Emily Wilding Davison was a militant women's suffrage activist who, on 4 June 1913, after a series of actions that were either self destructive or violent, stepped in front of the horse of King George V at the Epsom Derby, sustaining injuries that resulted in her death four days later.
Emily Davison was the daughter of Charles Davison [1822-1893], a retired merchant from Morpeth Northumberland, and his second wife, Margaret Caisley Davison [1848-1918] from Longhorsley Northumberland. She was born at Roxburgh House, Vanguard Park Road, Greenwich on 11 October 1872 and had two sisters and a brother as well as many half-siblings from her father's first marriage. One of these was retired naval captain, Henry Jocelyn Davison, who gave evidence at her inquest.
After attending Kensington High School [1885-91] she won a place at Royal Holloway College to study literature but she was forced to leave two years later when her recently widowed mother could no longer afford the £20 a term fee. Davison now found work as a governess before spending a term [April-June 1895] at St Hugh's Hall, where she achieved first class honours in English in the Oxford University examination for women. However, as Oxford degrees were closed to women, this did not enable her to graduate. In 1895 she began teaching at the Church of England College for Girls in Edgbaston and the following year she found employment at Seabury School in Worthing [1896-8]. Eventually she raised enough money to return to university education, graduating from the University of London with a first class honours degree in English Language and Literature. She then obtained a private teaching post with a family in Berkshire.
In 1906 Davison joined Emmeline Pankhurst's Women's Social and Political Union [WSPU] the early aims of which were to recruit working class women into the cause for female emancipation. She quickly became involved in the more militant activities of the WSPU and by June 1908 she was one of the chief stewards at a WSPU demonstration in London; by 1909 she had given up full-time teaching to devote more time to the WSPU. Davison also became involved with the Workers Educational Association.
The cover of the Suffragette magazine
In March 1909 Davison was arrested while attempting to hand a petition to the Prime Minister. Herbert Asquith. Found guilty of causing a disturbance, she was sentenced to one month's imprisonment. Four months later she was in prison again for trying to get into a hall where the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, was giving a speech. Davison went on hunger strike but was released after five days. In September 1909 she received a sentence of two months for throwing stones and once again she was released after going on hunger strike.
A Suffragette Handing Out Newspapers
A few days after leaving prison, Emily Davison, along with Mary Leigh and Constance Lytton, was caught throwing stones at a car taking David Lloyd George to a meeting in Newcastle. The stones were wrapped in Davison's favourite words, "Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God". The women were found guilty and sentenced to one month's hard labour in Strangeways Prison. They went on hunger strike, but this time the prison authorities decided to force-feed them. In an attempt to avoid force-feeding, Davison used prison furniture to barricade the door of her cell. A prison officer climbed a ladder and, after forcing the nozzle of a hosepipe through the window, filled up the cell with water. Davison was willing to die, but before the cell had been completely filled, the door was broken down .
A Suffragette being force fed, in a contemporary poster
The leader of the Labour Party, James Keir Hardie, complained in the House of Commons about the treatment of Emily Davison. The general public appeared to agree with him. There was a public outcry about her treatment, so she decided to take legal action against the men at Strangeways who had been responsible for the hosepipe incident. On 19 January 1910, Judge Parry pronounced in Davison's favour, awarding damages of forty shillings [£2].
Lloyd George was himself an early supporter of women's suffrage, but, as a minister in the government, he was often heckled by militant campaigners of the WSPU. In 1910, believing that the proposal was principally designed to favour the Tories at the ballot box, he opposed the national extension of the vote to women (who were already entitled to vote in local elections). As a result of this the WSPU began to target Lloyd George personally.
To gain more publicity for the cause, Davison hid in the House of Commons on three occasions, including the night of the 1911 census, so that on the form she could legitimately give her place of residence as the "House of Commons". The 1911 census documents state that Emily Wilding Davison was found "hiding in the crypt" in the Houses of Parliament.
The scale of her militant acts increased and in December 1911 she was arrested for setting fire to pillar boxes. According to Emmeline Pankhust's daughter, Sylvia, this action was not approved of by the WSPU and her consistent rejection of authority and unauthorized militant activities meant that she fell out of favour with the leadership of the WSPU. Davison was sentenced to six months in prison, where she attempted two hunger strikes.
A Suffragette being force fed
Emily Davison was now convinced that women would never win the vote until the suffragette movement had a martyr, so, on 22 June 1912, while in Holloway prison, she took the decision to draw attention to the campaign by jumping down an iron staircase. She landed on wire netting some 30feet below, which prevented her death but left her with severe spinal injuries.
By 1913 the Suffragettes were causing problems in and around Surrey and the Surrey Constabulary had to deal with three bomb outrages. The first and most famous happened at 6.10am on 19 February at the house being built for Lloyd George in Walton-on-the-Hill. On 24 February 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested in London for the bombing of Lloyd George's house, taken to Leatherhead Police Station, questioned and charged. [For further information see Emmeline Pankhurst]
The second bombing incident occurred on 19-20 March at Englefield Green, near Chertsey, when an unoccupied house belonging to Lady White was almost destroyed. Two ladies on bicycles were seen close by. One of them, Elsie Duval, was stopped by the local policeman, P.C Picket, and later charged and convicted for being in possession of inflammable material, cans of paraffin oil, wadding, firelighters etc.
On 30 April 1913 an explosion took place in the lavatory at Oxted Railway Station, where police found a basket containing petrol, a clock, a battery, two firelighters, a half pint tin which had contained burning cycle oil and a cardboard box which had probably been filled with gunpowder. Damage was slight and, after a long and detailed enquiry, no one was ever traced or charged. As a result of this incident, all railway stations and tunnels were patrolled to prevent further attacks.
Front Cover of the Daily Sketch, 5 June 1913
Once Emily Davison had recovered her health she began making plans to commit an act that would give the movement maximum publicity. On 4 June 1913 she attended the most important race meeting of the year, the Epsom Derby, with fellow suffragette, Mary Richardson. Their purpose in going is unclear, but, as the horses rounded Tattenham Corner, Davison suddenly slipped under the rail and ran out onto the race course, grabbing the bridle of Anmer, the horse owned by King George V who was watching from the grandstand with Queen Mary. Eyewitnesses at the time were divided as to her motivation, with some believing that she simply intended to cross the track, thinking that the horses had passed, while others reported that she attempted to bring the King's horse down while attaching a WSPU banner to its bridle. The horse hit her with such force that she was knocked unconscious and suffered a fractured skull. She was put into a car and taken to the on-course ambulance station and from there transferred to Epsom Cottage Hospital, where she died four days later without regaining consciousness.
The horse, it was reported, turned a complete somersault, dragging the jockey, Herbert Jones, a short way along the course. He suffered concussion and minor injuries and refused hospital treatment. Epsom- born Jones was an experienced and successful jockey, having won the Derby, 2,000 Guineas and the St Leger in 1900 on Diamond Jubilee, for the Prince of Wales, hence his nickname of "Diamond Jones". He also won the 1909 Derby and 2,000 Guineas on Edward V11's Minoru. He was forced to retire in 1923 at the age of 42 after collapsing with a pulmonary haemorrhage, but it was said that he was "forever haunted by that woman's face". In 1928, at the funeral of Mrs Pankhurst, Jones laid a wreath "to do honour to the memory of Mrs. Pankhurst and Miss Emily Davison". He never fully recovered from the incident and on 17 July 1951 his seventeen year old son found his father dead in a gas-filled kitchen. The coroner recorded a verdict of "suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed".
Among the articles found in Emily Davison's possession at the hospital were two WSPU flags, a racecard, a ticket for a Suffragette rally later in the day and a return rail ticket to Victoria Station. This has prompted some historians to argue that she did not intend to kill herself but merely to bring down the King's horse and stop the race. Sylvia Pankhurst stated that "Emily Davison had concerted a Derby protest without tragedy - a mere waving of the purple-white-and-green at Tattenham Corner which by its suddenness, it was hoped, would stop the race. Whether from the first her purpose was more serious or whether a final impulse altered her resolve, I know not. Her friend declares she would not thus have died without writing a farewell message to her mother".
However, Emmeline Pankhurst has suggested that "Emily Davison clung to her conviction that one great tragedy, the deliberate throwing into the breach of human life, would put an end to the intolerable torture of women. And so she threw herself at the King's horse in full view of the King and Queen and a great multitude of their Majesties' subjects". The coroner recorded a verdict of death "due to misadventure".
Extract from The Times 11 June 1913
If she had survived it would probably have meant another visit to Holloway Prison. The Director of Public Prosecutions stated, even while she was still unconscious in hospital, that "If Miss Davison recovers it will be possible to charge her with doing an act calculated to cause grievous bodily harm". It is important to note that attempting suicide was illegal at the time and remained so until 1961.
Emily Davison was the only Suffragette who deliberately risked death for her cause, but her actions did not seem to have the desired effect: the general public seemed more concerned about the well-being of the horse and jockey and for some time Davison was condemned as a mentally ill fanatic. Indeed, Queen Mary sent a telegram to the jockey wishing him well after his "sad accident caused through the abominable conduct of a brutal lunatic woman".
This did not stop the members of the WSPU and the Suffragette movement from giving Emily Davison a large and spectacular funeral procession from Epsom to a memorial service in St George's Church, Bloomsbury on 14 June. 6,000 women marched through London following her cortege, to show their support. The following day her coffin was taken by train to St Mary's Church, Morpeth for burial in the family plot. Her gravestone bears the WSPU slogan "Deeds not words"
Emily Davison Funeral procession from Morpeth Station
Surprisingly, archive newsreel footage exists of both the race and the funeral procession. These can be viewed at Screen Archive South East.
Many years later, in recognition of her sacrifice to the Suffragette movement, a new road built next to Tattenham Corner station was named "Emily Davison Drive" in her memory and in 1999 a commemorative plaque was unveiled in the House of Commons by the Labour M.P, Tony Benn. In 2002 a commemorative plaque was unveiled to Emily Davison's memory at the hospital in Alexandra Road, Epsom.
We are very grateful to Bryn Elliott, who has sent us his transcript of Police Sergeant Frank Bunn's official report on the incident. The original police pocket book is in the Metropolitan Police Museum Collection, but this transcript is in the Waltham Abbey Police Collection, which is held in the Epping Forest District Museum.