Turbulent Scots: Elsie Inglis, 1864-1917

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the Turbulent Londoners posts, where I celebrate the lives of Londoners who have played a part in the city’s rebellious history. As I recently moved to Edinburgh, I’ve decided to take a look at some of the women who made an impact on Scotland’s radical history. In this post I’m looking at Elsie Inglis, a doctor, suffragist, and champion of healthcare for women.


Elsie Inglis, 1864-1917 (Source: BBC News)

Despite being born in India and dying in Newcastle, Dr Elsie Inglis is perhaps one of the most well-respected women in Scottish history. After looking into her story, I can see why she was so admired! After qualifying as a doctor just before her 28th birthday, Elsie dedicated herself to improving women’s healthcare. On the outbreak of the First World War, she organised and led all-female medical teams in Serbia and Russia, becoming the first woman to be awarded the Order of the White Eagle by Serbia.

Elsie was born on 16th August 1864 in Naini Tal, India. She was one of 9 children, and her father was a magistrate in the Indian Civil Service. Her parents believed that women should be educated, and unusually for the time, Elsie started her education in India. She showed an interest in medicine from a young age, covering her dolls in spots so that she could cure them of measles. The family moved to Edinburgh when her father retired, and Elsie finished her education at the Edinburgh Institution for the Education of Young Ladies and at a finishing school in Paris.

Elsie was very close to her father. She wanted to study medicine, but was reluctant to leave her father after the death of her mother in 1885. In 1887, Dr Sophia Jex-Blake opened the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, and Elsie was one of the first students at the School. Jex-Blake was a pioneer, having been one of the first 7 female students to start studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869. However, her students found her too strict, and after two other students were expelled, Elsie and her father set up the Edinburgh College of Medicine for Women. Elsie continued her studies there, qualifying as a doctor and surgeon in 1892, at a time when women still were not permitted to graduate from University medical schools.

Elsie was shocked by the poor quality of care that female patients received, and the lack of specialisation in issues that affected women. Her first job was at the New Hospital for Women in London, founded by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (another pioneer, she was the first woman to qualify as a doctor and surgeon in Britain). She also worked at the Rotunda, a leading maternity hospital in Dublin. She returned to Edinburgh in 1894 to nurse her father. She also lectured in gynaecology and set up a medical practice with Jessie Maclaren Macgregor. The two women set up a small maternity hospital for poor women, which also had a midwifery training centre. In 1904, the hospital moved to larger premises on the Royal Mile and was renamed The Hospice. By this time the University of Edinburgh had also started allowing women to study medicine, and Elsie graduated in 1899.

For Elsie, the poor standards of medical care for women was intertwined with the fight for women’s suffrage. Opposed to the violent methods of the suffragettes, she became a leading member of the suffragist campaign in Scotland, serving as the secretary of the Edinburgh Society for Women’s Suffrage in the 1890s, and the secretary of the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies from its formation in 1906 until 1914. She traveled Scotland speaking at pro-suffrage meetings, sometimes as many as 4 a week.

Elsie with her team from the Scottish Women’s Hospital that were captured in 1915 (Source: Imperial War Museum).

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Elsie was central to the foundation of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service Committee. She was motivated not just by patriotism, but also by a desire to prove that women were skilled medical staff in fields other than gynaecology and paediatrics. Funded by the suffrage movement, the Committee’s goal was to provide relief hospitals for the war effort that were entirely staffed by women. The British War Office rejected the offer of help, but the French and Serbian government were not so prejudiced. Over the course of the war, the Scottish Women’s Hospital sent 14 units to Belgium, France, Serbia, Salonika, Romania, Malta, Corsica, Serbia and Russia. In the summer of 1915, Elsie led a team to Serbia. Not long after, the region was invaded by Austro-Hungarian and German Forces. Refusing to leave her patients, Elsie was captured. She was released and returned to Edinburgh the following year, where she campaigned for more aid to be sent to Serbia. In August 1916 she led a new team to help Serbian forces in Russia. She knew she had cancer before she left, and by the following autumn she could no longer perform surgery, although she continued to lead the unit. She refused to leave Russia until the Serbian forces did too. She eventually arrived back in Britain on the 26th of November 1917, but died that evening in a hotel in Newcastle.

Remnants of the maternity hospital named after Elsie can still be found in Abbeyhill, Edinburgh (Source: Hannah Awcock).

Elsie Inglis was a skilled and determined woman, who achieved a huge amount in her 53 years. Her funeral took place at St. Giles Cathedral, and was attended by representatives of the British and Serbian royal families. Considering women tend not to be memorialised, there have been quite a few tributes to Elsie over the last century. In 1922 a tablet was erected in St Giles in her memory. In 1925, The Hospice was replaced by the Elsie Inglis Memorial Maternity Hospital in Abbeyhill. It was closed in 1988, but some of the buildings still remain, and there is a small memorial in nearby Holyrood Park. There is a plaque marking the location of her pre-war surgery at 8 Walker Street, and in 2009 she was featured on the £50 note produced by the Clydesdale Bank. There is a memorial fountain dedicated to her in Mladenovac, Serbia, and her photo features on the plinth of the Millicent Garrett Fawcett statue in Westminster. Elsie Inglis was a truly remarkable women, who deserves all of this recognition, and more.

Sources and Further Reading

Leneman, Leah. “Inglis, Elsie Maud.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2004, accessed 5th October 2021. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/34101 (requires a subscription to access).

MacPherson, Hamish. “Greatest Scot? The Many Talents of Dr Elsie Inglis. The National. Last modified 5th May 2020, accessed 5th October 2021. Available at: https://www.thenational.scot/news/18426143.greatest-scot-many-talents-dr-elsie-inglis/

Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. “Elsie Inglis.” No date, accessed 5th October 2021. Available at: https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/heritage/college-history/elsie-inglis

Simkin, John. “Elsie Inglis. Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2020, accessed 5th October 2021. Available at: https://spartacus-educational.com/Winglis.htm

Wikipedia. “Elsie Inglis.” Last modified 25th September 2021, accessed 5th October 2021. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsie_Inglis

Turbulent Scots: Flora Stevenson, 1839-1905

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the Turbulent Londoners posts, where I celebrate the lives of Londoners who have played a part in the city’s rebellious history. As I recently moved to Edinburgh, I’ve decided to take a look at some of the women who made an impact on Scotland’s radical history. Next up is Flora Stevenson, a philanthropist and education campaigner who has recently been announced as the next face on Scotland’s £50 notes.


A portrait of Flora Roche from around 1904 by Alexander Roche (Source: Scottish National Portrait Gallery).

It was recently announced that philanthropist, educational campaigner and suffragist Flora Stevenson is going to be the first woman featured on the Scottish £50 note. It is very unusual for a woman to be chosen to feature on British currency (apart from the Queen), so I wanted to find out more about the woman who has been deemed worthy of such an honour.

Flora Stevenson was born on 30th October 1839, the youngest of 11 children. Her father was a wealthy Glasgow industrialist; when he retired the family moved to Edinburgh, and Flora spent most of her adult life living at 13 Randolph Crescent in the West End with her 3 sisters. The Stevenson sisters were all active in the mid-nineteenth century Scottish women’s movement. They all supported women’s suffrage, and were founding members of the Edinburgh Ladies’ Educational Association which was founded in 1868 to campaign for higher education for women. Flora was also committed to improving education for society’s poorest children; as a child she started a class in her home to teach messenger girls basic reading, writing, and maths skills.

In 1863 Flora joined the Edinburgh Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor as a district visitor, investigating the circumstances of charity claimants and assessing whether or not they were ‘deserving’ of support. She also joined the committee of the United Industrial Schools of Edinburgh, a voluntary body that organised schools for poor children. Flora believed that compulsory school attendance was central to improving the lives of poor children in big cities, but she was opposed to the state providing welfare support, as she believed it undermined the responsibility of parents to provide for their children. She argued that charities coordinating with school authorities was sufficient support.

A pupil from Flora Stevenson Primary School with the new £50 note (Source: Royal Bank Scotland/PA Wire).

In 1873 Flora was elected to the newly formed school board for Edinburgh. School boards were the first public bodies in Scotland which were open to women. As a result of her experience she was placed on the destitute children’s committee, where she was responsible for a scheme that gave food and clothes to poor children on the condition that they attended school. She also persuaded the school board to set up a day school for truants and juvenile delinquents, which was the first of its kind under the control of a school board. Flora’s expertise in this area was well respected; she served on several committees advising the government.

Flora’s belief in women’s rights carried over into her educational philosophy. She believed that girls and boys should be treated the same in education, and argued against the school board’s policy of giving girls 5 hours less teaching than boys every week so they could practice needlework. She believed that boys should be taught household management as well as girls, and that unmarried female teachers should receive equal pay.

Flora’s dedication to Edinburgh’s education system was respected and acknowledged. In 1899 a new primary school in Craigleith was named after her, and in 1900 she was unanimously elected to the Chair of the Edinburgh school board. In 1903 she was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Edinburgh, and two years later she was given the Freedom of the City in recognition of her service to Edinburgh’s philanthropic institutions and the school board. When she died in September 1905, thousands of schoolchildren lined the route of her funeral. She is buried with her family in Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh.

I may not agree with all of Flora’s politics – she was opposed to Irish Home Rule, and I find her perspectives on state welfare questionable – but there is no doubt that she was a formidable woman, who dedicated her life to public service at a time when women weren’t really supposed to do that. Hopefully her inclusion on the £50 is just the latest step in a long journey to properly acknowledge the contributions that women have made to society throughout history.

Sources and Further Reading

Corr, Helen. “Stevenson, Flora Clift.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2004, accessed 30th June 2021. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/46826 [Subscription required to access].

National Records of Scotland. “Flora Clift Stevenson (1839-1905).” No date, accessed 1st July 2021. Available at https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/research/learning/hall-of-fame/hall-of-fame-a-z/stevenson-flora-clift

Wikipedia. “Flora Stevenson.” Last modified 26th June 2021, accessed 1st July 2021. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flora_Stevenson

Young, Gregor. “First Woman to be Face of New Scottish £50 Note.” The National. Last modified 26th June 2021, accessed 30th June 2021. Available at https://www.thenational.scot/news/19400827.flora-stevenson-first-woman-face-new-scottish-50-note/

Turbulent Scots: Helen Crawfurd, 1877-1954

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the Turbulent Londoners posts, where I celebrate the lives of Londoners who have played a part in the city’s rebellious history. As I recently moved to Edinburgh, I’ve decided to take a look at some of the women who made an impact on Scotland’s radical history. Next up is Helen Crawfurd, a feminist and socialist campaigner.


Helen Crawfurd, 1877-1954 (Source: Women’s History Scotland).

Helen Crawfurd was a dedicated and talented campaigner. She worked for the causes of women’s rights and socialism for more than four decades. Over the course of her life, she lent her skills to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the Independent Labour Party (ILP), and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), as well as numerous other groups, movements, and committees.

Born in Glasgow on the 9th of November 1877, Helen was the fourth of seven children. The family moved to Ipswich when Helen was young, and returned to Glasgow when she was 17. The family was religious and politically active, so Helen would have grown up surrounded by debate and discussion. Her father was a baker and an enthusiastic union member, and both parents were active in the Conservative Party. In 1898 Helen married the Reverend Alexander Montgomery Crawfurd, a temperance campaigner and opponent of militarism.

Her family may have primed Helen for a life of politics, but the beliefs she developed were quite different to her parents. Shocked by the inequality and poverty that she saw in Glasgow, Helen became a socialist, although the early years of her campaigning were dedicated to the women’s suffrage movement. She joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in around 1900 and put her debating skills to good use, becoming one of the most popular speakers in the Scottish suffrage movement. Like many other women, Helen grew frustrated with the slow progress of the movement, and joined the WSPU in 1910, embracing their militant tactics. She was imprisoned several times for her participation in WSPU protests, including being sentenced to two years for her alleged role in the bombing of the botanical gardens in Glasgow in 1914. When in prison, she went on hunger strikes.

1914 was a tumultuous year for Helen. Both her husband and mother died, and she left the WSPU when it came out in support of the First World War. She did not slow down though, joining the ILP. She became Secretary of the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, and alongside Mary Barbour and Agnes Dollan was instrumental in the 1915 Glasgow rent strikes, which convinced the government to fix rents throughout the UK for the duration of the war. She remained a committed anti-militant, an unpopular stance during the war. In November 1915 she and Agnes formed the Glasgow branch of the Women’s International League, a pressure group opposed to the war. The League had few working class members however, and did not support militant tactics, so in 1916 she helped form the Women’s Peace Crusade. Within a year the Crusade became a national organisation, with Helen as Honorary Secretary.

By the end of the war Helen was a well-known figure, and was appointed Vice-chair of the Scottish divisional council of the ILP. She grew frustrated with what she saw as a lack of radicalism in the ILP though, and became interested by attempts to establish a Communist party in Britain. In July 1920 she traveled to Moscow and interviewed Lenin. Helen tried to establish a Communist faction within the ILP, and when this failed she left and joined the recently formed CPGB, quickly being appointed to it’s executive committee. She worked on increasing female membership, including editing a women’s page of the party’s official paper, the Communist. Helen also continued to campaign on other issues close to her heart. In 1919 she was part of the British delegation to the Conference of the Women’s International League in Zurich, alongside other formidable women such as Charlotte Despard, Ellen Wilkinson and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.

Helen with Methil Women’s Communist Party in 1925. (Source: Glasgow Caledonian University Special Collections and Archives, Gallacher Memorial Library).

In 1922 Helen became secretary of the Worker’s International Relief Organisation, which provided aid and support in struggling industrial regions. She visited Ireland in support of Home Rule, and was involved in organising several international conferences. She threw her efforts behind the 1926 General Strike, giving speeches and distributing food. Helen stood as a Communist candidate in the 1929 and 1931 general elections, losing on both occasions.

During the 1930s Helen worked with the Friends of the Soviet Union, which coordinated global solidarity efforts with the Soviet Union. She also recognised the rising threat of fascism however, and in 1933 became the honorary secretary of two committees aimed at combating fascism and anti-Semitism in Scotland. In 1938 she organised the Peace and Empire Congress, with the goal of coordinating a peace movement across the British Commonwealth. Like many members of the CPGB, she was ambivalent towards the Second World War, arguing the Communists had to be convinced Britain was commited to fighting fascism before they could support it.

During the Second World War, Helen retired to Dunoon in Argyll and Bute. Even retirement did not stop her campaigning efforts however. After the war she served as Dunoon’s first female Councillor for 2 years, and she started a local discussion group on Marxist literature. In 1947 she married George Anderson, a fellow member of the CPGB. She passed away on the 18th of April 1954.

The list of Helen’s activities and achievements throughout her life is formidable. She worked tirelessly for what she believed in, and certainly made her mark on Scotland’s, and in fact British and European, radical culture.

Sources and Further Reading

Corr, Helen. “Crawfurd [née Jack; other married name Anderson], Helen.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2010, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/40301 [Subscription required to access].

Couzin, John. “Helen Crawfurd.” Saltaire Society Scotland. No date, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://www.saltiresociety.org.uk/awards/outstanding-women/2015-nominees/helen-crawfurd/

Simkin, John. “Helen Crawfurd.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2020, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/CRIcrawfordH.htm

Todd, Amy. “Women and Peace: Helen Crawfurd.” On History. Last modified 6th May 2019, accessed 10th February 2021. Available at https://blog.history.ac.uk/2019/05/women-and-peace-helen-crawfurd/