Uncovering LGBTQ+ histories: Newcastle's first female GP and relationship with wife

Dr Ethel Williams was a key figure in shaping society in Newcastle during the start of the 20th Century.

Born in 1863, she was particularly concerned with the health and welfare of women and children in the city, and was a tireless campaigner for women's suffrage.

Reportedly the first woman to drive a car in the North of England, she was also the first woman to have a medical practice in the city and founded the Northern Women’s Hospital in 1917.

While her public life is documented well, there is little known about her personal life, including her relationship with her life companion Frances Hardcastle.

One document in the Special Collections at Newcastle University, which has a small archive of Dr Williams, explicitly uncovers more of their relationship, which is suggestive of being a romantic one.

In the archives of the Trevelyan family, who were a landed family who lived in Wallington near Morpeth, is a letter by Mary Trevelyan, who had moved in the same social circles as Dr Williams.

The letter reads: "On Sunday, we motored 20 miles to a picnic, with Dr Ethel Williams and her wife, who are going to build a cottage."

Studying female same-sex relationships in history can be obscured as they may have been overlooked, or brushed off as a close friendship.

The letter from Mary Trevelyan, where you can see Ethel and her "wife" being referred to on the second page. Credit: Newcastle University.

But this document hidden in the archives is a breakthrough in shedding more light about the relationship between Ethel and Francis.

Geraldine Hunwick, a senior archivist in the special collections, said: “Ethel Williams was an amazing figure in Newcastle’s history.

“The material we’ve got here tells us a story of all of her huge accomplishments and how well regarded she was, and how much of a treasure she was held to be by people in the region.”

The building plans of the property that Ethel and Frances had lived in with each other during their later years. Credit: Northumberland Archives

In 1924 Ethel decided to retire from medical practice and move to a house she had built with Frances at Stocksfield in Northumberland. 

Nicola Whiteside has been researching the pair, and the records she has found has described them as lifelong companions.

"The information that I’ve found kind of points towards them sharing a home, from the late 1900s up until the 1940s."

  • Nicola Whiteside from Northumberland Archives has been researching their accomplishments, and their relationship with one another.

"They shared similar interests, they shared financial contributions to organisations, they attended events and so there is a lot of evidence of them being together.

“I would assume that [their relationship] was a life of togetherness, a life of love, a life of trust, a life of sharing – everything you hope for in a relationship."

Ms Whiteside explained the importance of hearing LGBTQ+ stories from the region during Pride month.

“Oh I think it’s incredibly important, it paints a nice picture of women and their relationships.

"The fact that we can hone it in the North East and Northumberland, it makes it special.

"For me, I think we are able to share local relevant stories to a community."

  • Nicola Whiteside tells Hanah Arshad what her research has found.

  • Who was Dr Ethel Williams?

Ethel was born in Cromer, a village in Norfolk on 8 July 1863.

She graduated from the London School of Medicine for Women in 1891.

Dr Williams played a considerable part in the struggle to win votes for women when she moved to Newcastle.

"She was an ardent supporter of the campaign for women’s suffrage. She was incredibly active in that campaign" Ms Hunwick said.

Ethel as a young girl. Credit: Newcastle University

In 1900 she was one of the founding members, and the first President of the Newcastle Women’s Suffrage Society (NWSS), renamed North-Eastern Society for Women’s Suffrage (NESWS) in 1905.

She was also the founder and president of the Newcastle branch of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage.

In 1907 she took part in the ‘Mud March’, the first large procession organised 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.

  • Listen to Senior Archivist Geraldine Hunwick speak about the banner, and the famous 'Mud March' of 1907.

Ethel reportedly was the first woman to drive a car in the North of England in 1906. Credit: Newcastle University

Dr Williams was reportedly the first woman to own a car in the North of England in 1906 - and her vehicle played a vital role in the organisation of the suffrage movement in the area.

It is said she had allowed other campaigners to use the car as well.

  • Geraldine Hunwick talks about how the car was used to mobilise the suffrage movement.

  • What was Dr Ethel Williams' legacy in healthcare?

In healthcare, Ethel set up her practice in 1904. She was concerned primarily with the health needs of women and children.

She was also noted to provide milk for infants at her own expense, in an effort to reduce Newcastle’s high rate of infant mortality.

In 1917 she founded the Northern Women’s Hospital on Osborne Road in Newcastle.

Nuffield Health Newcastle Hospital took over the site from the Northern Women’s Hospital in 1935. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

Her legacy continues to this day, with the site being taken over by Nuffield Health Newcastle Hospital.

Alex Seward, sales and services manager at Nuffield Health Newcastle Hospital., said: “We’re continuing to provide cutting edge medical services.

"They look and feel slightly different to what they had done 100 years ago, but we are still providing that facility here today.”

A plaque was erected in honour of Dr Ethel Williams. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

In 2018, a plaque commemorating her achievements was erected on the house where she lived on Osborne Terrace in Jesmond.

The event coincided with 100 years since some women secured the right to vote. The plaque reads:

"Lived and worked here 1910-1924. Newcastle's first female general medical practitioner. A radical suffragist, pacifist, educationalist and social welfare campaigner. Co-founded both the Northern Women's Hospital and the Medical Women's Federation in 1917."

  • Who was Frances Hardcastle?

Frances Hardcastle, born 13 August 1866, was a mathematician, and is known for being one of the founding members of the American Mathematical Society in 1894.

She also devoted much of her time to the women’s suffrage movement, serving first as joint secretary of the National Union and then as honorary secretary of the North-Eastern Federation of the NUWSS.

Ms Hardcastle died on 26 December 1941.

Dr Williams died at Stocksfield on 29 January 1948, just months before the establishment of the National Health Service.

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