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The Crichton Women on International Women’s Day

7 March 2024

The Crichton Women

In the background of this photograph, taken at a Crichton Christmas party, there are several significant women, hidden within the larger group.

Behind the flowers, and sitting to the left of Medical Superintendent P.K. McCowan (served 1937 – 1957) is Matron May Houliston whose married name was Boyle.

May Houliston (1912 – 2009) was raised at the Crichton where her father was a gardener. She trained as a nurse at the Crichton, later gaining additional qualifications in London. She became Matron in 1947 and served until 1962.  After the Second World War, she undertook a study tour in the USA and Canada. Her textbook Practice of Mental Health Nursing (1947) reflects her high standards in training and practice. Houliston introduced a system of  Cadet Nurses to Crichton, for school-leavers interested in joining the profession. Her family is still well respected in Dumfries and beyond; her brothers were international footballer Billy Houliston, much-acclaimed accordionist and publican Max Houliston and Bobby Houliston, Crichton carpenter.

To the right of P.K. McCowan is his second wife, Dr Muriel L.M. Northcote

Dr Muriel L.M. Northcote (1890 – 1975) graduated from the London School of Medicine for Women in 1923, becoming an MD in 1932. She served at the Royal Free Hospital, the Lady Chichester and Cardiff City Mental Hospital, where she was her future husband’s Deputy from 1928 – 33. Northcote accompanied her husband to Dumfries in 1937 and served as his Deputy during the War, while raising their two daughters – one of whom later entered the medical profession – and publishing extensively in her field. Her obituary in the British Medical Journal states: ‘Intellectual capacity she had to the full […] [but] it would be an arid tribute to her memory if one did not mention how senior nursing staff at Crichton Royal, and above all more elderly patients, would recount tales of what Dr Muriel had said and done, and how she had helped.’

Dora Marsden

Dora Marsden (1882 – 1960), influential writer, editor and suffragette, spent the last twenty five years of her life as a patient at the Crichton Royal, following a suicide attempt. Diagnosed with melancholia, brought on by literary disappointment, the CRI records, now held in the Ewart Library (and see note, ‘this little lady sits quietly in her chair all day, most of the time absorbed in her own thoughts’ and ‘writing all day’.

Yorkshire born, Marsden was educated at Owen’s College, Manchester. She taught in Leeds, Colchester and Manchester and, by 1900, was head teacher at a training centre at Altrincham. She resigned in 1909 to become a paid organiser for the Women’s Social and Political Union. Famously, she spent a night at the top of the Empire Hall, Southport, to confront Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary. Marsden was imprisoned several times, including in Strangeways where she refused to wear prison clothing, stripping herself naked; she was released after going on hunger strike. Marsden resigned from the WSPU in 1910, joining the militant Women’s Freedom League, and rejected suffrage cause in 1912, arguing the parliamentary system was “powerless” due to capitalism.

In 1911 Marsden initiated, and edited, The Freewoman. A Weekly Feminist Review, advocating free love and the rejection of marriage. It was: “the most outstanding feminist journal of the early twentieth century” according to her biographer, Les Garner (A Brave and Beautiful Spirit. Dora Marsden 1882 – 1960 (1990)), to whom the present account is hugely indebted. This later changed its title to The New Freewoman: An Individualist Review (1913) and, from 1919, The Egoist. It became an influential literary magazine, publishing West, Wells, Pound and Joyce.

In 1919 Marsden moved to the Lake District, where she lived with her mother, publishing The Definition of the Godhead (1928) and Mysteries of Christianity (1930), with the financial support of her friend Harriet Shaw Weaver. She was described by Rebecca West, in 1926, as “one of the most marvellous personalities the nation has ever produced”, and an “exquisite beauty”. According to Sylvia Pankhurst she was “a Yorkshire lass, very tiny with a winsome face”. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence called her the “sweetest, gentlest and bravest of suffragettes”.

Words by Dr Valentina Bold



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