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Trailblazer - Dorothea Chalmers Smith

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

Many thanks to Anabel Marsh from Glasgow Women's Library for writing this post.


A photo of Dorothea Chalmers Smith in court.  Dorothy is on the right of the pictuire with Ethel Moorhead in the middle and an accompanying police officer on the far left.
A photo of Dorothea Chalmers Smith in court. Dorothy is on the right of the pictuire with Ethel Moorhead in the middle and an accompanying police officer on the far left.

Dorothea Chalmers Smith was a militant suffragette who made great sacrifices to fight for her cause. She was born Elizabeth Dorothea Lyness (or Lynas) in Dennistoun (covered in our Glasgow Alternative Tour), Glasgow, in 1872. Her father was a property owner and merchant so she came from a respectable family and her life, in many ways, followed a respectable course. In 1894 she was one of the first women to graduate in medicine from the University of Glasgow, her obituary noting that “under her maiden name of Dorothy Lyness [she] was a very popular student of Queen Margaret College”. After qualifying, she practiced In Dennistoun and was a member of the staff of the Glasgow Public Health Department in the Maternity and Child Welfare and Tuberculosis sections, and also in the out-patient department of the Samaritan Hospital for Women.


On 16th June 1899 Dorothea married the Rev. William Chalmers Smith, minister of Calton Parish Church, in the East End of Glasgow, and they went on to have six children. The obituary merely observes that Dorothea’s husband predeceased her by many years, but this bare fact hides a more dramatic story.


In 1912, Dorothea and her sister Jane became interested in the fight for votes for women and joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the suffragettes. The following year, on 24th July, Dorothea and another suffragette, Ethel Moorhead, were caught red-handed trying to set fire to a house in Park Gardens. They were held on remand in Duke Street Prison where they went on hunger strike, but were released after 5 days under the Cat and Mouse Act, the common name for the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act which had been introduced in April 1913, and allowed for the re-arrest of prisoners once their health improved.


Dorothea did not return to prison when her licence expired, but was later found at Tighnabruich and she and Ethel were put on trial on 15th October, found guilty and given an 8-month sentence. Dorothea immediately went on hunger strike, was once again released under Cat and Mouse, and once again she failed to return to prison. To her husband’s dismay (he was not at all supportive of her actions) police set up a 24 hour watch at her home, but she escaped on 19th November and was never apprehended.


All this was too much for the Church, and Chalmers Smith was told to control his wife or divorce her, though eventually she left him. After their divorce her daughters left with her but her sons remained with their father and she was not allowed to see them. Dorothea resumed her medical career, into which two of her daughters followed her, and died at home in Glasgow on 21st May 1944. One of her daughters donated her Hunger Strike medal to the People’s Palace.


Dorothea’s obituary appeared in The Glasgow Medical Journal in June 1944 and can be accessed via the National Library of Medicine. It does mention her suffragette activities but makes them sound much less militant than they were. The writer sounds as if he or she can’t quite believe that a woman of a “quiet placid disposition” could get up to such things, whereas the indictment for Dorothea and Ethel’s trial (Ethel masquerading at this point as Margaret Morrison) makes it clear how serious they were. It is available via the Scottish Archive Network and gives a formidable list of items they were caught with, including matches, paraffin oil and firelighters. Dorothea is the first of our Trailblazers to actually attempt to blaze!


You can watch a quick summary of her amazing story in the video below.



 

This blog is part of a Trailblazers collection, celebrating the lives of 10 women who we decided to name our bikes after! This is the seventh in our series of blogs introducing a high-level overview of the life stories of the women who our fleet of bikes is named after. To find out about the other women, please click on Trailblazers: The 10 Women who inspired Gallus Pedals.


The original video can be sourced from the following link

 

Anabel Marsh is a volunteer tour guide with Glasgow Women's Library (GWL). GWL now has six women's history walks, three longer trails, and one bike ride, all of which can be downloaded as self-guided tours from GWL's website. Guided walks take place during the summer months and can be booked via the library's events calendar.

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