Ethel Williams (1863-1948) written by Ornella Moscucci
Ethel Williams was a doctor and the first woman to found a general medical practice in Newcastle upon Tyne. A suffragist, pacifist, educationalist and social welfare campaigner, she was a founding member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).
Ethel was born at Cromer, Norfolk, in 1863. Her father was a country squire and a friend of Lewis Carroll. Her mother came from a family that had included William Harvey, the seventeenth-century physician famous for describing the circulation of the blood. Ethel was educated at Norwich High School for Girls and Newnham College, Cambridge, 1882-5. She did not take a degree, as in those days the University did not permit women to graduate. She subsequently attended the London School of Medicine for Women, graduating MB in 1891 and MD in 1895. In 1899 she took the Cambridge Diploma in Public Health and began her medical career as resident medical officer at the Clapham Maternity Hospital and at the Blackfriars Dispensary for Women and Children. She subsequently moved to Newcastle upon Tyne as the city’s first woman doctor. In 1906 she set up a general medical practice in Ellison Place with her colleague and friend Ethel Bentham, a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and an early believer in what would now be called socialised medicine.
Like most women doctors of her generation, Ethel concerned herself primarily with the health needs of women and children. In an effort to reduce Newcastle’s appalling rate of infant mortality, she provided milk for infants at her own expense. On behalf of the Fabian Society she conducted an inquiry into the condition of poor law children, published in 1910 as an Appendix to the Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress. In 1917 she co-founded the Northern Women’s Hospital, which is now the Nuffield Health Clinic on Osborne Road, and helped to initiate residential care for boys with learning disabilities. She was one of the initial members of the Medical Women’s Federation, founded in 1917 to further the interests of women doctors and women patients. During the war she joined the Workers’ Educational Association as a tutor, setting up health courses for women all over the North East.
Ethel played a considerable part in the struggle to win votes for women. In 1900 she was one of the founding members and first President of the Newcastle Women’s Suffrage Society (NWSS), renamed North-Eastern Society for Women’s Suffrage (NESWS) in 1905. In February 1907 she took part in the ‘Mud March’, the first large procession organized in London by the NUWSS, and she was involved in similar processions in Newcastle. Her suffragist marching banner from circa 1906 is one of the treasures of Newcastle University Library’s Special Collections. As the first woman in the North East to drive a car, she came to play a pivotal role in the organization of the suffrage movement in the area. She was a familiar figure at by-elections, and in forcing the City Council to debate women’s suffrage. On 29 April 1911, at the time of the revised second Conciliation Bill that would have given some women the vote, she took part in a joint WSPU/NESWS deputation to the Liberal MP Herbert Samuel.
In 1912 she became a tax resister, withholding her taxes until the fate of the Conciliation Bill was known, and then refusing payment when hopes were dashed. On 18 June 1913, she was one of 100 members who left Newcastle, banners flying, to join the great suffragist Pilgrimage to London. By 1915 she was chair of the North-Eastern Federation of the NUWSS, formed in 1910.
As a member of the Liberal Party and secretary of the Newcastle Women’s Liberal Association, Ethel initially resisted efforts to bring the NESWS closer to the Independent Labour Party. In 1908, tensions over whether the NESWS should support Labour of Liberal candidates at by-elections caused a group of activists to break away from the Society and join the WSPU. The Newcastle branch of the WSPU took full credit for the defeat of the Liberal candidate at the Newcastle by-election later that year. After 1912, however, the failure of the suffragist campaign to achieve its goal under a Liberal government prompted Ethel to switch her political loyalties. On the eve of the First World War, she severed her links with the Liberals, believing them to be ‘neither active nor hearty enough on the subject of the enfranchisement of women’. She declared instead to be ‘in sympathy with the Programme of the Labour Party’, although it is doubtful if she went so far as to join the Labour Party.