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10 Mar 2020

Bicycles and bombs at Burns

Written by Parris Joyce
A selfie of a woman standing in front of a bookcase, holding an omega-shaped sign which reads ‘Love, the National Trust for Scotland’
In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re publishing a series of blog posts written by our volunteers and staff, highlighting both historical female characters and their influences at their properties.

In the third of these posts, Parris Joyce, Learning Officer at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, delves into the lives of suffragettes Frances Parker and Ethel Moorhead.

In July 1914, Frances Parker and Ethel Moorhead cycled from Glasgow to Alloway in the middle of the night, with the intention of blowing up Burns Cottage! However, their plans were foiled by a watchman – and Ethel got away – but Frances was arrested. The watchman had been appointed because Ayr had experienced a lot of suffragette activity and it was predicted that Burns Cottage could be targeted next.

A white thatched cottage stands on the side of a road with a blue sky background.
Burns Cottage

When Frances appeared in court for the attack on Burns Cottage, she shouted the famous last lines from Robert Burns’s patriotic song ‘Scots Wha Hae’: ‘Liberty’s in every blow, Let us do or die!’

It’s thought that their targeting of Burns Cottage was not a personal attack on Burns himself, but a calculated choice to use an iconic property that would attract headlines in the media. This is argued because of their use of Burns’s lines to connect with his egalitarianism – the suffragettes believed that Burns would have supported their cause because of his views in ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’.

An old black and white photograph of a lady with her arms behind her back, being restrained by a policeman at the bottom of a set of steps, in front of onlookers.
Frances Parker’s arrest in Ayr, 1914

Frances Parker was sent to prison because of the attempted attack on Burns Cottage and she went on hunger strike. She became seriously ill but was finally released and put into a nursing home, from which she managed to escape. Before she could be recaptured, the First World War broke out, resulting in an end of militant campaigning and an amnesty for suffragettes.

This was not the only example of her militancy – she had also been sentenced to four months in Holloway Prison in March 1912 after taking part in a Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) window-smashing raid. For this she was awarded the Hunger Strike Medal by the WSPU.

An open presentation box – on the left white satin with gold writing; on the right a medal reading Hunger Strike, with green, purple and white ribbon – is displayed against a dark green velvet background.
Frances Parker’s Hunger Strike Medal, adorned with the suffragette colours of white, green and purple symbolising purity, hope and dignity.

During the war, Parker served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and was awarded an OBE. Interestingly, Frances was the niece of none other than Lord Kitchener. In 1914 Kitchener became Secretary of State for War. One of the few to foresee a long war, he organised the largest volunteer army that Britain had seen. You may have noticed him on a £2 coin in your purse recently – if you’ve made it onto coinage, you’re kind of a big deal!

Lord Kitchener disapproved of his niece’s actions. He was ‘disgusted’ at her and sent a letter to Frances’s mother in 1908 stating, ‘whatever her feelings on the subject may be, I cannot help thinking she might have some consideration for her family’.

A poster showing a man with a moustache in a hat pointing, with the words ‘wants you’ underneath. Red text on the poster reads ‘Britons, join your Country’s army. God Save the King’.
The iconic Lord Kitchener WWI poster, 1914

Ethel Moorhead has a double claim to fame: the finest Dundee female artist of her time and certainly the ‘most turbulent’ of Dundee’s suffragettes. Ethel studied art in Paris under Alphonse Mucha and at Whistler’s studio, and she once threw an egg at Winston Churchill!

In 1911 the Dundee branch of the Women’s Freedom League congratulated Ethel on becoming Dundee’s first tax-resister. She smashed two windows in London, attacked a showcase at the Wallace Monument near Stirling, and threw cayenne pepper at a police constable. In October 1912, after being ejected from a meeting in Edinburgh, Moorhead returned to attack the male lecturer with a dog whip. She became the first Scottish suffragette to be forcibly fed, while imprisoned in Calton Jail. She held no formal position in the WSPU but achieved great personal notoriety for her boisterous campaigning. During WWI, she and Frances helped run the Women’s Freedom League National Service Organisation, encouraging women to find appropriate work. In the 1920s, in Paris, she founded and edited one of the best-regarded art journals of the time, publishing work by James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.

A sketch of a standing lady, wearing a dress, scarf and hat and holding a paint pallet, with a dog standing beside her.
Sketch of Ethel Moorhead with her dog, from Dundee Local Studies Library

Both Ethel and Frances were fiercely committed to the fight for voting rights for women, and came close to destroying the birthplace of a genius. Although I’m a passionate feminist and I support their activism, I’m glad that the ‘Auld Clay Biggin’ was not blown up in the process or else I might not have had a job with the Trust – and of course Scotland, and the world, would have lost a treasure!