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Female Figures from Edinburgh’s Past: From Elsie Inglis to Hellish Nell

24th Nov 2020


To say Elsie Maud Inglis achieved a lot in her 53 years on this planet, is an understatement. She was a doctor, surgeon, teacher, suffragist, founder of the Scottish Women's Hospitals, and the first woman to hold the Serbian Order of the White Eagle.

She was also incredibly well-travelled. Travel wasn’t as easy, nor as common, in the 1800’s as it is these days (well, 2020 aside…). So the fact that Elsie’s childhood and adolescent years spanned India, Tasmania, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Paris, London and Dublin is impressive.

But let’s skip the childhood and start with Elsie’s studies. Have you ever hated your teacher so much that you left school and created your own rival school? Elsie did…

Dr Sophia Jex-Blake is a noteworthy figure of Edinburgh history herself, having spent 25 years fighting for women’s rights to study medicine. However, as a student of Jex-Blake’s Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, it didn’t take Elsie and many of her fellow students to grow weary of Jex-Blake’s “petty rules and autocratic ways”.

With the support of her father, Elsie opened her own rival school: the Edinburgh College of Medicine for Women. By the time she reached 30 years of age, the now-“Dr. Inglis” had even opened a hospital for women and children.

This might have been the end of the story – an accomplished, motivated and selfless surgeon with her own High Street hospital, and giving the occasional lecture on gynaecology at the college that she had founded.

But 20 years later, when WWI broke out in 1914, a 50-year-old Elsie Inglis offered her services and expertise to the War Office. Her offer was turned down, so what did she do?

Through tireless fundraising and a particularly inspiring speech on “the role that women can play in winning the war”, Elsie Inglis managed to form numerous independent hospital units staffed entirely by women. Soon, the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service was providing much-needed assistance on the ground in France and Serbia.

Inglis went to the latter as chief medical officer, and found herself interned when Serbia was invaded by the Germans. However, she was eventually sent home to Scotland, where she continued to do whatever she could to provide aid in Serbia. This earned her the Serbian Order of the White Eagle – a highly prestigious honour, which had never before been awarded to a woman.

Inglis was in Romania when she grew too sick to carry on as a surgeon, although she remained in charge of her unit long after she hung up her stethoscope.

Despite her poor health, Elsie Inglis didn’t leave Romania until her entire unit was evacuated, at which point she famously sent the following telegraph back to Edinburgh: “Everything satisfactory and all well except me.”

The day after Elsie Inglis arrived back in the UK (103 years ago to this very day), she died with her sisters at her bedside. Her body lay in state at St Giles Cathedral, right beside the Mercat Cross, before being buried at Dean Cemetery.

Sadly, Elsie never saw the end of the war, but her Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service continued to send units to the battlefields and raise money throughout WWI. In fact, the SWH raised so much money that they had enough left over after the war to build the Elsie Inglis Memorial Maternity Hospital in 1925.

Now, for a different story entirely.

While Elsie Inglis was off directing hospital units in Serbia and Romania, a teenage Victoria Helen MacFarlane was discovering her talents as a clairvoyant.

Apart from a few scary episodes and eerie predictions of doom and death in the schoolyard, Helen had a relatively normal childhood. After marrying a wounded soldier by the name of Henry Duncan at the ripe old age of 19, it was Henry who saw the financial potential of his new wife’s psychic abilities.

By 1926, Hellish Nell, as she would eventually be known as, had moved to Edinburgh and become a “show woman”. She would perform séances and take on the persona of dead people, engaging in full conversations with their living relatives.

This lifestyle was quite good to Helen for a decade or so, until her activities started attracting the wrong kind of attention during WWII. Basically, Helen spoke with a sailor who had perished in the sinking of the HMS Barham – an event which no one knew about, because the War Office had not yet announced it.

In 1944, a séance in her hometown of Portsmouth was raided by police, and Helen was arrested while producing copious amounts of ectoplasm from her mouth… ah, to have been a fly on the wall for that dramatic scene.

Apparently, the motive for arresting Helen Duncan was that officials were concerned she would reveal the date, location and other important details surrounding the upcoming Normandy landings (a.k.a. “D-Day”).

Helen Duncan was sentenced to nine months in London’s Holloway Prison – she was the first person to be prosecuted under the “Witchcraft Act of 1735” in more than a century.

In some ways, you could argue that her sentence was much harsher than nine months in prison, as she was harassed by authorities and the general public for the rest of her life. And no, there was nothing suspicious or supernatural about her death – she simply died of poor health.

Her case is still brought up in discussions around spiritualism, politics and the justice system to this day.

Contrary to common belief, Helen Duncan was not “the last witch” to be prosecuted under the Witchcraft Act.

A 72-year-old East Londoner by the name of Jane York was charged with witchcraft later that year, for repeatedly pretending to conjure spirits of the dead. Her offenses cost her a grand total of £5, and no jail-time whatsoever… perhaps because D-Day had come and gone by then.

Another misconception about the “last witch” story is that the Witchcraft Act was repealed. In fact, it was simply revised, and became the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951.

So, there you go – two female figures from Edinburgh history, with pretty much nothing in common other than an EH postcode!

You can learn more fascinating tales of historic Edinburgh figures on our Secrets of the Royal Mile tour. Alternatively, our series of ghost tours offers an abundance of dark, twisted tales from Edinburgh’s less respectable characters.

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