Dr Ethel Williams Commemorative Plaque, Liz O’Donnell
Former Newcastle University students of a certain vintage will be very familiar with the name Ethel Williams, as the title of the University’s female-only hall of residence, opened in 1950. By the 1970s, the idea of separate living facilities for male and female students seemed hopelessly outdated. If we thought at all about the woman after whom it was named, we probably dismissed her as a typical Victorian prude. Fortunately, the intervening decades have seen the efforts of more enlightened scholars to explore and make known the life and work of this extraordinary and thoroughly modern woman, culminating, on 18 July 2018, in the unveiling of a commemorative plaque on her former home and place of work (1910-24) at 3 Osborne Terrace, Newcastle upon Tyne.
Ethel Williams, born in Norfolk in 1863, did indeed grow up in the Victorian age but she was always ahead of her time. The plaque sums her up as the city’s first female general practitioner, a radical suffragist, pacifist, educationalist and social welfare campaigner. However, the list tells only a small part of her story. In addition to her pioneering medical work in the city – she specialised in the health of underprivileged women and children – and her crucial part in the fight for women’s suffrage, she was also the secretary of the Newcastle Women’s Liberal Association, a founder of the Medical Women’s Federation, a member of the Senate of Durham University, as well as serving as a Justice of the Peace. (1) In1901, five years after she had moved to the North East, an article by Ethel Williams appeared in the Dundee Evening Post. Entitled ‘The Woman Doctor: Her Difficulties and Chances of Success’, it is a sobering reminder of the considerable lengths to which she had gone to qualify as a doctor and make a living from medicine. As well as the long period of study and the associated costs, she wrote, the capital held more opportunities and chances of success, whereas in the provinces ‘women will still find much prejudice to overcome and ridicule to live down’. She continued,
A woman settling out of London must not only be well equipped for her professional work. She should have financial resources which will enable her to spend considerably more than her professional earnings for at any rate three or four years.(2)
It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that Dr Williams was prepared to risk her professional reputation by campaigning so vigorously and publicly for the right of women to take part in general elections. She had signed the Declaration in Favour of Women’s Suffrage as early as 1889, and took part in many suffrage demonstrations, including the infamous ‘Mud March’ of 1907. In 1912, her goods were distrained and auctioned off after her refusal to pay taxes until the vote was granted, and in 1913 she lent her car to fellow campaigners in the Houghton-le-Spring by-election, leaving her to ‘spend much time and energy in walking and cycling on her enormous rounds.’(3)
At the beginning of the First World War, the Newcastle Journal featured Dr Williams in a series called ‘In the Public Eye: Sketches of Notabilities in the North’, describing her as ‘a citizen of whom Newcastle can be proud…[with] unflagging energy…[giving] splendid service to the cause of women.’(4) One wonders whether the writer of that piece was aware of her opposition to the war; she was involved with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom from its inception, and in July 1917 helped to organise a meeting of the Newcastle Soldiers’ and Workers’ Council, set up to work for an end to the war in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. The meeting, consisting mostly of local labour activists and pacifists, was broken up by ‘patriotic’ members of the Anti-German League and soldiers on leave, and Ethel Williams and others had to escape through a side entrance.
The Newcastle branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies presented her in 1918 with a copy in bronze of ‘Winged Victory’ and a £60 cheque for a charity of her choice as a token of their appreciation for her role in the (partially) successful struggle for the vote.(5)
A century later, the plaque which was unveiled to Ethel Williams was due to the lobbying of the City Council by members of the Workers’ Educational Association. Dr Williams was a leading figure in the WEA, and during the turmoil of the First World War she was one of a handful of women who kept the classes going.(6) It is fitting that the event was timed to coincide with the end of the WEA-led ‘Turbulent Times, 1918-28’, an eighteen month long project exploring educational and social campaigning in the North East through historical research, drama, art, crafts and music. The response of the organisers and volunteers to the unveiling by the Mayor of Newcastle, David Down, was appropriately creative. Rosie Serdiville, in the role of Ethel Williams, was ‘interviewed’ by Jude Murphy, as a fictional 1924 reporter, and the short walk back to the WEA office for a celebratory lunch took place behind a replica of Ethel Williams’ own suffrage banner, accompanied by a lusty rendition of ‘Bread and Roses.’ Dr Gillian Rye, a present incumbent of Ethel Williams’ practice (which until recently had only employed female doctors), was invited. She brought along a signed photograph of the doctor, which had hung in the practice since her retirement in 1924 to Stocksfield, where she lived with her companion, the mathematician Frances Hardcastle until her death in 1948.
It was a worthy commemoration of a true pioneer which should help to ensure that her huge contribution to women’s rights, welfare reform and educational opportunities for all will never be forgotten.
1 Nigel Todd, ‘Ethel Williams: Medical and Suffrage Pioneer’, in North East Labour History (30: 1996) pp. 19-21
2 Dundee Evening Post, 16 April 1901, p. 6.
3 Common Cause, 11 April 1912, p.14; Friday 28 February 1913, p. 10
4 Newcastle Journal, 7 September 1914, p. 6
5 Newcastle Journal, 1 July 1918, p.4
6 Nigel Todd, ‘A Working-class Hero is Something to Be: the Origins of the Workers’ Educational Association in the North-East to 1920’, in The Right to Learn: the WEA in the North of England, 1910-2010 edited by Jonathan Brown (London: Workers’ Educational Association, 2010), pp. 6-23
This article first appeared in Volume 50 (2019) of North East History.