Turbulent Hullensians: Dr. Mary Murdoch, 1864-1916

Regular readers of this blog will know that I usually write about Turbulent Londoners, women who participated in some form of protest or dissent in London. However, I have recently moved to Hull in East Yorkshire, so I have decided to celebrate the turbulent history of my new city. I recently reviewed a book about the city’s Headscarf Revolutionaries, but they are not the only women that have caused a stir in Hull. Dr. Mary Murdoch was a prominent suffragist, as well as being the city’s first female doctor.


mary murdoch

Dr Mary Murdoch (Source: Hull History Centre).

Most of the names associated with the histories of British towns and cities are men. Look a bit harder, however, and it is almost guaranteed that you will find women who also helped to shape that local history. In Hull, Dr. Mary Murdoch is one such woman. She was the city’s first female doctor, as well as being a suffragist and dedicated social campaigner.

Mary Murdoch was born on the 26th of September 1864 in Elgin, Scotland. She was the youngest of 7 children, and her father was a solicitor. She received a good education at home from governesses, and at schools in Elgin, London, and Switzerland. She returned to Elgin in 1883, and from 1885 looked after her mother until her death in 1887. During this time, Mary discovered her love of medicine, and used the inheritance from her mother to fund her studies at the London School of Medicine for Women.

It was still unusual for women to train as doctors at this time. The London School of Medicine for Women was co-founded in 1874 by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, one of Britain’s first female doctors and sister of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).

Mary finished off her studies in Scotland and qualified as a Doctor in 1892. The following year she moved to Hull and became the house surgeon at the Victoria Hospital for Sick Children in Park Street. In 1895 she moved back to London to work at the Tottenham Fever Hospital, where she gained experience in the diagnosis of infectious diseases. In 1896, she returned to Hull and worked there as a GP until her death in 1916.

In 1900, Mary employed the recently qualified Louisa Martindale as an assistant. They worked together until 1906. Mary listened to her poorer patients and developed a good understanding of the difficulties they faced, caused by a range of interconnected problems such as poor nutrition, hygiene, and housing, precarious employment, and childcare. She supported social reform and and public education, and helped to improve the services available to women and children in Hull; she founded the first creche in the city, and a school for mothers. Mary encouraged male dock workers to take a more active role in child rearing. She was a vocal critic of poor quality housing in Hull, which got her in trouble with prominent Conservatives in the city for portraying Hull in a bad light.

Maru Murdoch House and Plaque.PNG

The plaque commemorating Mary Murdoch on the house where she used to live, 100-102 Beverley Road (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

As well as working to improve the social issues faced in Hull, Mary was also politically active. In 1904, she founded the Hull Women’s Suffrage Society, which was part of the NUWSS. Mary disagreed with their policy of  not supporting militancy by any suffrage campaigner however, and eventually joined the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She gave talks at the International Council of Women in Toronto (1909), Stockholm (1911), and Rome (1914). Mary was also a leader in the National Union of Women Workers, founding a local branch in 1905. She was also active in the Association of Registered Medical Women, which represented the interests of medical women and female patients (the organisation is still active as the Medical Women’s Federation).

Dr Mary Murdoch died on the 20th of March 1916; she became ill after going out in bad weather to see an emergency patient. Mary had been the first woman in Hull to own a car, and she earnt herself a reputation for driving around the city at speed. Her funeral procession was led by her car, and thousands of the city’s residents turned out to show their gratitude for everything she had done for Hull.

Dr. Mary Murdoch was a brave and energetic woman who dedicated herself to her adopted city of Hull. She worked hard to improve the lives of the city’s residents, on a social and a political level, and she helped to shape Hull as it is today.

Sources and Further Reading

Carnegie Hull. “Dr. Mary Murdoch.” Hull Firsts Trail. No date, accessed 7 January 2019. Available at https://www.carnegiehull.co.uk/hull-firsts/dr-mary-murdoch.php

Cockin, Katharine. “Murdoch, Mary Charlotte.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 26 January 2005, accessed 7 January 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/69838 [Requires a subscription to access].

Cockin, Katharine.  ‘Dr Mary Murdoch (1864-1916) and the ‘Heart of Hull’: Campaigning for women’s suffrage, education and health care’; audio recording of a lecture delivered by Professor Katharine Cockin of the University of Hull to the Hull Amnesty Group on 15th November 2016, 11am-12noon at Hull History Centre. Available at https://hydra.hull.ac.uk/resources/hull:14055

Cockin, Katherine. “Dr. Mary Murdoch.” Remember Me. Last modified 5 April, 2017, accessed 7 January 2019. Available at https://remembermeproject.wordpress.com/2017/04/05/dr-mary-murdoch-1864-1916-a-woman-doctor-of-hull/

Wikipedia. “Mary Murdoch (Hull).” Last modified 10 December 2018, accessed 7 January 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Murdoch_(Hull)

 

Book Review: The Headscarf Revolutionaries-Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster

The Headscarf Revolutionaries Front Cover

The Headscarf Revolutionaries by Brian W. Lavery

Brian W. Lavery. The Headscarf Revolutionaries: Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster. London: Barbican Press, 2015.

Whenever I move to a new place, I like to find out about its history, particularly its radical history. I recently moved to Hull in east Yorkshire, and one of the most famous episodes of protest in the city’s history took place in 1968. In early 1968, three trawler ships from Hull were lost in the Artic ocean in the space of just a few weeks. All three crews were lost, apart from one sole survivor. For some women in Hull, this was a tragedy that could have been avoided with better equipment and more stringent safety checks on the trawler ships, and better training for inexperienced crew members. The women started a campaign which captured national attention, won concessions from the ship owners, and changed government policy. They were largely pushing against an open door, but they did face hostility and criticism, including from some trawlermen who didn’t like women interfering in their working lives. The women became known as the Headscarf Revolutionaries because of their distinctive headwear. In The Headscarf Revolutionaries: Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster, Brian W. Lavery tells the story of the campaign, the women involved, and the men who lost their lives on the St. Romanus, the Kingston Peridot, and the Ross Cleveland.

Lily’s Headscarf Revolution may have been a naïve one. But it was a powerful action from the heart that caught the imagination of the world and shamed an industry and a Government into action. Hands that rocked the cradle shook the world and changed it for the better.

Lavery, 2015; p.190

I was not surprised to find out the Brian Lavery has training in both journalism and creative writing. The Headscarf Revolutionaries is incredibly well-researched; it seems like Lavery interviewed almost everyone who is still alive and had any involvement in the campaign. Virginia Bilocca-McKenzie, is the daughter of Lillian Bilocca’s, who kickstarted and was one of the key leaders of the movement. Virginia obviously had significant input into the book; multiple conversations between her and her mother are included. Many sections of the book feel more like fiction than non-fiction; it is much more descriptive that many of the other history books I read. It is an effective approach, particularly the section near the beginning in which some of the men on the crews of the doomed ships say goodbye to their families and head out to sea for what the reader knows is the final time.

There are some elements of Lavery’s writing style that I am not so keen on, however. He has an odd way of using commas that I found irritating. It’s not necessarily wrong, but there are lots of commas in places where I wouldn’t put them, which I found distracting.  Also, some details are repeated in a way that felt unnecessary. These are minor issues in what is otherwise an excellent book, and I guess it isn’t Lavery’s fault that I am quite pedantic when it comes to grammar and style; I blame it on all the undergraduate marking I do.

The Headscarf Revolutionaries is about a local tragedy which sparked a campaign which had national implications. It shines a light on both labour and gender relations amongst Britain’s working classes in the mid-twentieth century, and as such has a much broader appeal than those who are just interested in local history.