Emily Davison

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Emily Davison portrait.jpg

Emily Wilding Davison (11 October 1872 – 8 June 1913) was a suffragette who fought for women's suffrage in Britain in the early 20th century. She was known for extreme tactics that resulted in her arrest on nine occasions. She protested by means of hunger strikes, and was force-fed 49 times while incarcerated. The hunger strike was a common tactic among suffragettes as was force-feeding by British penal authorities in response.[1] In her most famous moment of protest, Davison stepped in front of King George V's horse Anmer at the Epsom Derby on June the 4th, 1913 and suffered injuries that proved fatal four days later. Her funeral on 14 June 1913 was organised by the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Thousands of suffragettes accompanied the coffin and tens of thousands of people lined the streets of London. After a service in Bloomsbury, her coffin was taken by train to the family grave in Morpeth, Northumberland.[2]

Early life and education[edit]

Davison was born in Blackheath, Kent, to Charles Davison (of Morpeth, Northumberland) and Margaret Davison (of Longhorsley, Northumberland). She had two sisters and a brother, as well as several step-siblings from her father's first marriage.[3]

She later attended Kensington High School (now Kensington Preparatory School) and won a bursary to Royal Holloway College in 1891 to study literature. However, she was forced to drop out in January 1892 because her father died and her mother could not afford the fees of £20 a term. Later, she was able to enroll at St. Hugh's College, Oxford. She obtained first-class honours in her final exams at St. Hugh's, but women were not allowed to graduate from Oxford at that time.[4] After her time at university, Davison found positions teaching the children of families in Berkshire and Spratton, Northamptonshire.[3]


In 1906, Davison joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Formed in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst, the WSPU brought together those who thought that militant, confrontational tactics were needed to achieve their ultimate goal of women's suffrage.[4] In 1908, Davison left her teaching post to dedicate herself completely to the movement. The same year, she entered the University of London examinations as an external candidate for a degree in Modern Foreign Languages.[5]

Entry by Emily Wilding Davison in Mabel Cappers hunger striking suffragettes scrapbook 1909

Davison soon gained a reputation as a militant and violent campaigner. On her own initiative and without the approval of the WSPU, she went from disrupting meetings to stone throwing and arson. During her nine prison terms, she went on hunger strike and was force-fed using forceful and traumatizing methods and instruments, a practice that was commonly used on suffragettes who were hunger striking.[4]

Commemorative plaque in the Palace of Westminster

On 2 April 1911, the night of the 1911 census, Davison hid in a cupboard in St Mary Undercroft, the chapel of the Palace of Westminster. She remained in the cupboard during the census so that she could legitimately list her place of residence as the "House of Commons" on the census form.[6] Census documents from the year 1911 state that Emily Wilding Davison was found "hiding in the crypt" in the Houses of Parliament.[7] In 1990, British politician Tony Benn placed a plaque in the very cupboard that she had hid in to commemorate the event.[8]

In June 1912, near the end of a six-month sentence in Holloway Prison for arson during which Davison and dozens of fellow suffragettes were being subjected to force-feeding, she threw herself down a 10-metre iron staircase. Though this incident has been cited as a possible indication of suicidal tendencies in Davison, in a written account she describes it as an attempt to divert harm from her fellow suffragettes.[9] As a result, she suffered severe head and spinal damage, causing discomfort for the remaining twelve months of her life.[10]

Injury at Epsom Derby[edit]

On June 4th 1913, Davison attended the Epsom Derby. While the race was underway and the horses passed the stretch of track where she was located, Davison ducked under the railing and moved onto the track. After several other horses passed her, she stood with hands raised in the path of the horse owned by King George V, Anmer. The King's horse hit her at great speed; she was thrown violently through the air and landed unconscious on the ground. The jockey, Herbert Jones, was thrown as Anmer tumbled, slid on his side a short distance, and then struggled back to his feet.[11] Bystanders rushed onto the track and attempted to aid Davison and Jones until ambulances arrived. Both were taken to the hospital.[12]

Jockey Herbert Jones suffered a concussion and other injuries, but recovered and was able to race Anmer at Ascot two weeks later. Davison died in Epsom Cottage Hospital four days later of internal injuries and a fractured skull.[13]

Davison's purpose in attending the derby is not clear. Her purchase of a return rail ticket and a ticket to a suffragette dance later that day, both of which are now in the collection of the Women's Library in London, suggest that martyrdom was not her intention. Later research has indicated that returns were the only type of rail ticket available for purchase on that day because of the derby.[9]

Davison falling to the ground after being struck by the King's horse

It is possible that Davison entered the race track with the aim of attaching something bearing a message or slogan to Anmer, so that when the horse crossed the finishing line, it would be flying the WSPU flag. Film, captured by Pathe News at Tattenham Corner,[14] shows Davison stepping out onto the racecourse just as the leading horses rode by. She was then seen standing in the middle of the racecourse as two more horses passed on the inside of her, and was finally knocked to the ground by one of the last few trailing horses, 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, with the intention of attaching it to the horse. Eyewitnesses at the time were divided regarding her motivation. Some felt that she 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 suggested that a few weeks beforehand Davison and other suffragettes were "practicing" 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.[15]

Suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison memorial issue of the newspaper edited by Christabel Pankhurst

Michael Tanner, horse racing historian and author of The Suffragette Derby, a history of the 1913 derby and Davison's involvement published in 2013, has argued that Davison's actions were far less meaningful than they have been interpreted to be. Because of her position on the track and the lack of race commentary during this time, he says it would have been impossible for Davison to know that the horse she collided with was the King's horse.[16]

The 2013 Channel 4 film by Clare Balding suggested Davison intended to throw a "Votes for Women" sash around the neck of the King's horse to gain publicity for her cause. A sash allegedly found at the scene immediately after the collision was purchased at auction by author Barbara Gorna, the closest losing bidder being the Jockey Club, and now hangs in the Houses of Parliament. This theory received support from research done for the film, in which forensic experts examined and correlated footage captured by three different newsreel cameras. It was determined that Davison was much closer to the start of the bend than had been previously assumed, and might have had a much clearer view of the oncoming horses than previously thought.[15]

However, in his 2013 book The Suffragette Derby, Tanner examined the likelihood of the theory involving the scarf which Davison supposedly had with her at the Derby, and found it wanting. The scarf's original owner, Richard Pittway Burton, was not Epsom's Clerk of the Course, as claimed, but an East End docker with no racing connection whatsoever. Nor, Tanner argued, could the article in Davison's hand be safely identified as a scarf in the first place: he said the evidence had been skewed to suit this theory.[17] In a letter to the Racing Post, Tanner deplored the reiteration of "several myths" attached to Davison that he claimed to have debunked in his book, and expressed deep reservations about the film footage analysis, arguing that "from her position wedged tight against the rail, Davison would need to have been on a 20-foot ladder to have seen over the heads of the people to her right and then the leading bunch of nine horses to single out the figure of Anmer hidden behind... she was already ducking under the rail as the first horses passed and had missed two-thirds of the field altogether – which for all she knew may have included Anmer. It was pure chance that she stumbled upon Anmer." [18]


Davison died four days after the Derby in Epsom Cottage Hospital due to a fractured skull and internal injuries caused by the derby incident.

Emily Wilding Davison's funeral, June 1913


Part of Davison's funeral procession in Morpeth, Northumberland.

Davison is buried in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin, Morpeth, Northumberland, in a family plot where her father was buried in 1893. The cemetery is about seven miles south of Longhorsley, where she had lived with her mother and family. A memorial service, which attracted a great crowd, occurred at St. George's church in London on 14 June 1913. Her coffin was brought by train to Morpeth for burial on 15 June.[19] Her gravestone bears the WSPU slogan, "Deeds not words."[20]

On 18 April 2013, a plaque was unveiled at Epsom racecourse to mark the centenary of the death.[21] An Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign was also established ahead of the centenary to campaign for a minute's silence at the 2013 Epsom Derby.[22] However, the campaign failed after the racecourse said that this would be "logistically impossible".[21]


Like other acts of suffragette militancy, Davison's actions divided public opinion. Some admired her courage and dedication to an important cause, while others decried the disruption of sport, the injury to jockey Herbert Jones, and the slight to the King.[23] But the direct consequence was to galvanise male political support for suffrage, in the form of the Northern Men's Federation for Women's Suffrage. This initially took the form of a deputation to the Prime Minister Asquith; when this was rebuffed, it became a standing organisation. Its president was the former actress Maud Arncliffe-Sennett. It was mainly composed of town councillors, ministers, lawyers and similar civic figures from Glasgow and Edinburgh, and had little following beyond central Scotland, even in Davison's Northumberland.[24]

Beyond the Federation it is difficult to distinguish Davison's effect from that of the broader militant tradition in Britain, which continued until the political landscape was changed by the outbreak of World War I.

Emily Davison is the subject of an opera, Emily (2013), by the British composer Tim Benjamin.[25] 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.[26] Davison also appears as a supporting character in the 2015 film Suffragette, in which she is portrayed by Natalie Press. Her death and funeral forms the climax of the film.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jonathan Brown (24 May 2013). "Suffragette Emily Davison: The woman who would not be silenced". The Independent. London: Independent Print Limited. Retrieved 5 June 2016. 
  2. ^ Clare Balding's Secrets of a Suffragette, Channel Four, first broadcast 26 May 2013
  3. ^ a b "Emily Wilding Davis". Research Today. Retrieved 5 June 2016. 
  4. ^ a b c Naylor, Fay (2011). "Emily Wilding Davison: Martyr or Firebrand?" (PDF). Higher Magazine. Retrieved 5 June 2016. 
  5. ^ "Graduates List" (pdf). University of London. Retrieved 4 May 2016. 
  6. ^ "Women in Parliament". Explore-Parliament.net. Retrieved 3 June 2013. 
  7. ^ "Astonishing 1911 census find – Emily Davison in Parliament's crypt". findmypast.co.uk blog. 30 April 2010. 
  8. ^ "Benn's secret tribute to suffragette martyr". BBC News. 17 March 1999. Retrieved 7 August 2008. 
  9. ^ a b Frangos, Jennifer (28 October 2013). "Emily Wilding Davison - Suffragette Martyr?". Women's & Gender Studies. University of Missouri - Kansas City. Retrieved 5 June 2016. 
  10. ^ Higher Magazine, Royal Holloway College, Issue 15, 2011 pp18-19
  11. ^ "The Derby of June 1913". History Learning Site. Retrieved 4 June 2016. 
  12. ^ "Miltant throws King's Derby colt" (PDF). The New York Times. 5 June 1913. Retrieved 4 June 2013. 
  13. ^ "In Pictures: Epsom Derby death of suffragette Emily Davison". BBC News. 1 June 2013. Retrieved 4 June 2016. 
  14. ^ Pathé News. "Suffragette, Emily Davison, Killed by King's Horse, 1913 Derby". YouTube. Retrieved 4 June 2013. 
  15. ^ a b Vanessa Thorpe (26 May 2013). "Truth behind the death of suffragette Emily Davison is finally revealed.". The Observer. London: Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 3 June 2013. 
  16. ^ Bremer, Alessandra. "Interview With Michael Tanner". Retrieved 5 June 2016. 
  17. ^ Tanner, Michael (2013). The Suffragette Derby. Robson Press. ISBN 1849545189. 
  18. ^ Tanner, Michael (29 May 2013). "Letter to the Editor". Racing Post. 
  19. ^ Pankhurst, Emmeline (1914). "My Own Story". The Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 5 June 2016. 
  20. ^ "The Grave of Emily Wilding Davison". More in Morpeth, Northumberland. Retrieved 5 June 2016. 
  21. ^ a b Emma Barnett (18 April 2013). "Centenary of Emily Wilding Davison's death marked with plaque at Epsom". London: The Telegraph. Retrieved 15 June 2013. 
  22. ^ "Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign". Retrieved 15 June 2013. 
  23. ^ "Emily Wilding Davison". Historylearningsite.co.uk. Retrieved 3 June 2013. 
  24. ^ Leah Leneman. A Guid Cause. The Women's Suffrage Movement in Scotland. Mercat Press 1995
  25. ^ Emily
  26. ^ Kihn, Greg. "Emily Davison". YouTube. Retrieved 5 June 2016. 
  27. ^ "Suffragette (2015)". International Movie Database. Retrieved 5 June 2016. 

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