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Emily Wilding Davison Centenary

by Jo Shaer, on June 4, 2013

Emily Wilding Davison's family GraveEmily Wilding Davison's family Grave by johndal, on Flickr
On 4th June 1913, Emily Wilding Davison went under the railings at the Epsom Derby and collided with Anmer, the horse belonging to King George V.

But was it suicide or a publicity stunt gone wrong? Many have made much of the return rail ticket in her purse as a sign that she never meant to give her life for the cause but an expert revealed that only special trains were running to Epsom on that day and it would only have been possible to buy a return ticket. Having said that, she had also booked a holiday for a few weeks later and a ticket for a ball the following evening. This does not sound like the mindset of someone who has decided to end it all.

However, nine stays in prison meant that she was unable to get a job to support herself and 49 sessions of force feeding had left her weak and unwell. She had only her passion for the cause to sustain her. Her writings reveal someone who was willing to give everything to make a difference to the future for her sisters.

At a time when women were becoming increasingly militant in their campaign to be able to vote alongside their menfolk, the police were also becoming more and more violent in the way that they dealt with their peaceful protests. Emily is famous for hiding in a broom cupboard in the House of Commons on the night of the 1911 Census so that this official document had to say that was her residence on the night the data from that document was acquired. Tony Benn insisted on placing a plaque on the back of the door to commemorate her bravery.

However, when marches and verbal protests failed to gain any ground, many of the members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) became engaged in violent activities which might be viewed as terrorism today - they broke windows, set fire to post boxes and even bombed buildings.

What was Emily trying to do?


In Channel 4's documentary by Clare Balding, the events of that historic June day were explained using modern technology to meld together the three pieces of film footage.

With the benefit of the different camera angles, it was possible to piece together a far more coherent explanation than that she threw herself in front of a horse to stop the Derby.

In fact, she was holding a scarf emblazoned with the words 'Votes for Women'. Her idea was to somehow attach this to the King's horse so that, when it went across the finishing line, the King's attention would be drawn to the plight of the gender that made up the silent half of his population.

The scarf can be seen as a white object which she is clutching in her hand as she crawls out from under the railing. She waits for a moment as other horses pass and then puts herself in the path of Anmer. His jockey was wearing a dark outfit in stark contrast to the lighter colours of his competitors. As the horse spots her, his front legs go up as if he is trying to jump her and they collide, with all three participants falling to the ground.

Fate of Suffragette, Horse and Jockey

As they fall, Emily's hat and the white object bounce away and the crowd rushes in. Emily was taken to the nearby cottage hospital with a fractured skull and internal injuries. She was in a coma from which she never awoke and she died a few days later on the 8th of June.

Both the horse and the jockey, Herbert Smith, survived - although Herbert never again reached those same professional heights. He said he was haunted by her face and in 1951 he committed suicide.

What happened to the scarf?

The scarf was picked up by the Clerk of the Course and lay in a drawer for many years. It was only sold in 1996 when his daughter needed to pay medical bills. The Jockey Club was one of two main bidders - which in Claire's eyes substantiated the fact that this really was the item in question. The auction was won by Barbara Gorna, an expert on Emily Wilding Davison, who has loaned it to the Works of Art Committee at The House of Commons where it is on display.

Women get the Vote

The advent of the First World War meant that militancy was rescinded by Emeline Pankhurst and the WSPU so that they could do the jobs left vacant by the men who had gone off to fight. It changed a lot of things and women aged over 30 were granted the vote under the Representation of the People Act 1918.

Ten years later, in 1928, women finally received the same voting rights as men.

However, even today, there are still disparities between men and women - especially in business. As evidenced by the Boardroom Quota battle where efforts are being made to break the Old Boys Network and have more women on the boards of the big corporations.

Emily Wilding Davison Centenary

After her death, there was a funeral procession of five thousand suffragettes on Saturday 14th June. They carried white lillies and were dressed in white with black armbands. They escorted Emily's body across London to Kings Cross where her body was taken by train to her family home in Morpeth, Northumberland. Local suffragette groups lined the route from to the church but remained outside to give her family the chance to mourn her properly at the funeral. She was buried in the family grave.

One hundred years later, various events are commemorating her death. The Women's Library has been rehoused at The London School of Economics and they have an online exhibition remembering Emily. It contains her portrait and some manuscripts and letters that she wrote about her activities and feelings for the cause of women's Suffrage, including a personal account of her force feeding in Holloway jail.

Also on display is the famous return train ticket and an abusive letter from 'An Englishman' which castigated her actions and threatened violence if she recovered. It was received whilst she lay dying and so she never read it.

Topics:women in business

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