Arson at Hurst Park Race Course, June 1913
The actions of Emily Wilding Davison at the 1913 Epsom Derby, attracted the attention of the national media and the suffragettes, as ever, aimed to use this increased media attention to their advantage.
In the days following the Derby, while Emily lay unconsciousness in Epsom Cottage Hospital, her suffragette comrades were planning ways to show their support of her actions.
Emily died on the afternoon of the 8 June and that night Kitty Marion and Clara Elizabeth Giveen put their plan into action targeting the Grand Stand at Hurst Park Racecourse, West Molesey. Kitty described how to enter the racecourse that night they had to climb the fence but both too short! There was also the added issue of spikes and barbed wire to contend with:
“About a foot above the spikes were two rows of barbed wire which looked pretty impossible for two long-skirted females to negotiate. However, being ‘unconquerable’ suffragettes, we had to get over somehow. A piece of carpet seemed likely to smooth the way, and when I asked my landlady if she had a bit she could spare, she told me to help myself in the shed. I selected a piece, rolled and strapped it into a neat-looking piece of baggage. I also packed a wicker suitcase with a gallon of oil and fire-lighters. On Sunday night, about 9 o’clock, Clara Giveen called and we set off, going by train as far as we could, then by the tram to the bridge near Hampton Court Palace, which we crossed and walked towards the racetrack. We had decided to climb over the ‘unclimbable fence’ as the press were to call it later, with a foothold on a tool shed. How we got over and back again beggars description. We both regretted that there was no movie camera to immortalise the comedy of it.” (Kitty’s unpublished biography, LSE, The Women’s Library collection).
Once inside, they used a gallon of oil, fire-lighters, a candle and a piece of material soaked in oil as a wick, to set fire to the wooden Grand Stand. The fire took hold of the structure quicker than they expected, making their escape more complex. They were hindered by the length of their skirts and the fire crews turning up. Rowland Baker, son of one of the firemen recounted how:
“The Molesey Fire Brigade… arrived with its steam pump within a few minutes, by which time the buildings, being constructed mainly of timber, were well engulfed in the blaze. Before long, neighbouring brigades also arrived – Kingston, Surbiton, Hampton, Hampton Hill and the Metropolitan Water Board. At one time the flames reached such a height that they could be seen as far away as Carshalton, and it lit the sky there so brilliantly that the local fire brigade turned out thinking the blaze was in their own district. The firemen played the flames for some three hectic hours, pumping water from the Thames, before the conflagration was finally subdued. Came the daylight and the damage could be fully assessed. The main stand ended as ‘a fantastic medley of charred wood, twisted iron, broken and melted glass and gaunt fire-scorched pillars of brick’. The other buildings gutted included the member’s and Tattershall’s stands, the kitchens and dining rooms.” (Thameside Molesey, p.125-6).
Meanwhile Kitty explained how they managed to get back to their lodgings in Kew:
“By the time we reached the bridge, the few people about at the hour – nearly 1a.m. – were running towards the fire. An engine, horse-drawn, came dashing across the bridge, and others from different directions. We strolled across, watching the blaze, trying not to look too eager to get away.Though it had its humours, I hated the whole wretched business – we all did and would much rather have had the vote than do this sort of thing to get it – but we did our ‘duty’ as we saw it, much like soldiers on the principle of ‘theirs is not to reason why’. As we walked towards Richmond and Kew, motor-cycle police came dashing along, whom we evaded each time by dodging up side streets until they had passed. We walked through Richmond, past the police station, on to Kew, nearing our destination, where Clara had arranged for us to stay, when she was uncertain of which turning to take, and a policeman offered to direct us, expressing surprise at our being out so late, to which, by way of putting him off the scent, I said, ‘Oh, I am a music hall artiste and often out late.’ When we reached Dr and Mrs Casey’s home at about 3 o’clock, we found another policeman outside. It seems that as soon as the cause of the fire was discovered from the copy of the Suffragette, the police covered every house for miles around which they knew to be occupied by suffragettes. Clara let us in with the latchkey which Mrs Casey had given her. After breakfast, during which we related our strenuous adventures, we lay down again, Betty on a couch down-stairs, I on the bed in the spare room.
At 11.30 the policeman who had followed us arrived with Detective Inspectors Pride and Pike. One came straight upstairs to tell me I was under arrest while the other ‘broke the news’ to Clara and brought her up to me, to read the warrant to us together, under which we were charged with being ‘suspected persons found loitering in certain streets with intent to commit a felony’. [Inspector] Pride fairly barked at me, ‘What’s your name?’ Mocking his tone, I barked back, ‘Kitty Marion!’ ‘Oh’, he said. Then in quite a pleasant, friendly manner, ‘Do you know Mr Finden?’ Trying to place Mr Finden in the suffrage movement, I hesitated a moment, then said, ‘Mr and Mrs Harold Finden in the music halls? I’ve played on the same bill with them.’ ‘That’s it,’ he said. ‘What a strange coincidence. I met Mr Finden at a club last night and in the course of the conversation, we touched on Women’s Suffrage. He said he knew a suffragette, and mentioned your name. I little dreamed I should arrest you this morning.’” (Kitty’s unpublished biography, The Women’s Library collection, LSE Library).
On the 9 June the pair were arrested for wilfully setting fire to the Grand Stand and other buildings causing damage in the region of £10,000; they were charged at Richmond Court on 10 June.
Nearly two weeks later Kitty and Clara were committed for trial at Kingston for setting fire to the Grand Stand and doing damage to the lesser extent of £7,000. The trial was held at the Surrey Assizes in Guildford on the 3 July. During the trial, Clara claimed that no sentence should be passed as they had not been tried by their peers and, until women were on the jury as well as men, no sentence should be passed. On being found guilty, both Kitty and Clara were sentenced to three years in Holloway Prison. They immediately went on hunger strike and were released under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act, recuperating at a house in the Surrey Hills.
Contributed by Holly Parsons, The March of the Women Project Officer
Irene Cockcroft and Susan Croft, Art, Theatre and Women’s Suffrage, 2010
Rowland G.M. Baker and Gwendoline F. Baker. Thameside Molesey, 1989
Read about Hurst Park arson on the ‘How the vote was won’ website http://www.thesuffragettes.org/map/outsidelondon/elmbridge/
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