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Emily Wilding Davison (11 October 1872 – 8 June 1913) was a militant activist fighting for women's suffrage in Britain. On 4 June 1913, she stepped in front of King George V's horse running in the Epsom Derby, sustaining injuries that resulted in her death four days later. Emily Davison's funeral was on 14 June 1913 and she was buried the next day in the church yard that was near Longhorsley. Some have claimed that she was trying to disturb the Derby rather than commit suicide.
Davison was born in Blackheath, London, the daughter of Charles Davison (of Morpeth, Northumberland) and Margaret Davison (of Longhorsley, Northumberland). She had two sisters, a brother and half-siblings from her father's first marriage including a half-brother, retired naval captain Henry Jocelyn Davison, who gave evidence at her inquest.
She later attended Kensington High School and won a bursary to Royal Holloway College in 1891 to study literature. She took up her place in January 1892 but in 1893 she was forced to drop out when her father died and her recently widowed mother could not afford the fees of £20 a term. She then took up employment as a private governess after which she became a school teacher in Edgbaston and Worthing, raising enough money to study Biology, Chemistry, English Language and Literature at St Hugh's College, Oxford. She obtained first-class honours in her final exams, though women were not at that time admitted to degrees at Oxford. She also obtained a first class honours degree from London University. Davison obtained a post teaching the daughters of the Moorhouse family in Spratton, Northamptonshire and in 1906 joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Formed in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst, the WSPU brought together those who felt strongly that militant, confrontational tactics were needed in order to achieve women's suffrage. In 1908, Davison left her teaching post to dedicate herself completely to the movement.
She gained a reputation as a militant and violent campaigner. On her own initiative and without WSPU approval, her actions developed from disrupting meetings to stone throwing and arson. She was arrested and imprisoned for various offences nine times, including a violent attack on a man she mistook for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George. During many of these prison terms she went on hunger strike and was force-fed.
On 2 April 1911, the night of the 1911 census, Davison hid in a cupboard in the Palace of Westminster overnight so that on the census form she could legitimately give her place of residence that night as the "House of Commons". The 1911 census documents that were uncovered state that Emily Wilding Davison was found 'hiding in the crypt' in the Houses of Parliament. In 1999 a plaque to commemorate the event was set in place by Tony Benn MP.
In June 1912, near the end of a six-month sentence in Holloway Prison for arson, she reacted to an episode when she and dozens of fellow Suffragettes were force-fed by throwing herself down a 10 metre iron staircase. Her intention, as she wrote afterwards, was to stop the suffering of everyone else by carrying out this action. As a result she suffered severe head and spinal damage, causing discomfort for the rest of her life.
Fatal injury at the Epsom Derby, 1913 
Davison's purpose in attending the Derby of 4 June 1913 is unclear. Much has been made of the fact that she purchased a return rail ticket and a ticket to a suffragette dance later that day, both items held in the collection of the Women's Library in London, and both suggesting that martyrdom was not her intention. Further evidence is a postcard she wrote to her sister Laetitia, who lived in France and to whom she was very close, which suggests she was due to go on holiday a few days after the Derby to visit her sister and her niece.
It is a possibility that by entering the race track she was trying to attach a flag to Anmer, the horse owned by King George V, so that when the horse crossed the finishing line, it would be flying the WSPU flag. According to police reports, two flags were found in her possession.
Pathé News captured the incident on film. The film, taken at Tattenham Corner, shows Davison stepping out onto the racecourse just as the leading horses sweep by. She then was seen standing in the middle of the racecourse as two more horses passed on the inside of her, and suddenly she took a lunge at one of the last few trailing horses. This was Anmer. The film is unclear but it is possible that by this point she had taken the banner of the WSPU out from where it was concealed in her clothing. She was knocked to the ground unconscious. Eyewitnesses at the time were divided as to her motivation, with many of the opinion that she had simply intended to cross the track, believing that all horses had passed. Others reported that she had attempted to pull down the King's horse.
It is sometimes suggested that a few weeks beforehand Emily Davison and other suffragettes were 'practising' grabbing horses in the park near her mother's house in Morpeth; and that they drew straws to decide who should be the one to go to Epsom.
Horse-racing historian Michael Tanner, in a 2011 TV interview at Epsom, pointed out that as Emily Davison was standing on the inside of the bend at Tattenham Corner, amidst heaving crowds, and with no racetrack commentary like there is today, it would in fact have been impossible for her to have any idea whether the King's horse Anmer had in fact already gone past or not when she stepped out onto the racecourse to make her protest; and that at the speeds the horses were going it would not have been practicable for her to identify any particular horse anyway even if she'd meant to. This suggests that the fact it was the King's horse that she collided with was just a coincidence.
She died four days later in Epsom Cottage Hospital, due to a fractured skull and internal injuries caused by the incident. Herbert Jones, the jockey who was riding the horse, suffered a mild concussion in the incident, but was "haunted by that poor woman's face" for much longer. In 1928, at the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst, Jones laid a wreath "to do honour to the memory of Mrs Pankhurst and Miss Emily Davison". In 1951, his son found Herbert Jones dead in a gas-filled kitchen, having committed suicide.
The horse, Anmer, having gone over, got to his feet and completed the race minus his jockey.
Davison is buried in the church yard of St. Mary the Virgin Morpeth in a family plot where her father was buried (died 1893). The cemetery is close to Longhorsley, where she had lived with her mother and family. The funeral attracted a large crowd. Her gravestone bears the WSPU slogan, "Deeds not words". A funeral was held in London on 14 June 1913 and her coffin was brought by train to Morpeth for burial on 15 June.
Some historians have argued that Davison's action may have harmed the suffragette cause rather than furthered it, as the monarchy was highly respected in Britain at the time.
Emily Davison is the subject of an opera, "Emily" (2013), by the British composer Tim Benjamin. She is also the subject of a song by American rock singer Greg Kihn, whose elegy "Emily Davison" is included on his first album, 1976's Greg Kihn.
- Emily Davison (1872 - 1913) BBC History
- Atkinson, Diane (6 June 2005). "Deeds not Words". New Statesman. Archived from the original on 27 March 2006. Retrieved 13 December 2012.
- The Times, Wednesday, 11 June 1913; p.15; Issue 40235; column F.
- Higher Magazine, Royal Holloway College, Issue 15, 2011 pp18-19
- Royal Holloway, University of London Archives student register
- AIM 25
- See 1901 Census for Spratton, Northamptonshire
- Women in Parliament
- "Astonishing 1911 census find – Emily Davison in Parliament’s crypt". findmypast.co.uk blog. 30 April 2010.
- "Benn's secret tribute to suffragette martyr". BBC News. 17 March 1999. Retrieved 2008-08-07.
- "Deeds not words", ibid.
- History Learning Site, Emily Wilding Davison. Accessed 2010.06.04.
- Production website, . Accessed 2013.01.29.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Emily Davison|
- A transcript of the Morning Post, 5 June 1913, describing the incident that led to Emily Davison's death.
- History Learning Site Bio
- Writer Barbara Gorna on Women's Parliamentary Radio claiming Davison's death to be a tragic accident not suicide
- Picture of the plaque placed by Tony Benn in the House of Commons
- The original Pathé footage of Emily Davison running out of the crowds at the Derby
- YouTube film about Emily Davison showing the collision at approximately 4:02.
- "Emily Wilding Davison". Suffragette. Find a Grave. 11 April 2005. Retrieved 18 August 2011.
- 'Emily Wilding Davidson' a poem by Ethel Rolt-Wheeler published in the Daily Herald on the 14 June 1913