Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913)
Emily was born on the 11 October 1872 in Blackheath, Kent, to Charles Edward Davison and his second wife, Margaret Caisley. From an early age Emily shined excelling at school and at the age of 19 she received a bursary to attend Royal Holloway University. During her time here Emily would make lifelong friends with fellow scholar Rose Lamartine Yates. Tragically Emily’s father died during her course and Emily was forced to leave when her mother could not afford the fees. Not to be deterred from studying Emily took work as a governess and saved enough to re-enrol at university, this time at St Hugh’s Hall, Oxford, a recently opened women’s college; she graduated with a First Class degree in English Language and Literature. She went on to study at London University, this time reading classics and mathematics and graduating with honours.
In November 1906 Emily joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Her first arrest was in March 1909 for being part of a deputation to Parliament. At the trial the arresting “constable testified that she was the most persistent in trying to enter the House of Commons” and that in her attempts she had assaulted him (Atkinson, 2018, p.141-142). Over the next 5 years she was arrested or imprisoned 10 times and undertook hunger strikes or other forms of protest upon her detention. Her crimes included attempting to stop a David Lloyd George meeting and on another occasion in 1909, she was arrested for throwing stones at him. In 1910 she was arrested but not charged at the Black Friday protests and arrested again later that month. In 1911 she set fire to two post boxes before being stopped setting light to a third by police and her last arrest in 1912 was for whipping a Baptist minister who she mistook for David Lloyd George.
In April 1910 she became a paid member of staff for the WSPU (Howes, 2013, p.79), however her employment does not seem to have lasted long. In 1913, Emily received both a letter from a family member with a postal order as “A little something to keep you going” (Howes, 2013, p. 91) and a rejection letter to work as a junior with the Tax Resistance League (Atkinson, 2018, p. 409). There is some suggestion that in February 1913 Emily was responsible for the bomb that exploded at David Lloyd George’s empty summer home at Walton on the Hill, Surrey (Slight, 1988, p. 77). However, this is unproven and although no one was ever charged with the attack, it seems unlikely that it was Emily. In 1911 when she was not pursued for setting fire to post boxes she confessed to a policeman, much to her annoyance when he refused to arrest her she set alight to two more post boxes and was eventually arrested in the process of setting alight to a third (Atkinson, 2018, p.278-279). Emily was committing these crimes to get noticed and arrested in the name of the suffrage cause, if she had bombed Lloyd George’s house the lack of acknowledgement would have angered her and a confession would surely have followed to either the authorities, in her writings, or to friends.
She was, however, working as a freelance journalist when her last article was published, prior to her death, in the Daily Sketch, 28 May 1913, entitled ‘The Price of Liberty’. In the article, Emily argued that “The perfect Amazon is she who will sacrifice all… to win the pearl of freedom [the vote] for her sex.” She continued to say she would make the “ultimate sacrifice” paying the “highest price for Liberty” (Atkinson, 2018, p.409). There is debate whether Emily planned her actions for the Derby; she discussed with Kitty Marion and others about protesting at the event but that nothing was decided (Atkinson, 2018, p.409).
On the 3 June 1913, Emily attended the Suffragette Fair and Festival in Kensington where she laid a wreath at the statue of Joan of Arc. The next morning she left her boarding house, smartly dressed with a suffragette scarf in the WSPU colours pinned to the inside of her coat and a WSPU colours flag concealed up her sleeve; she purchased a return train ticket to Epsom (Atkinson, 2018, p.410).
On Wednesday 4 June, in the 3pm race at Epsom Derby, the King’s horse, Anmer, ridden by jockey Herbert ‘Bertie’ Jones, was running at 50/1 (Atkinson, 2018, p.410). Around half way through the course at Tattenham Corner Emily dipped under the racecourse barrier and waited for the King’s colours of purple and gold, she advanced out on to the track. The black and white newsreel footage suggests that Emily had a scarf which she attempted to attach to Anmer’s bridle, however within the space of 4 seconds Emily was knocked down by the horse. Anmer somersaulted whilst Jones was thrown from the saddle with his foot caught in the stirrup and was subsequently injured (Atkinson, 2018, p.410).
Emily was taken to Epsom Cottage Hospital in Alexandra Road. There old school friend Rose Lamartine Yates visited her and other suffragettes decorated her hospital bed (Atkinson, 2018, p.412). The following day on the 5 June Emily received hate mail, one letter read “I am glad to hear that you are in hospital. I hope you suffer torture until you die. You idiot” signed from ‘an Englishman’ (Sleight, 1988, p.16). In the following days Emily briefly regained consciousness but did not speak (Atkinson, 2018, p.413). She died on the evening of 8 June, her death was recorded as ‘by misadventure’ through a fracture at the base of the skull, she was 42 years old (Atkinson, 2018, p. 413). That night, fellow WSPU members, Kitty Marion and Clara Giveen set alight to the Grandstand at Hurst Park Racecourse in an act of support for Emily’s actions.
In the interim days after the Derby, while Emily lay dying, Christabel Pankhurst claimed that the WSPU did not know anything of Emily’s plans (Atkinson, 2018, p.414). Despite this, after her death she was treated as a martyr. Emily’s coffin travelled from Epsom, and on a parade through London accompanied by 10 brass bands, Elsie Howey dressed as Joan of Arc with suffragettes who had been on hunger strike following the hearse (Atkinson, 2018, p.415). A memorial issue of The Suffragette was printed and sold as spectators lined the streets. The event was not only attended by supporters; during the procession cries of “three cheers for Herbert Jones” was heard and at one point a brick hit the coffin (Atkinson, 2018, p.414). Her funeral was long remembered as the last great Suffragette rally, a pageant in which thousands of women in white paid their last respects to the heroine who had died for their freedom. Five years later, women achieved the vote. Emily was buried with her father at the family grave in Morpeth, Derbyshire.
An inquest was held into Emily’s death. Thomas Lamartine Yates, husband to Rose and a lawyer who had defended suffragettes in the past, represented Emily’s family. He said “he thought she intentionally did it with a view to calling the attention to the public that the government had not done justice to women” (Esssen, 1993, p.16). Emily’s half-brother, Captain Henry Davison, stayed with the Lamartine Yates family during the inquest and was called on to give evidence. He stated “I think she realised the danger, and was willing to accept it, but thought she would be saved” (Slight, 1993, p.17). The outcome of the inquest was death by misadventure (Balding, Secrets of a Suffragette). Herbert Jones, the jockey, although physically recovered, was haunted by Emily’s face and committed suicide on the 17 July 1951 (Atkinson, 2018, p.416).
Over 100 years later debate rages on whether Emily did what she intended that day, or if it was a spur of the moment action. The presence of the flag and scarf inside her coat suggests she had planned something but equally it is possible that she decided her actions with the scarf at the last moment. Debate continues further into whether Emily’s actions should be counted as suicide or if her death was an accidental outcome. Some have argued that the presence of a return ticket proves that she intended to travel home that day, however due to the races, a return ticket was cheaper than a single. One could argue that if she had merely intended to commit suicide to disturb the race there was no reason to have targeted the King’s horse. Her previous actions, writings, opinions of her family and the footage from the day suggest that her actions were to disturb the race in the name of suffrage, she was willing to die for the cause but had not intended to.
Today Emily is remembered in several ways across the country. Her grave in Morpeth stands proud with acknowledgment to the Suffragette cause. In September 2017, Royal Holloway University named their new library and student hub ‘The Emily Wilding Davison Building’. In Epsom, coming out of Tattenham Corner station you find yourself on Emily Davison Drive. At the racecourse there is a plaque at Tattenham Corner, where Emily entered the track, students from St. Bead’s School, Redhill, who worked on ‘The March of the Women’ radio play with out project laid flowers here in May 2018. Meanwhile the Emily Davison Memorial Project, relaunched in 2018, has permission from the local councils and is currently fundraising to build a statue to #RememberEmily.
Contributed by Holly Parsons, The March of the Women Project Officer
Atkinson, Diane. The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes. Bloomsbury (2018).
Christine Charlesworth, ‘Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison – a figure to meet in Epsom’, Women’s History, Special issue: 1918-2018, Vol 2 Issue 11.
BFI National Archive, Miss Davison’s Funeral (1913)
and Warwick Trading Co. newsreel from the film archives of Screen Archive South East
British Pathé, footage of the 1913 Epsom Derby
Read Dr Elizabeth Crawford’s blog ‘Woman and Sphere’ which features Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral
Clare Balding, Secrets of a Suffragette (Women’s Rights Documentary)
Essen, R.I. Epsom’s Suffragette. Pullingers Publishing (1993).
The March of the Women exhibition panel 9 featuring Emily Wilding Davison
Howes, Maureen. Emily Wilding Davison. A Suffragette’s Family Album. The History Press (2013).
The March of the Women Blog, Discovering the Davison’s
Purvis, June (2013). Remembering Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913). Women’s History Review, 22:3, 353-362.
Royal Holloway, Emily Wilding Davison, 1872 to 1913
Royal Holloway, The Emily Wilding Davison Building
Screen Archive South East, Funeral Procession of the Woman Who Dared (1913)
Sleight, John. One-way ticket to Epsom. Bridge Studios (1988).
Macey, Alan. Romance of the Derby Stakes. Hutchinson & Co Ltd, 2nd edition (1932), image facing p216
See Emily Wilding Davison material among the audit of Bourne Hall Museum’s collections
Read Bourne Hall Museum’s detailed article about the 1913 Derby and Emily Davison
Read Find My Past’s blog about Emily Wilding Davison and the 1911 census
Read UK Parliament’s case study about Emily Wilding Davison
Read more about the history of Epsom and the Epsom Derby