Here are some of the resources which were used to research today's assembly on Emily Davison.
- BBC History article on Emily and her motivation.
- BBC News article considering whether the suffragettes should be labelled as terrorists.
- Article on the plaque unveiled at Tattenham Corner
- Sequence of pictures taken at Derby Day, 1913
- Footage of Emily Davison at the Derby
- Homepage of Claire Balding's "Secrets of a Suffragette" programme (currently not on 4oD)
- Local history account of Emily's death, including a report from The Times on her inquest.
Emily Davison Assembly 3 July 2013
As many of you know I cycle to and from school every day and a few weeks ago I decided to take the scenic route home as the family were away swimming. Having pedalled hard climbing up Reigate Road, I then headed off to Tattenham Corner and reached the edge of Epsom Downs.
The reason for all my pedalling wasn’t just to enjoy the view, although it is spectacular and I highly recommend a visit, but because I wanted to take a look at a small section of the racecourse fence, where I had heard that a plaque had recently been unveiled. It took a bit of finding, as the plaque was quite small, but I eventually located it, along with several bunches of flowers from the Sutton and Cheam Labour Party. This was a plaque in memory of Emily Davison, who had committed a spectacular act on that spot exactly 100 years before my visit.
Emily Davison was born in London in 1872. She was clearly very bright and won a bursary in 1892 to study Literature and Modern Foreign Languages at Royal Holloway College, not far from here in Egham in Surrey. The college had recently been founded by wealthy philanthropists Thomas and Jane Holloway with the specific purpose of providing more opportunities for education for women.
Unfortunately a year later Emily’s father died, and she was unable to afford the tuition fees so had to drop out. However, she continued to study privately whilst working as a governess, and eventually got first class honours in her final exams at Oxford University in 1895. However, as she was a woman, she wasn’t allowed to be granted a degree – this would only finally come when she took further qualifications in 1908.
I think it is worth spending a little time on her early education as it shows the absolute determination Emily had from the early stages of her life, and also reveals some of the obstacles she faced as a woman. Whilst she was studying she would undoubtedly have come into contact with activists demanding greater rights for women. There had been campaigns for the vote for women for over 30 years but these had made very little impact until 1903, when the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Silvia.
Members of the WSPU, or “Suffragettes” advocated more direct action to achieve the vote. They began by chaining themselves to railings and causing a public nuisance. Christabel Pankhurst for example was arrested in 1905 for disrupting a Liberal politician’s speech and spitting at a policeman. They also held rallies and protests – 700,000 people attended one event in 1908 – and they even tried to storm the House of Commons.
Emily was clearly attracted to and motivated by this movement and joined it in 1906. She was quickly involved in the WSPUs actions as it grew increasingly militant, using methods such as fire-bombing and vandalism to get its point across. Emily was involved in a second attempt to storm the House of Commons in 1911, a day known as “Black Friday” when 117 suffragettes were arrested and allegations were made of excessive police brutality towards the women. Emily herself was arrested for breaking two windows. The media and political establishment portrayed the suffragettes as anti-social, mad-women, even terrorists, and the chances of achieving the vote still seemed remote.
This was not Emily’s only visit to Parliament that year. On Sunday 2 April she broke in and spent the night hiding in a broom cupboard in the crypt of the building. Why? Because that was the night of the national census and it meant that she could legitimately give her address – ie the place she had spent the night – as the House of Commons. Very clever, and very embarrassing for the political establishment.
Emily went to prison 9 times for her actions, which included breaking windows and setting fire to letter boxes. Prison clearly hardened her opinions still further. The suffragettes demanded the status of political prisoners, and when this was not granted, went on hunger strike. The government response was force-feeding. I would like you to try and imagine what this must have felt like.
The prisoners would have known their time was coming as they heard the footsteps in the corridor and the sounds of fellow suffragettes struggling in adjacent cells. They would have then been forced down by the prison guards onto a table, and their mouths held open with a sort of forceps / scissors device. A tube would then be pushed down their throat and into the stomach. Sometimes the tube was incorrectly inserted, damaging the lungs. Sometimes, if the woman refused to open her mouth, it was pushed down a nostril. Then a mixture of eggs and milk were poured down the tube, causing nausea and terrible choking. Emily was force fed 49 times…
It is perhaps not surprising that the psychological impact of this was so great that Emily tried to commit suicide whilst she was in prison. She threw herself over a balcony, cracking her skull and bruising her ribs. She was still force fed again that night.
So in the Summer of 1913, Emily had no money, couldn’t get a job because of her prison record, and was growing dispirited that the Suffragette campaigns were not achieving their aims and women would never get the vote. Perhaps she thought even more desperate measures were needed to convince the establishment and the wider public of the suffragette cause. Perhaps this is why she chose to attend the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913.
The day before she had attended a WSPU summer festival and told her friend (whilst standing next to a statue of Joan of Arc, the famous French martyr) to expect something spectacular the next day. On Derby Day she bought a ticket to Tattenham Corner station, walked the short distance to the course and waited for the race, along with 100s of thousands of others.
As the horses thundered around, Emily ducked under the railing, in full view of the cameras recording the race. She allowed a few horses to go round and then stood right in front of the King’s horse, Amner, rode by the jockey Herbert Jones. There was clearly no time to stop – the horse began to rear but knocked Emily clean over, throwing the jockey off as well. Crowds of people poured on to the track. The jockey suffered minor injuries and made a full recovery. Emily, however, was unconscious. She was taken to Epsom hospital, but died of her injuries four days later.
The suffragette leaders quickly realised the propaganda value of Emily’s death, and she was given an enormous funeral procession with thousands lining the streets of Bloomsbury in London to see her coffin go by. Emmeline Pankhurst suggested that "Emily 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".
But was Emily really a martyr? Did she intend to kill herself that day? Her possessions that day included two flags pinned into her jacket, a ticket to a summer festival later that day, and a return railway ticket. This suggests that her motives might have been rather different – that she wanted to cause a scene to stop the race, perhaps even plant a flag on the king’s horse, but underestimated the speed of the animals. I am not sure about this. Everything I have read about Emily suggests that she was a highly intelligent and rational woman, and I find it hard to believe that she would have failed to account for the speed and power of a charging race horse like this. I think she understood the nature of the risk she was taking, and was prepared to accept the consequences because her ultimate goal was so important.
Our news headlines today bring forward other individuals who have risked everything for their cause. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison for campaigning against apartheid. Protestors in Egypt are putting themselves in increasing danger in their campaigns against the government. Edward Snowden faces extradition and arrest for revealing the extent of the National Security Agency’s surveillance campaign, which he believed was important to bring the public’s attention. It will be interesting to see how historians will evaluate his reputation in the years to come.
Emily would have had sympathy with them. It is not clear whether her actions on their own contributed to women achieving the vote – certainly women’s support for the war effort during the First World War had much to do with this. However, in 1918 a limited number of women were granted the vote, and 10 years later they final achieved electoral equality with men – with all women over 21 achieving the vote. Emily Davison’s ambitions had been realised, although there were still many campaigns for women’s rights to be fought.
I would like to end with some of her own words, followed by a moment to reflect on their implication for ourselves, should we ever find ourselves having to take a risk for something we believe is worth fighting for, even if there is a clear cost to ourselves. This is what she had to say:
“The glorious and inscrutable spirit of liberty has but one further penalty in its power – the surrender of life itself. To lay down life for friends, that is glorious, selfless, inspiring, but to re-enact the tragedy of Calvary for generations yet unborn, that is the last and consummate sacrifice of the militant. Nor will she shrink from this Nirvana. She will be faithful to the last.”If you have been inspired by Emily and the Suffragettes, I suggest that you get involved in the Feminist Society, who meet regularly on Wednesday lunchtimes. You can also find links to articles I used to research this assembly on the Nonsuch History and Politics blog – nonsuchhp.blogspot.com. Thank you.