fun in Greenmarket, so they had to be regaled with all the details and of course the old major had to be told about it. “Bless my soul,” he would say, and “Good for you mavourneen”.  He did not seriously expect women to win the vote, but he was all for trying.

The Moorhead family grave, Dundee
Moorhead family grave inscription

George Alexander died age 83 in February the next year of ‘senile decay’. This must have been a wrench; the two were obviously close in those later years and he had normally been a cheery person to live with. He left Ethel £67 in his will. It is not obvious where she found the money to continue her quite well-to-do lifestyle, though possibly the sale of Margaret’s furniture and curio collection kept her going for a while. Or perhaps she sold more pictures; she certainly asked a good price for them, and she had had three accepted for exhibition in 1911 for the Royal Academy of Scottish Art, and another in Glasgow. For most of Ethel’s adult life nothing is known about her finances, although she continued to lead a comfortable life style.

For the last year or so the WSPU had called a halt on militancy while the all-party Conciliation Bill compromise to give votes to women was being thrashed out. The first Bill in 1910 was passed but then dropped for ‘lack of time’; November saw ‘Black Friday’ when a 300-strong deputation to Asquith was brutally treated by the police. In 1911 the second try at the Bill, which was passed with a large majority, was ‘torpedoed’ in November by Asquith’s promise of a different Franchise Bill. The WSPU was furious and resumed active protests, though at first they only vandalised letter boxes. At the beginning of March 1912 there was a big window-smashing demonstration in London. [vi]

My dear Henry

I hope you are well and that all is well at Ava Bank. I am posting this short note at King’s Cross to let you know we have arrived safely. One of our party from Dundee – Ethel, you will have seen the dark-haired woman in pince-nez at the station – is new to militancy, though I have known her for a little while, and is both nervous and over-excited, but she calmed down as the journey progressed. I was pleased to see she had packed sensibly, as we never know what may happen. You are a dear, tolerant husband, Henry. I do not know what I would do without you. Five other women joined us at Waverley Station, and we all became quite gay as we shared our picnics. Now some have gone off to buy hammers (Ethel told me she searched her garden shed in vain) and we are to rally at eleven o’clock. I will let you know how we fare as soon as I may.

Affectionately, Enid  (Author’s Note)

There were at least ten women from Scotland at this demonstration. A group travelled down from Dundee, including Ethel (described in the papers as an artist aged 35, though she was actually 43), Mrs Enid Rennie (Ava Bank, Broughty Ferry) and Florence McFarlane (a nurse aged 44 from 51 Nethergate). After an uncomfortable night’s travel they arrived in London and dispersed to different ironmongers to buy hammers. Ethel comments: ‘In those days ironmongers had to be persuaded to sell hammers to women (along with nails, corkscrews and anything else that had to be lost on the way).’ They were then assigned to shops in Kensington, arriving prompt at 11 o’clock. This was a life-changing moment for Ethel. She had spent the previous years being quiet and gentle, going softly round the house not to disturb her sick parents, never banging a door. And now this. She was terrified and trembling, but she pulled the hammer from her sleeve and wham! she destroyed four windows. The bang invigorated her -‘It said so forcibly “Yes dammit Votes for Women and everything else I want”.’ Enid Rennie smashed the post office windows, Flo attacked a High Street jeweller’s window and Ethel smashed the glass at Thomas Cook’s. She was also accused of smashing windows at the wine merchant next door, but denied this. A little man in a frock coat caught her arm and said “You are frightening the horses!” “That’s a pity isn’t it,” she replied. Mr Allen of Thomas Cook’s came out of the shop to find Ethel struggling with a nursemaid who was trying to grab her hammer; he took charge and took her inside to await the police.

It was on the way to the police station that she first saw Fan, Frances Parker, who was to become her dearest friend. ‘Fan was pulling stones out of a bag and hurling them at Fuller’s sweet shop. [I] called out “Bravo!” as the overzealous swept [me] along. A big man was swinging Fan off her feet….’ The demonstrators were charged at West London Police Court. Ethel testified that: “He (Mr Allen) was very kind to me when he arrested me, and I thank him.” Mr Fordham the police magistrate asked: “Do you want to say anything before I commit you for trial?” “Yes, said Ethel, “I am a householder without a vote. I came from Scotland at great personal inconvenience to myself to help my comrades.” The magistrate took a serious view of the offences and committed the women to the County of London of Sessions for trial by jury.

She continues the story in her memoir: ‘All [the raiders] were unconcerned, sitting quietly on the benches like an orchestra having a rest… they all seemed to know one another but [I] knew only one or two.’ The police took endless notes in a book, identifying hammers (by this time Ethel felt quite fond of hers), some of which were gaily decorated with streamers in purple, green and white. The plate glass owners and witnesses arrived, and the police took yet more notes. One shopkeeper surprised the police by refusing to make a charge, she said: “… if I had the courage of my convictions I would be sitting with them there on that bench.” Ethel gave her own name to the police, but that was the last time she ever did so; one of her brothers (Rupert?) was so angry he disinherited her ‘and even the faithful Arthur wrote that it had got into the Indian papers and his friends were annoying him about it.’ Thomas Cook was, unfortunately, Arthur’s travel agent! To please Arthur she wrote that afterwards she took another name – but later she told the story in her published memoir. Maybe she gave different names just to annoy the police.

A notable member of the ‘Scotch batch’ was Miss Janie Allan. She was a very wealthy member of a Glasgow shipping company, tall, handsome and imposing in a quiet way. She was also a committed socialist. She looked after her fellows, and now she persuaded the police to send out for tea and scones for the hungry raiders. Later she found friends to guarantee bail for them (Ethel’s was £200 or £300.) She was certainly more effective than the “haughty” English WSPU rep sent from HQ to assist.

Ethel and Fan did not get to know each other till later, but she described her as ‘small and looked innocent and disarming, with her charming looks, brown eyes and silky hair, … with bloom on soft cheeks and cherries in her hat …’; a fellow prisoner wrote of Fan as ‘a very determined personage and amusing too.’ Fanny Parker was born in New Zealand in 1875 and was the niece of the future Field Marshall Lord Kitchener. He paid for her education at Newnham College, Cambridge, after which she worked as a teacher in France and Auckland before returning to England, joining the WSPU in 1908 and collecting a 6-month prison sentence for taking part in a deputation to the House of Commons. She came to Scotland in September 1909 on speaking tours with the Scottish University Women’s Suffrage Union, and organised fifty eight meetings, then went to the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance congress in Stockholm as the Union’s representative. She can’t have been long back.

Fanny Parker being escorted from Ayr Sheriff Court, 1914

From West London Police Court the women were bundled into a Black Maria and driven off to Holloway, clerked in by the matron and put into criminal cells. Her cell, said Ethel ‘carried out its intention of punishment. It was furnished with a tin mug and spoon and a foul “utensil”. The board for sleeping on had a blanket decorated with arrowheads, the badge of the condemned’. But they remained cheerful, shouting through the bars to their friends when a group was allowed out for exercise in the yard. Then they were bailed, and their doors clanged open. “What happened then?” Tim Healy, MP for Cork NE, asked his friend Ethel. “I was released”. He didn’t think this ending was nearly dramatic enough

At the Sessions there were long lines of women with their luggage, none knowing when it would be their turn. Ethel gave a funny and scathing description of the proceedings, likening the judge to a prize mandrill and sarcastically pitying the ‘frail’ police. A name would be called, and one more would go in, not to be seen again by their fellows in the waiting rooms. Enid Rennie was sentenced to two months, Janie Allan, Flo McFarlane and Fan Parker were each sentenced to four months. (Janie, very properly hatted and gloved as usual, made a stirring speech, drawing attention to white slave traffic, the “sweating” of women workers and the shamefully short sentences given to those who had “outraged” little girls.) Another WSPU member whom Ethel was to meet again, a young English artist called Olive Wharry, got six months. Eventually it was Ethel’s turn. The witnesses from Thomas Cook’s had not actually seen her in the act, but then the man in the frock coat, who turned out to be a lawyer, was called. Ethel was mentally preparing her speech but to her dizzy astonishment the man muddled his evidence (it seemed on purpose) and she was released for lack of evidence.

Back home in Dundee Ethel aired her opinions in The Advertiser[vii]


In your correspondence today (Saturday 9th) there is a letter beginning with ‘We the undersigned, being astonished and shocked by the recent conduct of the militant suffragists in London’ and ending ‘we feel we owe it to ourselves to utter the strongest protest against unjust, disorderly and outrageous conduct, as well as being classed in the same category as its perpetrators!’.  Here follow some important signatures (most or all women). The above ‘disorderly perpetrators’ – in other words we who, having the courage of their convictions, having dared to strike a blow for liberty – desire certainly to be classed in a different category from ‘the undersigned’.  Let these content themselves with undersigning. ‘We wish to express our strongest disapprobation of the use of violence instead of reason.’ We, indeed, owe it to the women who had “reasoned” for 40 years and done nothing that we have got nothing. How beggarly appear arguments before a defiant deed!

Ethel records that Fan’s uncle, Kitchener of Khartoum, wrote to her in Holloway saying he disapproved of her escapade, but ‘Another martial uncle sent her a cheerful wire asking when she would be released, and inviting her to breakfast on that happy morning, so that the prison officers were greatly puzzled about Fan’s uncles and after the breakfast wire she got better treatment’. (There were three Kitchener brothers in the army.)

That same month, a Dundee journal The Wizard of the North reported: ‘that at the Women’s Suffrage meeting, under the auspices of the Tayside Society of the National Women’s Suffrage Societies [non militant] held in the Small Blyth Hall on Wednesday evening, Provost Leitch presiding. That the Provost told a funny story about John Burns and another Cabinet Minister who were discussing the tactics of the London Suffragettes. That Mr Burns thought the proper punishment would have been to “Slap their faces”; the reply he received from the other gentleman was rather startling, “Why their faces?”!!! – a dead silence in the meeting.’

There was nothing to keep Ethel in Dundee now. Her parents and Cissy were all buried together in Dundee Western Cemetery. She commissioned an unusual headstone in black granite, featuring a palm tree. Whether this was to signify peace & plenty (Judaism), military victory (Roman times) or victory over evil (Palm Sunday) who knows? In June she sold The Weisha (which had always been in her name and was worth about £1,000) [viii] and off she went to Edinburgh, staying initially at 12 Queen Street, according to a police record.

She next appeared in the papers following her first Scottish offence, when on 1st September she was charged with chucking a stone through the glass at the Wallace Memorial in Stirling. The stone was wrapped in a paper which said:  YOUR LIBERTIES WERE WON BY THE SWORD. RELEASE THE WOMEN WHO ARE FIGHTING FOR THEIR LIBERTIES. A PROTEST FROM DUBLIN.  The Courier [ix] told the story:

‘Suffragette makes attack on Wallace Monument and declines to give any information.

Yesterday a sound of breaking glass was heard around noon. A lady was in the room, a stone in the case; police were sent for. Another lady was understood to be in the company of the lady who was detained but who was not in the room at the time … on proceeding upstairs was also asked to remain until the police came, and did so. Both were then taken to the Stirling County Police Office where, after enquiries, … the lady who was found on the stair and who has been residing in Bridge of Allan for some time was allowed to go, as she had only met the other one accidentally. The 2nd lady, who gave the name of Edith Johnstone and who is about 30 years of age was charged with malicious mischief and was afterwards liberated on bail of £2. The lady who was allowed to go … shook hands cordially with the other.’

A week later Edinburgh Evening Dispatch took up the tale:

‘Johnson, who failed to appear last Tuesday, was arrested in Queen St. Edinburgh. She pleaded Not Guilty and complained that the charge was irrelevant. She also demanded back her bail money. Johnson conducted her own defence and had a large sheaf of notes, from which she put questions to the witnesses.’ Ethel’s hand was seen to be cut. She complained that she couldn’t hear and was moved forward to a seat at the solicitor’s table. ‘She said she was not guilty but approved of the woman who had done it. She said: “Your liberties were won with the sword. That sword was a mere symbol just as the stones and hammers with which women are fighting for their freedom and which they shall win.” She did not feel dishonoured but rather gloried in being associated with the case. Sheriff Campbell said he had no doubt that Johnson was guilty’

Ethel’s sentence, for malicious mischief, was a £2 fine or seven days in prison. She spent the first night in Stirling prison, where she complained about the conditions. She was then transferred to Perth, and complained there too. At first the governor said: “She appears to be respectable and, I would say well brought up”.  “She refused details of her history. On receipt of your [Prison Commissioner’s] telegram I granted her the privilege of wearing her own clothes [plus books & writing materials] for which she was very grateful.” But then she threw her food out of the window and lodged various complaints with the Prison Commissioners after she left, and the governor changed his tune. “She does not say how insolent & defiant she was”. The matron reported: “she defied all authority and refused to conform to any of the prison rules,” and the Chief Constable wrote: “She was made more comfortable than she had any right to be… It came as no surprise to me that she had made a complaint of some sort. I chanced to be passing the cells at the time she was taken from the Court after conviction and it was quite apparent to me that nothing short of handing over the control of everything in the building to her and her friends would lead to things being well managed … I have no doubt whatever that Miss Johnston’s complaint is made for the sole purpose of carrying out the avowed policy of the Suffragists to cause trouble.”

Ethel’s riposte was: “I was not granted any privileges until I fought for them. [Prison officials] should be instructed how to treat suffragist prisoners and they should not be encouraged to try to coerce prisoners into submission to Rules which only apply to Criminals” Her one bright spot was when Frances Parker, recently released from Holloway, came to visit her. She ‘saw an apparition that seemed to be Fan. She wore the hat with the cherries, her brown eyes were serious, she brought gifts.’

Ethel’s exploit was praised in Votes for Women: At an open air meeting Elizabeth Gauld and Muriel Scott said: ‘This was a symbolic act: to emphasise the fact that Scots liberty was won by fighting. Mrs Gauld ends: “it is a great pity that a daughter and grand daughter of a soldier should have to fight herself for liberty.”[1] It is perhaps significant that Muriel and her sister Arabella (both young teachers living in Edinburgh) were, like Ethel, daughters of an Indian Army officer.

Ethel’s address was at this point very uncertain. Dundee police record on 26 March 1913 [x] says she was at 16 Queen St, Edinburgh in September 1911 when in fact she was still at The Weisha. In August 1912 Ethel had been arrested from Queen Street but in October/November her address was given as 27 Frederick Street; and by December she was said to be living at 12 Queen Street; she seems to have been leading a very transient sort of life, or perhaps she had simply been staying for a while with friends.

In any case, she was in the news again by October 5th. She and eight other members of the WSPU went to a meeting hosted by the Liberals and being addressed by Sir Rufus Isaacs, a man who had recently prosecuted Emily Pankhurst and the Pethick-Lawrences. When the women tried to ask questions they were roughly ejected from the meeting, along with a single man who had protested: “This is not like Scotland”. Notably, neither chairman nor speaker intervened. Ethel was hit hard in the ribs as she was pushed out; she was not one to accept this meekly, so determined on revenge.

12th October 1912, 27 Frederick St.

Dear Lila,

I trust you are well; I do miss my friends in Dundee and all our busy meetings. And, Oh, I do miss crazy old Pine Top! But Celia tells me he’s doing well and annoying her postman now instead of mine. However there is no doubt that Edinburgh brings me more opportunities for selling my paintings.

We “mad” sisters are active here too. Last week I and eight other WSPU members attended a meeting on Irish Home Rule in the Synod Hall for Sir Rufus Isaacs. ‘Liberal’ he may call himself, but there was nothing liberal in the way he prosecuted Emily P. When my friend sought to question his actions we were all seized upon by some extremely rough male citizens on the pretext of keeping the peace, and we were pushed from the hall. A man hit me hard in the ribs, an obstinate-looking man with glasses; I do not know who he is, but am determined to find out. One other man must be given credit: he protested “This is not like Scotland,” and then he was ejected too. He went off with his collar awry and muddy stains on his nice brown trousers where he had fallen.

Mrs de Flambanque’s little party set off from Edinburgh today. Although she and many of her friends disapprove of us ‘militants’ I thought it only friendly to go along to Charlotte Square and give them a cheer. In any case, Sarah Benett, whom I met at the window smashing, was marching too – what a game lady to contemplate such a long walk at sixty two! They were all togged out in brown, with emerald green rosettes and arm bands, and made a brave show for the press, who attended in large numbers. Alexia Jack (secretary of WFL here in Edinburgh) gave a rousing speech as did Charlotte Despard – and she is none too young either (68)! I trust the marchers enjoyed my speech too. They hope to reach London in about a month’s time to present a petition, but I fear they are over optimistic – the time for futile polite requests is over. [xi]

I hear Dundee authorities are appointing extra watchmen to guard against us violent arsonist women – what a hoot! But at least they are paying attention to us. I’m sure you are still teaching your pupils to respect women’s rights. Please give my best regards to dear Fan, and to Flo and Enid and all the others.

Ever yours, Ethel  (Author’s Note)

The incident provoked a flood of letters to the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch. [xii]

A.G.S.: ‘Speaking as a stranger from a colony where manners are not supposed to be so much in evidence, what struck me most was the brutal joy of the men in witnessing the “chucking out” process. No sooner did a woman move to ask a question than from every corner of the hall these men rushed at them and even struck them as they might some wild animal, and from all around, even when a young woman was felled by the blow the crowds cheered and said “serve her right”. I was sick with horror.’

Ethel (from 27 Frederick St): ‘I am one of the suffragettes who interrupted Sir Rufus Isaacs last night [26th October]. A maniac sat beside me evidently placed there to exercise brutality on my being recognised as a suffragist. When I rose to make the remarks he was ready and dealt me a blow in the ribs which sent me flying, as intended, into the hands of his confrères the stewards. He snatched my muff from me and threw it amongst the audience. During former interruptions he had made himself conspicuous by frenzied yells of “Throw her out – throw her over the seat” etc. inciting other men to violence. Men and women in my neighbourhood remonstrated with him for his hysterical excesses.’

‘Members of WSPU, having been refused the customary privilege of asking questions at question time,  … last night brought this subject before the Attorney General, who stands for a government which refuses to act justly with this question. Our women don’t object to small accidental hurts they might receive while being officially ejected but to the deliberate blows aimed by men with the full intention of injuring.’

Some letters (men and women) supported the violence. But one wrote ‘After all these misguided creatures are women, and their sex alone surely entitles them to somewhat less harsh treatment than would be handed out to men’ and he questioned whether such behaviour was legal.

Within three weeks Ethel had tracked down the culprit – a secondary school teacher called Peter Ross. On 25th, a day long remembered by his pupils, she marched into Broughton School and into his classroom where he was teaching about thirty 17-19-year-olds. She shut the door behind her, said “You are the man who struck me,” and raised the whip which was tied to her wrist. Mr Ross grabbed her by the hand, the whip flicked his face and his spectacles fell off in the tussle. Ethel was taken to the headmaster’s room where she hit Peter Ross with her fist because “He was excited. He flourished his hand in my face and didn’t stop when I asked him to.” The case was heard next day by John Lyon, police judge, in the City Police court, and by this time there were two charges – assault on Mr Ross and malicious damage to a police cell window. She pled not guilty. On the second charge court evidence ran: ‘When taken into custody she fought against being searched and measured.’ The police gave further evidence that: ‘She lay down, kicked, tried to bite, screamed, said if she’d had a knife she’d stick it in.’ Ethel said: “I was thrown down. ‘Biting’ is a lie.” Her watch, glasses, hat and money were taken from her and she was (she claimed) given dry bread but no water. Furious, she broke seven panes in the cell window with her shoe because she had been “treated with undue violence”. However, she spoke to the police when she needed to; she asked Lt Strachan to contact her banker for the £5 bail. [xiii]

Meanwhile, suffragettes were active in Dundee. Ethel’s friend Fan Parker had been appointed WSPU Organiser for Dundee, and four days after Ethel’s arrest Fan and Ellison Gibb from Glasgow, smashed windows in Euclid Street and the Inland Revenue Offices, using brown paper smeared with black treacle. They were caught, and spent three days in prison.

Ethel’s adjourned court hearing was held at 10.00am on 2nd November. She arrived in a taxi, dressed to the nines and accompanied by two friends. They were applauded as they entered the bar but Bailie Macfarlane quickly brought the court to order. The prosecutor was T. Macnaughton and the defender Mr Macquisten. Ethel, being somewhat deaf, was allowed to sit in the well of the court. The charge was read out, and Ethel stuck to her plea of Not Guilty.

“What is your occupation?” – “No occupation.”
Prosecutor: “Where did you get this whip?” Ethel: “Bought it.”
“Was it for the purpose of assaulting Mr Ross?” – “I have a dog.” (laughter).
“Then was it for a dog you bought it?” – “Both” (laughter)
Then defence counsel asked: “In what manner were you treated by Mr Peter Ross at Sir Rufus Isaac’s meeting?
Macnaughton sprang to his feet – “Objection!” “Sustained.”

This was clearly unfair. The prosecution had called witnesses to the assault and it was competent for Ethel to lead evidence about Ross’s behaviour on 4th, both in justification and mitigation of the offence with which she was charged, and so that the magistrate should have all the facts before him. Worse was to come. Well before judgement was given Macnaughton referred to a previous conviction of Ethel’s. “Did you ever call yourself Edith Johnston?” he asked, waving a paper detailing the case in Stirling Court. Ethel: “I did. It’s my militant name when I choose to use it.”

Both charges were found proven, at which point defence counsel stood down so that Ethel could address the court on her own behalf. “No,” said the magistrate. A law agent who was present to advise Ethel pointed out that she was entitled to be heard but the magistrate immediately replied that he would allow no speech. The sentence was £1 or ten days; Ethel paid under protest. Outside, she was met in Parliament Square by large but not disorderly crowd. [xiv]

This was not the end of the affair. Ethel went to her solicitors, Dalgleish, Dobbie & Co, and commissioned them to draw up a Bill of Suspension – a bill calling for her sentence to be suspended and claiming expenses for her. This was submitted on 27th December, naming the prosecutor not as T. Macnaughton but as Charles Angus Macpherson. I have found no reason for this. The Vote and Votes for Women [xv] agreed she was unfairly treated by not being allowed to describe the assault on her.


[1] This report, and Ethel’s account of Stirling Prison and New Zealand women’s letter to Asquith supporting women’s suffrage can be found in Votes for Women 20/9/12.

[i]  4.3.10

[ii] 10.12.10

[iii] John Stuart Mill raised a motion to have it deleted again but was defeated.

[iv]  WSPU had Votes for Women, WFL had The Vote

[v]  10.10.11

[vi] Courier 7/3/12; People’s Journal 9/3/12; also  Incendiaries; Votes for Women and The Vote

[vii] 11.3.1912

[viii] Ethel sold the house to a Mr Edward Bell, who sold it on (or let it) to Mrs Buchanan White. There is some confusion in that the Valuation Roll names Ethel as ‘proprietor’ but the Voters Roll names her ‘tenant and occupier’

[ix] 30.8.12

[x]  SRO HH 16/40

[xi] The march was more religious than political. They arrived 16/11. Good press, but no results.

[xii] 5, 7, 9 Oct; and 2 Nov. Also Eve Dispatch

[xiii] Edinburgh Evening Dispatch 2/11/12

[xiv] Dundee Advertiser 4/11/12

[xv] The Vote 16/11/12; Votes for Women 11/10 & 8/11/12