Suffragette Movement in Perth

March 2016: New housing development in Friarton area of Perth has two streets named after suffragettes held in Perth Prison, namely Frances Gordon Road and Ethel Moorhead Place.

In the 1860s there begun in Britain activity towards the achievement of the parliamentary franchise for women that included the Liberal MP John Stuart Mill’s amendment to the 1867 and 1868 English and Scottish Reform Acts. Despite the collection of 2 million signatures, the support of many newspapers and a great deal of lobbying no changes to electoral law were achieved.

Suffrage societies were set up firstly in Glasgow in 1902 and two years later in Aberdeen. Both, these societies employed traditional constitutional lobbying.

In 1903 Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) which was more militant, from a wide class background and aligned with other social and economic struggles. The militancy which was to grow and culminate in a number of Scottish women being gaoled in Perth prison, in many ways began with Christabel Pankhurst spitting in the eye of a policeman at a Liberal Party meeting. Not all women’s groups adopted such strategies and many continued to lobby for reform. Other organisations included the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) founded by Millicent Fawcett in 1887, the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) and the Women’s Defence League (WDL). There were many breakaway organisations from these larger groups: Independent Women’s Social and Political Union etc.

The first major demonstrations in Scotland took place in Glasgow and Dundee in 1909 whilst in England a significant development unfolded. A Scottish woman Marion Wallace-Dunlop successfully went on hunger strike in Holloway Prison to achieve political status. This achievement led the hunger strike tactic to be adopted as common practice and policy for the WSPU.

After a quiet period in 1910-11 during which the Suffragettes held back in the vain hope of government concessions from a Conciliation Bill, the stakes were again raised. In March of 1912 a three-day window-smashing raid in London led to 200 arrests and imprisonment. The response to the employment of the strategy of hunger strike was force-feeding. But still militancy increased and arson became the weapon of the day. At the end of April in 1913 the pavilion of Perth Cricket Club was burnt down – causing damage estimated at £1250. And when a group of Suffragettes including a Fanny Parker came to the Fair City to speak three days later the police were required to intervene to prevent their harm from a mob of several thousand.

During the winter campaign of the Scottish Federation of the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies meetings were held in Crieff, Perth and at Scone. The Dundee Courier of 15 November 1913 reports on a meeting held in Perth which came under suffragette scrutiny – Leah Leneman in her book A Guid Cause describes that meeting:

“Three nights later O’Connor [this is Irish Home Ruler T. P. O’Connor] spoke at Perth City Hall, and a similar scene took place. At one point may grant and another woman were bundled out screaming and struggling, the audience standing in a state of much excitement.”

Amongst the women removed from the meeting was a Liberal party activist, Jane Mitchell.

In Dundee and Perth many women were involved from the beginning. Their actions being magnified by the fact that Winston Churchill, then a Cabinet Minister was an MP for Dundee and the Prime Minister, Asquith held an East Fife constituency. Dundee was the first place in Scotland in which women found themselves imprisoned and on hunger strike. Laura Evans, Adela Pankhurst, Maude Joachim, Catherine Agnew and Helen Russell had all taken part in October 1909 in the disruption of a meeting in which Winston Churchill was speaking and given 10 days imprisonment; which was spent on hunger strike.

The women who were placed in Perth Prison were:

Ethel Agnes Mary Moorhead: Imprisoned in Perth September 1912 – Convicted for vandalising the Wallace Monument, in an attempt to draw attention to the parallels between Scotland’s fight for liberty and that of the Suffragettes. Imprisoned January 1913 – Convicted and sentenced to 30 days after attacking a police officer with cayenne pepper but served only 2 days as a result of hunger strike. Ethel Moorhead had also thrown an egg at Winston Churchill whilst he was addressing a meeting in Dundee. She had refused to pay her income tax as a political protest and was one of the women who took part in a three-day window smashing action in London. She was also involved in arson attacks on three mansions in Comrie and imprisoned once more; this time in Carlton Jail in Edinburgh. Forcible feeding of Ethel Moorhead was the first against suffragettes in Scotland. As a result of the brutal treatment, she became ill with double-pneumonia. Consequently, she was released under licence and placed in the hands of a doctor and suffragette supporter, Dr. Grace Cadell. When the time came for her to return to prison (9 March 1914) Ethel Moorhead escaped disguised a s a visitor and absconded with Dr. Cadell. Ethel Moorhead’s mal-treatment by prison authiorites under state orders was the motivation for the arson attack on the mediaeval church of Whitekirk in East Lothian. A member of the Prison Commission that authorised the force-feeding of suffragette prisoners, Dr. James Devon, was later attacked and beaten with dog whips.;

Helen Crawfurd: Imprisoned in Perth Prison for stone throwing and subsequently went on hunger but not thirst strike. She was not force-fed;

Frances Gordon: Imprisoned in Perth 23 June 1914 – Convicted for attempted arson, Frances Gordon found herself firstly unsuccessfully forced fed through the mouth and on June 30 until her release on July 3 rectally fed. Questions were asked in Parliament about her treatment in prison;

Maude Edwards: Imprisoned in Perth 3 July 1914. Convicted for damaging a portrait of King George V in the Royal Scottish Academy she was forced fed in Perth Prison despite a heart condition. Released under licence 14 July 1914;

Frances M. (Fanny) Parker: Imprisoned in Perth 13 July 1914. Fanny Parker, niece of Lord Kitchener had been the WSPU organiser for Dundee since 1912 and had served terms in Holloway, Dundee and Aberdeen for window breaking and concealing herself in a hall where Lloyd George was scheduled to speak. She later joined and became a leader of the WFL. Released under the Prisoners Discharge for Temporary Ill Health (Cat and Mouse) Act she subsequently was re-arrested and forced fed both orally and rectally whilst at Perth; and,

Arabella Charlotte Scott: Highly active suffragette who had been on hunger strike four times and had attempted to burn down Kelso racecourse was imprisoned 20 June 1914. Previously she had served 21 days in Holloway prison for attempting to petition the Prime Minister (1909) and released and arrested several times under the Cat and Mouse Act. In Perth Prison she was force fed until 26 July, denied visitors, letters and spent long periods in isolation.

With the imprisonment of so many Suffragettes in Perth, the town became an obvious focus of protest. From 3 July 1914 onwards a 24-hour picket was mounted outside the prison with up to three thousand women in attendance. There were also incidents and speeches made at the King’s Cinema, St. Ninian’s Cathedral, the High Street Port and during a Royal Visit by the King to Perth. From the latter on 8 July 1914 the sister of Arabella Scott addressed an audience who slowly marched towards the prison. Some 2000-3000 people gathered outside the gates and then sang the Burns’ song, ‘Scots wha Hae’.

The onset of the World War One marked a watershed in the women’s movement. The WSPU gave up its militancy and many of its members became active in the war effort. Others went on to both continue working for the right to vote and in the name of pacifism or socialism opposed the war. In 1918 women over 30 years of age won the vote, to be followed by full enfranchisement in 1928.

The banner (CNN 218) of the Perth Society for Women’s Suffrage (NUWSS) hangs in the Perth Museum and Art Gallery. A Miss Fleming and the society President Mrs Scott Murray designed the banner.

“On the removal of my gag, my head was seized…, my chin dragged upwards and backwards, my jaws and lips held tightly together. Sometimes voluntarily, sometimes involuntarily the food would be returned into my mouth, and unable to escape would burst through my nose.”

Suffragette newspaper 7 August 1914

“God save Emmeline Pankhurst, Arabella Scott, and all prisoners who are being tortured for conscience’ sake. Open the, eyes of Thy Church that it may understood the spirit of this movement.”

Prayer cried out by two suffragettes at Sunday service at St. Ninian’s Cathedral July 1914

“That the Council, representing the organised workers of the City of Perth, strongly protest against the cruel and inhumane methods adopted to forcibly feed the suffragette prisoners at present in Perth Prison, and hereby call on those in authority to bring this unjust treatment to an end.”

Perth Trades Council resolution 21 July 1914

1 See also section on Hamish Henderson.

Issue Number 19 of the Friends of Perth & Kinross Council Archive Newsletter contains an article entitled, February 1914; Arson in Upper Strathearn – Comrie area. The article includes a reproduction of a note within the Jack Elliott papers that makes clandestine reference to the arson attacks by militant suffragettes on three mansions in Upper Strathearn – described as the ‘Bonfires of the West’. The three mansions were Aberuchill Castle, the House of Ross and Allt-an-Fhionn (by St. Fillans – damage estimated at between three and four thousand pounds). According to the article, ‘ “The first lost a wing whilst the other two properties were completely destroyed, a t a combined cost of over £10,000. Papers left nearby referred to women’s right to vote, the Cat and Mouse Act or A Warm Welcome to LLoyd George.” There was a fourth target, Dalveich by Lochearnhead, but this arson attempt failed.

According to the above-mentioned article: “Four women had been seen arriving at St. Fillans station the day before, two of them went west and two to the east. After the fires, two women were spotted boarding the train at Killin by Sgt. Heggie and followed from Dunblane to Glasgow by Detective Macpherson. There the women separated but one was pursued and arrested after leaving an office in bath Street. ‘Rhoda Robinson’ was charged at Dunblane, removed to perth Prison but released on bail. Charges were later dropped from lack of evidence. Extensive inter-police force enquiries revealed that her real name was Annie Rhoda Craig (nee Walker) … Ethel Moorhead, another suffragette, allegedly connected with the burning of the Srathearn mansions, was arrested at Traquair House, near Peebles, on 17th February. She was taken to Carlton jail, Edinburgh, where she went on hunger strike and was the first suffragette to be forcibly fed in Scotland.”

Other Notes:

1. Mrs Stirling Boyd (owner of Allt-an-Fhionn) was the Vice-Chairman of the Anti-Suffrage League. Mrs Clement Harris was a Vice-President of the Crieff Woman’s Suffrage Society and was probably involved in some way with the Strathearn arson attacks – sending a signal between suffragette activists using a Marconi wireless system.

2. The following branches operated in and around Perth:

Scottish Federation of the NUWSS – Abernethy, Auchterader, Crieff and Perth. Other NUWSS branches are believed to have existed in Bridge of Earn, Glenfarg and Scone.

WFL – Perth

WSPU – None

Scottish League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage (Anti-Suffrage) – Perth

3. Katherine Macpherson (LLA) a secreatry and convenor of the WFL lived at 3 Charlotte Street in Perth. Katherine Macpherson trained and worked as a teacher. Her husband, Thomas Macpherson was a solicitor, member of Perth Town Council and an ex-Bailie. Togerther they had three children. “In 1913 she stated that she had always been keenly interested in the suffrage and entered into active work for the cause when the militant movement came into being.” – Leah Leneman, A Guid Cause.