Moorhead was born on 28 August 1869 in Maidstone, Kent. She was one of six children of George Alexander Moorhead, an army surgeon of Irish extraction, and his wife, Margaret Humphries (1833–1902), an Irishwoman of French Huguenot extraction. She spent her early years abroad in India where her father was an army surgeon. Her father settled in Dundee in 1905, and after training as an artist in Paris under Mucha and in Whistler's studio, she returned to care for him. After her father died in 1911, Ethel moved to Edinburgh.
Moorhead made her maiden speech at a Dundee Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) meeting in March 1910, in December she threw an egg at Winston Churchill when he was holding a meeting in Dundee. In 1911 the Dundee branch of the Women's Freedom League congratulated her on becoming Dundee's first tax-resister.
Moorhead used a string of aliases (Mary Humphreys, Edith Johnston, Margaret Morrison), and carried out various acts of militancy both north and south of the border. They included smashing two windows in London, attacking a showcase at the Wallace Monument near Stirling, and throwing cayenne pepper at a police constable, as well as wrecking police cells, and carrying out several arson attacks. In October 1912 after being ejected from a meeting in Synod Hall, Edinburgh Moorhead returned to attack the male lecturer with a dog whip for ejecting her. She was arrested under her own name and was fined £1, this fine was paid so Moorhead never went to prison for this act. She held no formal position in the WSPU, but achieved great personal notoriety.
Moorhead was imprisoned several times and released under the "Cat and Mouse Act" of 1913. She became the first Scottish suffragette to be forcibly fed, while imprisoned in Calton Jail, Edinburgh under the care of Dr Ferguson Watson. Having become seriously ill with double pneumonia, she was released into the care of Dr Grace Cadell, a fellow activist in the suffrage movement. Her experience – duly related to the press – caused much protest at the cruelty involved.
Other campaigning and later life
During the First World War, Moorhead took on additional organisational responsibilities. Together with Fanny Parker, she helped run the Women's Freedom League (WFL) National Service Organisation, encouraging women to find appropriate work.
In the 1920s, she traveled in Europe and edited a quarterly arts journal, which published work by, among others, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway. She married the writer Ernest Walsh, whom she outlived. She died in Dublin in 1955.
A commemorative plaque has been placed close to the site of her home in Dundee.
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