Force-feeding Case Studies




This account of Ethel Moorhead was published on the 'Great Scotswomen' web pages, but the website was not active in May 2009.





In February 1914 Ethel Moorhead became the first suffragette to be force fed in Scotland. Force feeding, whilst it could never be described as fun, was particularly brutal in Perth Prison where rectal feeding was forced on some suffragettes.

Fortunately for Ethel, she was confined in Calton Jail in Edinburgh and was released with nothing more severe than double pneumonia – the result of food getting into her lungs whilst being forcibly fed.

Ethel had previously been arrested and was released under the notorious Cat and Mouse Act. This cunning piece of legislation, officially called the Prisoner's Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act meant that suffragettes were allowed to go on hunger strike but as soon as they became ill they were released. Once they recovered, the police re-arrested them and returned them to prison where they continued their sentences until they became ill and were released again, or completed it.

But as the authorities were to learn, Ethel was not easily intimidated and something as trivial as “parole” didn't stop her reconnoitering Traquair House, for a wee bit of arson the authorities presumed, and banged her up again.

The Suffragette - the WPSU newsletter

Ethel was born in the 1870's, the daughter of an army surgeon. The family were moderately well-to-do and Ethel spent some time studying painting in Paris and was regarded as talented enough to have several exhibitions.

Her involvement in the suffragette movement began in 1910 when she joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), the militant movement formed by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst in 1903. Her first recorded acts of dissent were in 1911 when she threw an egg at Winston Churchill at a political meeting in Dundee and then became Dundee's first tax resister (refusing to pay tax on the basis of “no taxation without representation”).

In 1912 she was charged with smashing the windows of Thomas Cook's but was acquitted on the grounds of insufficient evidence. It didn't deter her. She broke a glass case at the Wallace Monument in Stirling in the autumn of 1912. The act was deliberately designed to invoke the symbolism of the struggle for freedom. This cost her a night in Stirling Jail and she also spent a week in Perth Prison later in the same year. Neither experience broke her spirit with one prison governor describing her as “insolent and defiant”.

By December of 1912, Ethel was obviously getting a taste for adventure. She threw a stone at a car she thought was carrying Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the day. It missed but the police didn't miss Ethel and she was banged up again. Once inside she smashed several panes of glass in her cell windows, refused to leave the exercise yard and went on hunger strike.

In January of 1913, she was arrested again, this time in Cupar, Fife. The offence? She threw pepper into the face of a policeman. True to form she smashed the glass in the police cell, flooded the passageways of the prison by turning on all the water in the lavatories and chucked a bucket of water on the prison officers who came to subdue her.

By the autumn of 1913, suffragette tactics had become more radical and involved fire-raising. Ethel was arrested in Glasgow in possession of fire-lighting equipment. She was sentenced to eight months imprisonment. Predictably defiant, Ethel was removed from the court during proceedings for contempt.

She immediately went on hunger strike and was released under the Cat and Mouse Act and instructed to report back to prison in 7 days. She didn't.

She was on the run for several months during which time police attributed at least four arson attacks to her.

Force feeding was brutal and caused public outrage

Presumably they would have ascribed a fifth if she hadn't been spotted and arrested at Traquair House. This time though there was no Cat and Mouse Act release and she was force fed, causing the double pneumonia.

She was released again with instructions to return to prison to complete her sentence. Guess what .... she went on the run again.

It would take until 1918 for women to achieve suffrage and even then only for women over the age of 30. With women of the character of Ethel as opponents, FirstFoot is astonished the authorities didn't give up after six months. They were never going to win.