Emily Davison: the suffragette martyr
In June 1913 Emily Davison was fatally injured after stepping in front of the king's horse during the Derby. Her death was a landmark event in British political history but, asks June Purvis, was it an act of suicide?
On 4 June 1913, at the Epsom Derby, the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison was standing by the white rail near Tattenham Corner. A flag in the colours of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was tied around her body. As a group of horses fast approached, Davison ducked under the railing and tried to grab the reins of the king’s horse, Anmer. With great force, Anmer knocked her over, rolled on his back, and kicked her furiously. The jockey, Herbert Jones, fell with the horse but managed to free himself and soon recovered from his cuts and bruises. Emily Davison was not so lucky. She had sustained a fractured skull, severe concussion and internal injuries. She was taken to Epsom Cottage Hospital, where surgeons attempted to relieve pressure on her brain. She never recovered and died four days later.
Emily Davison has been perpetuated in popular memory as an unbalanced, suicidal fanatic. But was she?
The Derby incident, reported by all the main newspapers, captured by Pathé news and relayed around the world, has become a defining moment in British political history. Emily Davison has been perpetuated in popular memory as an unbalanced, suicidal fanatic. But was she? And was her death an accident, as the coroner of the day concluded?
Who was Emily Wilding Davison?
Davison was born on 11 October 1872 in Blackheath. Hers was a comfortable, middle-class upbringing. Yet, following the death of her father, her family’s finances went into decline. So, when she was 19, the high-spirited, athletic and academically able Davison was forced to leave her studies at Royal Holloway college and take employment as a governess.
Davison had soon saved enough money to pay for a term at St Hugh’s Hall, a women’s college recently founded in Oxford, and came out with a first-class degree in English language and literature. She went on to read for a London University degree, graduating with honours.
With employment opportunities for university-educated women severely limited, Davison did what was expected of her and became a schoolteacher and, once again, a governess. Her growing interest in the women’s movement was, no doubt, fuelled by her frustration at her secondary status in society – and, in November 1906, it led to her joining the WSPU, three years after its foundation by Emmeline Pankhurst to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women.
One of Emmeline’s daughters, Sylvia, described Davison at this time as “tall and slender, with unusually long arms, a small narrow head and red hair. Her illusive, whimsical green eyes and thin, half-smiling mouth, bore often the mocking expression of the Mona Lisa.” Another contemporary, the journalist Rebecca West, remembered Davison as “a wonderful talker”, with “fine wits” and a “moral passion” to end injustices against the poor.
The suffragette movement in 1913
By 1913, 10 years after its inception, the WSPU had still not secured women’s suffrage. The suffragettes had initially engaged in peaceful protest but, as the government refused to yield to their demands, they’d adopted more violent, illegal tactics, especially from 1912.
In April 1913, the government introduced the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ as a way to deal with imprisoned hunger-striking women. Under the act, prisoners who damaged their health through their own conduct could be temporarily released to recover, and then re-imprisoned to complete their sentence.
Emmeline Pankhurst, who had been sentenced to three years’ penal servitude, was one such suffragette to feel the brutality of the new policy. She was in and out of prison, her health seriously suffering from repeated hunger strikes (though she was never forcibly fed). There was a fear in the movement generally that the government was trying to kill Pankhurst. This was part of the context in which Emily Wilding Davison visited the Derby on that fateful day of 4 June 1913.
For three years, Davison juggled teaching and suffrage work before devoting all her time to the women’s movement. Financial insecurity was partly offset by the warmth and support of a web of close friendships that included suffragettes such as Mary Leigh, Rose Larmartine Yates and Eleanor Penn Gaskell.
Davison was bookish, level-headed and likeable. Yet she was also a risk-taker, whose willingness to embark on ever-more spectacular acts of protest to draw attention to the suffragettes’ cause landed her in prison eight times over the next four years.
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In 1909 – when she was arrested five times (once for stone throwing) – Davison wrote: “Through my humble work in this noblest of all causes I have come into a fullness of job and an interest in living which I never before experienced.”
Like many of her comrades, Davison went on hunger strike as a protest against the Liberal government’s refusal to grant imprisoned suffragettes political offender status – something that saw them being incarcerated alongside common criminals.
In the autumn of 1909, Davison’s refusal to eat culminated in her being forcibly fed – something that, she said, would “haunt” her “with its horror” all her life. When she barricaded her cell door to prevent further feeding, the prison authorities placed a hose pipe through a cell window, drenching her with icy water. “The thought in my mind was that the moment for the sacrifice, which we have all agreed will probably be demanded, was at hand, and, strange to say, I had no fear,” she later wrote. When the door was finally broken down, she was fed again.
This incident proved a turning point for Davison. She now believed that the sacrifice of a life might be the only way to stop the government torturing women who were fighting for a just, democratic cause.
In 1910 and 1911, Davison engaged in a series of ever-more imaginative escapades, such as hiding in the House of Commons – once in the hot-air shaft, and twice in the crypt. In December 1911, she initiated a different form of protest when, without the knowledge of the WSPU’s leadership, she was arrested for setting fire to a letter box. In the dock she explained that she had done so partly as a protest against the vindictive treatment of “my comrade, Mary Leigh [a fellow suffragette, recently sentenced to hard labour]”.
During her six-month sentence in Holloway in 1912, Davison was force-fed again. On one occasion, as she lay recovering, the thought came to her “that some desperate protest must be made to put a stop to the hideous torture which was now being our lot”. That protest involved throwing herself twice over railings in Holloway – only for wire netting to break her fall. Undeterred, she then threw herself from the netting onto an iron staircase, a drop of about 10 feet. She lost consciousness, badly injured her head and cracked two vertebrae. Despite her injuries, she was force-fed again.
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After her release, Davison told the Pall Mall Gazette that she had deliberately tried “to commit suicide” because she felt that “by nothing but the sacrifice of human life would the nation be brought to realise the horrible torture our women face. If I had succeeded I am sure that forcible feeding could not in all conscience have been resorted to again.” A few days later, she likened the suffering of the suffragettes to that of the early Christians, pointing out that the women were only able to endure their torture because they knew that “right” and “moral force” were on their side. Such an argument was not uncommon in WSPU rhetoric.
January 1913 found Davison recuperating at her mother’s home in Longhorsley near Morpeth, after another spell in prison. She was hard-up and out of work. Things weren’t looking much better for the WSPU. A full 10 years after its establishment, the organisation had still not achieved its goal of securing the vote for women – and it was, by now, largely an underground movement, due to its adoption of illegal, violent tactics, such as secret arson. Worse still, many people believed that Emmeline Pankhurst, continually in and out of prison under the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, was slowly being killed by a brutal government. By mid-June, however, it was Davison herself who was dead.
Following the shocking events of Derby day, the WSPU leadership was quick to hail Davison as a martyr for the women’s cause. Emmeline Pankhurst described her as “one of our bravest soldiers” who has “gladly laid down her life for women’s freedom”. The front cover of the 13 June 1913 issue of The Suffragette – edited by Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline’s eldest daughter and co-leader of the WSPU – contained a drawing of a female angel, wings unfurled and arms raised, standing in front of white railings. “In honour and in loving, reverent memory of Emily Wilding Davison. She died for women,” ran the caption. “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Five thousand women marched alongside Davison’s funeral procession in London on 14 June, making it the last of the great suffragette spectacles. After the coffin was carried into St George’s Church, Bloomsbury for a short memorial service, it was conveyed to King’s Cross station where it was taken by train to Morpeth for burial in St Mary’s churchyard.
Did Emily Wilding Davison mean to kill herself?
So was Emily Wilding Davison an unbalanced, suicidal fanatic? The evidence presented here suggests not. As her modern biographers Ann Morley and Liz Stanley argue, she was a sensible woman with a coherent philosophy who deliberately undertook her final militant act, knowing it might have fatal results. Davison probably did not intend to die. After all, she had bought a return ticket to Epsom, indicating that she intended to travel back home. But is that the whole story?
Davison probably did not intend to die. After all, she had bought a return ticket to Epsom, indicating that she intended to travel back home
Most present-day assessments, with their secular bias, give little attention to Emily’s religious convictions. Yet Gertrude Coleman, her first biographer, notes that she was “[i]nnately religious,” and “fully convinced that she was called by God, not only to work but also to fight for the cause she had espoused”. Davison was a devout Anglican, a regular churchgoer, and always kept a Bible by her bed. Her own particular motto was ‘Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God’. In the Price of Liberty, published posthumously, she wrote that the “true militant” would willingly sacrifice friendship, good report, love and even life itself to “win the Pearl of Freedom for her sex”. Referring to Christ’s suffering on the cross, she continued: “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 consummate sacrifice of the Militant!”
It is important to remember that the suffragette movement had not only a political secular motive but also a much broader spiritual agenda. Emily Wilding Davison’s death was not a ‘suicide’ in the ordinary meaning of the term, since she risked her life to save her comrades from any further suffering. Suicide would have meant that she, a deeply committed Anglican, could not be buried in consecrated ground.
Although we will never know what went through her mind that fateful day, the suffragettes fully understood her action: a desperate measure undertaken by a clever, level-headed woman for the cause of democracy.
June Purvis is professor of women’s and gender history at the University of Portsmouth
This article was first published in the June 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine