Chapter 5. Force-feeding and beyond

Ethel did not stay idle for long. On 17th February 1914 she and another woman were found in the Borders near Innerleithen, making enquiries locally and examining the doors of Traquair House, the ancient home of the Maxwell Stuarts. The Traquair House housekeeper explained to Ethel: “We are not allowed to let anyone in because of the suffragettes.” “You are quite right, it’s horrible what the women will do!” But the housekeeper was suspicious and told the Estate Office, who phoned the police. They were interviewed at their hotel in Innerleithen, where they said they were tourists and gave their names as “Mrs Marshall” (Ethel) and “Miss Stewart”. They walked back in the rain to Forrester’s Hotel in Peebles. Early the next day, Ethel was identified by a police photograph; Miss Stewart was unknown, so was released, but Ethel, resisting violently, was taken not to Duke Street but to Calton Jail in Edinburgh. After two days’ hunger strike she was then examined by a doctor, who said of Prisoner 2529: “although apparently healthy she is not of robust habit”.

Ethel had only been out on licence, and there was already a warrant for her arrest held by Perthshire Constabulary in connection with fires at mansions near Comrie [i] on 4th July 1913 and another incident in Renfrewshire. She was also an exceeding nuisance to the authorities. The National Records of Scotland hold her letter of 19th February: “My complaint against the governor is that he refused to take off his cap when he came into my cell today. I endeavoured (unsuccessfully) to remove it by shying a slipper at it.” She asked for privileges according to prison rules including a visit from Dr Cadell, a suffragette sympathiser, and ended “P.S. I exempt the governor and doctor of Perth Prison who are of the right kind.” All this helped persuade the authorities to sanction her force feeding.

On 21st February 1914 (or possibly 22nd; Ethel’s dates don’t match the official ones) she became the first woman in Scotland to be force-fed. This was done by a doctor from Morningside Asylum, Dr James Dunlop, medical adviser to HM Prison Commissioners for Scotland. He reported that the procedure went without a hitch, with only moderate resistance. Dr Ferguson Watson from Peterhead Prison took charge for the next four days. He reported gastritis, rheumatism and enlarged liver. Outside the gaol other suffragists voiced their support “for Ethel”; they shouted through megaphones – “No surrender!” “Keep the flag flying!” “Your friends are thinking of you”, until a constable moved them on. Frances Parker arranged for the RC prison chaplain to visit her every day. There were two deputations from the WSPU. Nevertheless, she was force-fed eight times before 25th. That day she became very ill, Mr Joseph Dobbie, her solicitor, arrived, and she was released on licence suffering from double pneumonia, whether because food had got into her lung or because of her deliberate self-exposure to cold. That same day [ii] Dr Devon, who took on full responsibility for the force feeding, reported to the chairman of the Prison Commission: “I have far too frequently been threatened by lunatics in and out of prison to worry about this lot.” Charming.

After her release from Calton Jail Ethel wrote at least four accounts of her imprisonment and force-feeding: in the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch, in the WSPU journal (her statement for Parliament), The Suffragette and, later, in her own journal This Quarter. [In this last account Ethel describes herself in the third person, as Mrs Ormond.] However they all tell much the same story, it was a horrific experience. She went on strike, refusing not only food and drink but even sleep, padding bare-footed around her cell at night to keep herself going. Before the first feeding she had barricaded herself in her cell by wedging her toothbrush under the door, and attacked with her hat pin the hand that appeared round it. The second day (she had been fasting for five days by then) she climbed up and tied herself to the window bars with her towel and poured water down over the warders when they burst in. According to an official report, latterly, exhausted, she just sat on her bed wrapped in a blanket – even this official report [iii] shows a twinge of sympathy.

The only kindness she received was from the RC chaplain Canon Stewart who visited every day. Each day, morning and evening, she was carried off to the operating room and held down on a table by a group of warders (she claimed ten), her head was held and a tube forced down her bleeding nose and throat as she coughed and choked. This procedure had to be carried out several times before it succeeded and food could be poured down the tube, after which her head was still held and her mouth covered in an unsuccessful attempt to stop her being sick, meaning that she vomited all over herself. The youthful feeding tube operator said: “If you do this we will feed you three times a day,” and he became more brutal every time. Ethel recounts a strange event on the third day: ‘She had a curious sensation inside the left ear, as if cold drops or cold wire had touched it, and in another minute or two she felt as if a hot iron had been put in, an excruciating pain which made her give a piercing scream.’ It is possible her vagus nerve was damaged by the rough treatment of her gastric system. ‘After that operation she broke down, furious and ashamed that she had to cry before them; she felt herself surrounded by devils … perhaps they would break her in the end.’ She was seriously afraid. On the seventh evening a kindly female warder tipped off Ethel’s supporters to send for her solicitor Mr Dobbie. Meanwhile Dr Watson himself ‘an older man, with a resolute, apoplectic face’ took over the job from the younger doctor. The food got into her lungs and she was choking nearly to death but he kept on pouring. [iv] ‘She heard his angry shouting – “Now will you have some food!”’ Ethel began to have a pain in her side, which quickly worsened, and she had difficulty breathing – she was really ill now, unable to lift her head. The hospital doctor was summoned and ordered poultices and the chaplain came and gave her absolution. Two nurses sat up with her all night. But she reckoned she had won; they would have to release her now… Dobbie arrived and waved legal papers at the prison officials. And then, at last, she was handed a beautiful bunch of sweet peas sent in by Arabella Scott and as she inhaled their scent she was told she would be released. She was accompanied in the ambulance by Dr Watson and a nurse, and taken to 145 Leith Walk, the house of Dr Grace Cadell, who said Ethel already had a weak heart. 150 police lined up to control a potential demo, but she was out by 1.00pm. Ethel claimed Dr Watson apologised to her in the ambulance but he said this suggestion was “too absurd”.

The superintendent of Perth Constabulary wanted her re-arrested the moment she got out (“I now hold a warrant for the arrest of Ethel Moorhead on a charge of having in concert with Rhona Robinson & others, set fire to three mansions in Comrie district on the night of the 3rd or morning of the 4th inst.”) but he would have to wait. Nevertheless, at the prison gate she was handed a paper ordering her, under the Cat & Mouse Act, to return to prison by 3.00pm on 9th March unless examined & pronounced unfit, and warning that she would be watched by detectives.

The force-feeding of Ethel Moorhead caused considerable uproar, especially as up until now Scotland, unlike England, had refrained from this practice. There were women waving flags outside the prison every day. The Liberal MP for Leith lost his seat shortly after people saw Ethel being stretchered into Dr Cadell’s house. On 23rd February the Dundee Courier published letters from Emily Pankhurst and Lila Clunas asking “Why not force-feed me?” An advertisement in The Scotsman on 25th ran: “Miss Ethel Moorhead is being force fed. Come in your thousands and protest. … A procession will form in Charlotte Square at 6.30 this (Wed) evening and will proceed along Princes St to Calton Jail where Meetings will be held and the instant release of Miss Moorhead demanded.” Well, that was a bit late in the day because Ethel was already out, but it showed the depth of feeling Ethel’s barbaric treatment had aroused in Scotland.

Someone threw a stone through the Scottish Prisons Commission’s window with a label: “Defiance! To protest against the cowardice and brutality of the Prison Commissioners” There were more letters to Dr Devon. Enid Rennie wrote from Dundee that force-feeding was “… a permanent blot on the record of so many fights for liberty in which Scotland has hitherto born a noble part”. Janie & Elizabeth Gauld wrote: “Are you satisfied?”. He replied that the risks of force-feeding were justified “to protect the public from the operations of Miss Moorhead”. A letter from Mrs C. Blair of Gladsmuir said: “Now, honest injun, isn’t it a huge mistake to start force-feeding?” But Dr Devon remained unimpressed. He wrote [v] “Miss Allan called on me (23/2/14) and said ‘You’ll have to let her out … why not now?’ I said …’We must, with regret, risk her health.’ Should I certify her? Janie: “For heaven’s sake don’t do that”. So was Ethel mad? It seems more likely that she was behaving a way unthinkable for a middle-class woman in those days

In another letter addressed to the Prison Governor [vi] Dr Devon wrote: “it is a pity that … she was not treated from the first like an insane person as was afterwards done”. He argued that It was a good idea to be ‘treating’ her as mad, not ‘punishing’ her. An officer with asylum experience had been scheduled to be with her at all times. But if she was being constantly supervised how did she tie herself to her window bars? A couple of weeks later he was attacked in Glasgow with a dog whip by Jean Lambie of Edinburgh, a friend of Ethel’s; he’d been marked for “special attention” at a Pankhurst meeting. The Edinburgh Evening Dispatch reported a riot at his lecture on “The Community & the Criminal”.

The most dramatic protest of all was that Whitekirk medieval church in East Lothian was burnt down within hours of Ethel’s release, probably by Fan, causing £10,000-worth of damage. On 26th June Janie Allan wrote to the Chairman of the Prison Commission that this was revenge for Ethel’s treatment.

The case reached parliament. From the National Records of Scotland: ‘Question for 9 March. Mr Barnes To ask the Secretary of State if he is aware of the allegations which have been made of ill treatment of Miss Moorhead … and of her health & life being endangered thereby & if he can make a statement on the matter.’

Then on 1st April 1914 ‘Mr T. Healy, barrister, MP for Cork N.E. (a friend or at least acquaintance of Ethel’s) asked the Secretary of State ‘if he was aware that two doctors who examined Ethel Moorhead a few hours after her release on 25 Feb reported “double pneumonia”; if he would say if the burning of the church referred to by him as justifying the course followed occurred on the night of Miss Moorhead’s release, when she was at the point of death; and if it was the practice in Scotland to differentiate in the case of women about whom the police expressed suspicions that they might have been implicated in other breaches of the law for which they had not been tried.’ The Secretary of State replied: 1. Yes. 2. I never said Ethel Moorhead was concerned in it. 3. Yes, it makes sense. [vii]

Dr Cadell asked for an extension of licence on 4th March; the reply granted this but asked for a detailed medical report to be submitted. But in fact, according to the Ed Eve Dispatch [5/3/14] she was smuggled out the very next day.

WANTED by Leith Police (13/3/14) The Scottish Office [viii] believed she left Dr Cadell’s house at about 8pm on 10th inst., pale faced and wearing a big black hat, in a dark green car with the number plate S.2305. This was a false plate, as it was really the number of the car belonging to a Mr John Begg of Comely Bank. Ethel’s story is that she was ill and had lost her courage so Fan and Janie arranged her escape. Janie came round in a big car, and they coaxed and bullied Ethel into exchanging clothes with her, plonked on a big hat complete with false curls and shoved her gently out of the door to totter as best she could to the waiting car.

Three days later Leith Police put out a notice –

“WANTED Ethel Moorhead age 44, 5’6″, very dark hair, brown eyes + pince-nez, oblong face, receding chin, slim build, stooping shoulders. One address: Argyle Cottage, Liberton. Friend Miss Parker, 61 Nethergate, Dundee. Father & grandfather both soldiers. Solicitor Dalgleish & Dobbie, Charlotte Sq Edinburgh.”

They never caught her.

The fight for suffrage continued, with Ethel’s friends all involved. In January 1914 a meeting had been held in Dundee for Ramsay McDonald, chairman of the Labour MPs. Both May Grant and Lila Clunas had been thrown out in spite of the fact that it was WFL policy not to ask questions until question time. Until now WFL had been on good terms with the Labour Party, but this was the last straw.

The following month Mary Henderson, secretary of Dundee Women’s Suffrage Society, wrote more optimistically to the Dundee Courier: ‘Let me assure you, sir, that in Dundee the suffragists do not need to ‘try and manufacture public opinion’ which has never been disregardful of the part which women play in the commercial prosperity of the city, nor slow to respond to the efforts of those women who strive to discharge faithfully the duties of their citizenship’.

As for the more militant section the Secretary of Dundee Liberal Association had been assaulted by suffragettes, at the end of 1913, and a follow-up letter in the paper warned: ‘the thrashing you received last night was part payment for the way you have assaulted women and men suffragists at Liberal meetings. Change your methods or it will get worse.’ In the following April Elliot Rd Hospital was burnt and two months later an attempt was made to set fire to Dudhope Castle, making the police authorities thoroughly jittery: “… all strange ladies who come to town are viewed as possible militants… Women who look out of the ordinary have been watched and also some strange motor cars have been seen….”

Over in Glasgow Janie Allan presided over a public meeting in March 1914 where Emmeline Pankhurst was to speak. Mrs Pankhurst was liable for arrest under the Cat & Mouse Act and the police barged in, truncheons whirling. There were three to four thousand people there, and there was a huge rammy – flowerpots and chairs hurled and Janie firing off blanks from a starting pistol [ix] – but of course the police won. Then Janie set off to London for a WSPU deputation to the king, knowing she would be arrested but wanting to share with her fellow campaigners. Arabella was re-arrested in May in London and carried (literally) back to Scotland, struggling all the way. She immediately went on hunger strike and was released six days later into the care of Dr Cadell. Ten days later she fled back to London, but on 18th June she was found and dragged back again to Scotland. This time she was taken to Perth Prison and forcibly fed; evidently the prison authorities were tired of fiddling about with the Cat & Mouse procedures, releasing fasting women and then re-arresting them when they got better. She was held and fed from 20th to the 26th, not allowed any letters or visitors. Another suffragette was being force-fed at the same time; the WSPU quickly realised that that was what Perth Prison was now being used for. So did the public: Perth Trades Council secretary J.M.Rae said large crowds were now sympathetic to suffragists because of force-feeding. WSPU staged a 24-hour picket, 2,000 strong, Muriel, Arabella’s sister made a heartfelt public appeal, prayers for those being fed were offered up in churches and petitions against force-feeding were thrown into the king’s carriage by Olive Walton, the current WSPU organiser for Dundee.

Ethel struck at least one more blow for the cause. In early July 1914 two women were caught trying to burn down Burns’ cottage in Alloway. They were Fanny Parker, going under the name of Janet Arthur, and – almost certainly – Ethel. The night watchman only managed to grab one of them; Ethel vaulted the fence, grabbed her bicycle and took off. She later said Fan allowed herself to be captured in order that she (Ethel) could escape. Fan was searched (violently resisting) and charged at Ayr Sheriff Court. By the 8th she had been on hunger strike for nearly a week so was removed to Perth where, in spite of being on remand, she was forcibly fed. She said she was fed by rectum, in a way “so unnecessarily painful that I screamed with agony.” News of this reached her influential family, and her brother Captain Parker (though not in sympathy with suffragists) travelled to Scotland and arranged for her release to a nursing home on 16th. The outside doctor, Dr Chalmers Watson, confirmed damage to her genital region; he was disgusted with the whole process. [x] The authorities were afraid she would escape again, and so she did. But by that time it was only a week before, on August 4th, war was declared against Germany, the WSPU declared a truce and all prisoners were amnestied. The Secretary for Scotland decided not to re-arrest Ethel either, whether she had broken the conditions of licence or not, but to remit the remainder of her sentence.

Ethel and Fan were both awarded WSPU hunger strike medals ‘For Valour’. Ethel’s has four bars (August 29th 1912, November 29th 1912, January 29th 1913 and October 15th 1913) and Fan’s has two bars (October 30th 1912 and November 19th 1913). The purple box is lined with green velvet, and inside the lid on white satin is printed in gold: “Presented to [name] in recognition of a gallant action whereby through endurance to the last extremity of hunger and hardship a great principle of political justice was vindicated.” Ethel’s great nephew had them in his keeping but has now sold Fanny’s medal to a New Zealand museum.

Ethel Moorhead’s WSPU Hunger Strike Medal. Photograph copyright Martin Emmison

It is nice to think that Ethel and Fan had fun with choosing their aliases. Ethel used both her mother’s names – ‘Margaret’ and ‘Humphreys’. Fan used ‘Arthur’ – they both had brothers called Arthur. “Mrs Ormond” was a painting of his sister by John Singer Sargent 1889. His work was exhibited in Dundee in 1902 and 1912. Did Ethel admire Sargent’s work?

There is a puzzle about Ethel’s militant suffrage career. In Incendiaries she describes in some detail going to burn down a village church with Fanny Parker. She could not have been fit enough to help with burning St Mary’s, Whitekirk in early 1914, and there is no record of any other church arson connected with her. Was this the ‘incident in Renfrewshire’ referred to by Perth Constabulary when mansions and a castle (but not a church) were burnt in early February ’13 (between Ethel’s arrest and subsequent trial for the Glasgow attempted arson)? Or perhaps it was something she got away with!

Elizabeth Crawford (Woman & Her Sphere) says that almost certainly the church in question was Carmichael (now Cairngryffe) Parish Church in Lanarkshire. This church was attacked by arsonists between 28 June and 1 July 1914. No one was caught, and little damage was done.


[i] There is no evidence for or against Ethel’s participation in this action. A letter by one of the Comrie arsonists thought to be by Ethel is not in her handwriting.

[ii]  Edinburgh Evening Dispatch 25/10

[iii] SRO HH 16/40

[iv] Incendiaries

[v]  SRO

[vi] SRO clipping

[vii] SRO

[viii] SRO

[ix]  Crawford says it was a pistol, Leneman says a revolver.

[x]  Martyrs in our Midst