What the doctor ordered .. suffragettes' ordeal relived

Share this article

THEY tried to burn down houses, attack the King's portrait with an axe, blow up Rabbie Burns' Cottage and set fire to a racecourse stand.

• Arabella Scott who was imprisoned in Perth Prison and went on hunger strike in 1914

Now the exploits of the forgotten "terrorists" of the Scottish suffragette movement are to be brought back to life in a new play by an acclaimed writer.

Cat and Mouse, by Ajay Close, explores how four suffragettes were arrested and imprisoned in Perth where they underwent a brutal regime of force-feeding. The play also draws on unpublished historic interviews to shed a new light on the strangely close-relationship between one suffragette, Arabella Scott, and the doctor in charge of her treatment.

Scott was one of four suffragette protesters sent to Perth Prison where Dr Hugh Ferguson Watson, an ambitious medical officer, had volunteered to force feed women on hunger strike. Force feeding was a brutal procedure that infuriated fellow suffragettes and brought a backlash of public opinion.

As the university-educated Scott held out, Watson both accused her of plotting to kill him but bizarrely also offered to serve as her escort to a safer life in Canada.

After long conversations in the prison, where he sent warders "out of hearing" - he reported in daily detail on her state of mind. "The writings on Arabella contain reports on her state of mind and emotions," Close said. "He is emotionally hooked into her."

Close's research for the play has ranged from Watson's reports in the National Archives of Scotland to transcripts of taped interviews with Scott by her adult niece.

An "autobiography" of Scott, a teacher educated at Edinburgh University - largely written by her niece Francis Wheelhouse, who died recently, and drawing on the long-hidden interviews - is set to be published next year.

In the book Scott recalled telling the doctor: "You savage beast. You're nothing but a cruel savage. You must have been this in the past."

She describes in gruesome detail the experience of being forcibly fed through a tube driven into her stomach as bits of her broken teeth washed around with blood in her mouth. When she vomited after it was removed, "He shouted at me 'you did that on purpose'."

But she also remembered: "One day the doctor said to me, 'look here, it's a pity, why don't you give it all away? The government would send you over to Canada and I would personally conduct you there." She refused his offer as tantamount to giving in.

Close's play will be read for the first time in Perth next month. An award-winning writer whose first novel, Official and Doubtful, was long-listed for the Orange Prize, while her first play The Keekin Gless, about Scots poet William Soutar, premiered at Perth Theatre last year.Her new subject is the suffragettes' violent protests, which reached a peak in Scotland and the UK just before World War I, when they were largely put on hold.

Close became fascinated by women who turned terrorists as "bombers and burners" - though of property rather than people.

Scottish doctors widely opposed force-feeding of suffragette hunger-strikers but in February 1914 Dr Watson, was sent to Calton Prison in Edinburgh where he force fed Ethel Moorehead.

Later that year, he was made medical officer at Perth Prison, and force fed four women. Frances (Fanny) Gordon was convicted of trying to burn down a Rutherglen mansion house; Maude Edwards, of attacking the King's portrait with an axe in Edinburgh; Frances (Fan) Parker, accused of attempting to blow up Rabbie Burns' cottage; and Scott, convicted of setting fire to a stand at the Kelso racecourse.

Suffragette protesters converged on Perth to support the women, picketing the prison, singing hymns and shouting support through a megaphone. The protesters were fed a mixture of eggs, sweetened milk, and even meat juice, poured via a funnel down a Vaseline-coated rubber tube pushed down the throat and into the stomach. A metal device held their mouths open, and afterwards their mouths were blocked to prevent vomiting.