Sunday, 16 June 2013

Emily Wilding Davison and the 1913 Derby

The protest at the Derby on 4 June 1913 and subsequent events were discussed in my Sex, Work and Politics: Women in Britain 1830-1918 and I have taken the opportunity in its centennial year to extend that discussion. 

On 4 June 1913, Emily Davison rushed on to the Epsom racecourse while the Derby was in progress, received fatal injuries to her head and died in hospital four days later. [1] She was one of a group of ‘freelancers’ or irregulars within the WSPU who inaugurated some of the best-known militant tactics such as hunger-strikes and window-breaking. Fiercely loyal to the WSPU leadership, they also retained their right to independent action even if supported by district WSPU and national organisers. One of the arsonists was Lilian Lenton, the daughter of a joiner from Leicester who  celebrated her twenty-first birthday by volunteering at her local WSPU office for window-breaking raids. After her first spell in prison, she graduated to arson, vowing to burn two empty buildings a week. She was arrested for setting fire to the orchid house and pavilion at Kew, went on hunger strike in prison, and was force-fed. Leonora Cohen, by contrast, was nearly forty when she hurled an iron bar at a display case in the jewel Room at the Tower of London. Unlike Lenton, Mrs Cohen was a respectable married woman, the wife of a staunchly Liberal watchmaker in Leeds. Until she became a branch secretary in 1911, she had contented herself with bringing up her son, and selling newspapers and making marmalade for the WSPU. When Asquith suddenly announced a man-only suffrage bill in November of that year, reneging again on a commitment to women, she turned to direct action. Her subsequent hunger strikes, and refusal to accept fluids, in Armley Gaol in Leeds nearly killed her. [2]

Emily Davison

These ‘freelancers’ posed a problem of control over the movement for Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. The autocratic nature of their organisation meant that it was relatively easy to dismiss any staff who deviated from the agreed strategies even at local level. This was not the case with suffragettes who, from 1909 onwards, on their own initiative took militant action. The use of hunger-strikes was begun by Marion Wallace-Dunlop in July 1909 on her own initiative and subsequently accepted by the leadership. The Pankhursts initially disapproved of boycotting the 1911 Census but, when faced with large numbers of members who wanted to take part, somewhat reluctantly approved their actions. By 1913, militant suffragettes and the government, especially Reginald McKenna at the Home Office, were embraced in a struggle for public opinion. The authorities wanted to suppress the campaign but without risking the death of a suffragette explaining the introduction of the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act. Militants sought to discredit McKenna’s policy by taking action that included the serious risk of injury to highlight their cause. For the Pankhursts, their inability to restrain independent, uncoordinated militant initiatives threatened their control over the organisation.

Since 1909, Emily Davison had been involved in militant activities resulting in imprisonment, hunger-strikes and forced-feeding; stone-throwing in 1909, setting fire to pillar boxes in late 1911 and two bombings in 1912. Virtually everything about her death is contentious. Whether or not Emily intended to die is a much debated question. [3] Eyewitnesses were unclear about what happened: some believed she was crossing the course to get to the other side thinking the horses had passed, others thought she was trying to grab the reins of Anmer, the King’s horse as a deliberate act, something Stanley and Morley suggest is shown in film footage of the incident. [4] Gertrude Colmore’s biography was produced at high speed to make political capital from Emily’s death and constructed it as the martyrdom for ‘the Cause’ that many people had been waiting for.[5] She suggested that Davison had considered suicidal action on several previous occasions. Rebecca West also said that she had committed suicide, though the inquest recorded a verdict of death by misadventure, and that her decision was both rational and premeditated.[6] While in Holloway serving a six month sentence in 1912, Davison was again force-fed and in protest threw herself twice over the railings but wire netting broke her fall. She then jumped from the netting onto an iron staircase injuring her hand and cracking two vertebrae. Whether, as Davison told the Pall Mall Gazette on her release he had deliberately tried ‘to commit suicide’ to highlight the ‘horrible torture our women face’, it later used by suffragettes and their critics to explain her action at the Derby as ‘suicide’ and that she was an unbalanced, suicidal fanatic.

In reality, Davison deliberately undertook her final militant act alone, knowing it might prove fatal. But little attention has been given to her religious convictions. As a devout Anglican, suicide would have been unthinkable as it have meant that she could not be buried in consecrated ground. That Emily had purchased a return rail ticket is generally taken as indicating that she did not intend suicide but normal services to Epsom were suspended on Derby Day and replaced by excursion services for which people bought a return ticket, so this is not conclusive. However, she also an invitation to a suffragette dance later that day and had planned a holiday with her sister which suggest that martyrdom was not her intention. She was carrying a suffragette scarf and may have wished to attach it to the King’s horse or simply unfurl it after the horses had passed. If this was the case, then it was a protest that went tragically wrong. Analysis of the three newsreels of the incident show that Emily was closer to the start of Tattenham Corner than previously thought and that this would have given her a clear view of the oncoming race. They show that in the four seconds that passed after she got on to the course, she was able to identify the King’s horse and sought to attach the scarf to it as it passed her but it collided with her and it had always been assumed that this was her intention. Although the jockeys were wearing their owners’ colours, it is unlikely that she would have been able to identify Anmer as he galloped towards her and that she was simply lucky to pick the royal horse. This was an act of political protest not one of political suicide though she was probably aware of the risk this entailed. Stanley and Morley concluded that no proof of her motives is possible since she left no written statement about her intentions.[7] In some respects, it does not matter what her purpose was because the political implications were the same. [8]

The leadership of the WSPU in London found itself having to improvise in the aftermath of Davison’s actions. Christabel was in exile in Paris and Emmeline was in and out of prison and was rearrested en route to the funeral. Her funeral in London, organised by Grace Roe on 14 June, proved to be the last great suffragette showpiece attended by a vast crowd and five thousand women dressed in white as a suffragette guard of honour and much of the press coverage was respectful, awed by her devotion to ‘the Cause’. Although the funeral procession was not subjected to hackling from people who normally turned up the suffragette events, popular reaction to the procession was ambiguous. Anmer had been put down following the incident and, though it was unlikely that he would have won the race, many people had placed bets on him and may have blamed the suffragettes for losing their money. Others saw the attack on Anmer as an insult to the king. Emily’s body was taken north by train and was buried in St. Mary’s churchyard, Morpeth, Northumberland. The movement now had its martyr.


The mixed reactions to her funeral were a reflection of growing popular hostility to the suffragettes after 1912. Labour Party leaders and non-militant suffragettes denounced suffragette martrydom as a contrived and dishonest policy that did little to further the suffrage cause. The press insisted that society could not submit to what the Daily Sketch labelled as a form of terrorism. Emily’s death had no impact of government policy to suppress the WSPU: in continued to raid its headquarters, tap its telephones and intercept its mail. If anything, the campaign by the authorities was intensified strengthened by the increased alienation of public opinion by its militant actions. This was reflected in private correspondence along suffragettes and, although the Pankhursts tried to capitalise on Emilys’ death, it helped to strengthen their determination to change course after the outbreak of war in 1914.

[1] Tanner, Michael, The Suffragette Derby (Robson Press), 2013, is good on the tensions of the Derby though less convincing on Davison’s actions.

[2] Ibid, Liddington, Jill, Rebel Girls: Their Fight for the Vote, pp. 231-245.

[3] Morley, Ann with Stanley, Liz, The Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison, (Women’s Press), 1988, is an important revisionist study of this rather enigmatic figure. See also, Purvis, June, ‘Remembering Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913), Women’s History Review, Vol. 22, (3), (2013), pp. 353-362, and Fisher, Lucy, Emily Wilding Divison: The Suffragette Who Died For Women’s Rights, (Blacktoad Publications), 2013. Collette, Carolyn P., (ed.), In the Thick of the Fight: The Writing of Emily Wilding Davison, Militant Suffragette, (University of Michigan Press), 2013, prints her published and unpublished writings, some of which are at

[4] Morning Post, 9 June 1913. Ibid, The Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison, pp. 164-165.

[5] Colmore, Gertrude, The Life of Emily Davison: An Outline, (The Woman’s Press), 1913. Her biography, hagiography as it undoubtedly is, remains an important reference point as it contains the basic source material for all later writers in Emily Davison. However, it excludes much that is important in understanding Emily’s life and thus her death.

[6] West, Rebecca, ‘The Life of Emily Davison’, The Clarion, 20 June 1913.

[7] Ibid, The Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison, pp. 165-166.

[8] There was a copycat incident at Ascot a fortnight later, when James Hewitt, great-grandson of the second Viscount Lifford and generally regarded as an ‘eccentric’, ran out in front of the Gold Cup field with a suffragette flag in one hand and a loaded revolver in the other. He brought down Tracery, the leader and was seriously injured.

No comments: