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Emily Wilding Davison

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Emily Wilding Davison

Emily Davidson
Born Emily Wilding Davison
(1872-10-11)11 October 1872
Blackheath, London, England
Died 8 June 1913(1913-06-08) (aged 40)
Epsom, Surrey, England
Cause of death Skull fracture, internal injuries
Resting place St. Mary the Virgin, Morpeth
Monuments Plaque at Epsom Downs Racecourse
Nationality English
Education Kensington High School
Alma mater Royal Holloway, University of London
University of London
Occupation Teacher, suffragette

Emily Wilding Davison (11 October 1872 – 8 June 1913) was a militant activist who fought for women's suffrage in Britain. She was jailed on nine occasions and force-fed 49 times.[1] She is best known for stepping in front of King George V's horse Anmer at the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913, sustaining injuries that resulted in her death four days later. Emily Davison's 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]

Modern historians agree that Davison was trying to disturb the Derby in order to draw attention to her cause, rather than to commit suicide,[3][4] and 2013 analysis of newsreel has supported the idea that Davison was reaching up to attach a scarf to the bridle of the King's horse. Analysis of newsreel also indicated that her position before she stepped out onto the track would have given her a clear view of the oncoming race, further countering the belief that she ran out in a haphazard way to kill herself.[5]

Early life and education

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.[6]

She later attended Kensington High School and won a bursary to Royal Holloway College in 1891 to study literature and modern foreign languages.[7] She took up her place in January 1892 but in 1893, she was forced to drop out when her father died and her mother could not afford the fees of £30 a term.[8] 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.[7][9] She obtained first-class honours in her final exams, though women were not at that time admitted to degrees at Oxford. Davison took up a post teaching the daughters of the Moorhouse family in Spratton, Northamptonshire.[10]


In 1906, Davison 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.[7] In 1908, Davison left her teaching post to dedicate herself completely to the movement. In the same year she entered the University of London examinations as an external candidate for a degree in Modern Foreign Languages.[11]

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.[7] 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 St Mary Undercroft the chapel of 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".[12] The 1911 census documents that were uncovered state that Emily Wilding Davison was found 'hiding in the crypt' in the Houses of Parliament.[13] In 1999 a plaque to commemorate the event was set in place by Tony Benn MP.[14]

In June 1912, near the end of a six-month sentence in Holloway Prison for arson, she reacted to an episode whereby 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 remaining twelve months of her life.[7]

Injury at Epsom Derby

On 4 June 1913, Davison attended the Epsom Derby. As the race was being run, she ran out on to the track and attempted to grab the bridle of Anmer, the horse owned by King George V. The horse collided with her and she fell to the ground, whereupon she was trampled by its hooves as it too fell. Meanwhile, the jockey, Herbert Jones, was thrown but had his foot caught in the stirrup. The horse did a somersault, got up, and resumed running the race, dragging the unconscious Jones along for a distance before his foot came loose. Bystanders unsuccessfully attempted to revive both Davison and Jones before the pair were carried off by ambulances.[15]

Davison's purpose in attending the Derby is deducible. 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 of which are in the collection of the Women's Library in London, and both suggest that martyrdom was not her intention. Although it later became clear it was the only type of rail ticket that was available for purchase,[3] it is noted that Davison carefully kept the return half in her purse.[16] 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 she entered the race track in order to attach a flag to Anmer, 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.[17] The film, taken at Tattenham Corner (available on, shows Davison stepping out onto the racecourse just as the leading horses swept by. She was then seen standing in the middle of the racecourse as two more horses passed on the inside of her, and was then knocked to the ground by 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 feeling 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.[5]

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 as there is today, it would not have been possible to know if the King's horse had already gone past. In addition, considering the speeds the horses were going, it would not have been practical for her to identify any particular horse even if she had meant to. This suggests that the fact it was the King's horse that she collided with was just a coincidence. He later described the story of her 'practising' with galloping horses and 'drawing straws' as 'folklore at best, pure hokum at worst,' emphasising that 'by 1913 Davison's modus operandi was acting alone - no one knew of her plans, in Morpeth or elsewhere.'

The most recent theory is that she intended to throw a "votes for women" sash around the neck of the King's horse to gain publicity for her cause. A sash apparently found at the scene immediately after the collision was recently 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 a 2013 examination of the incident, in which forensic experts examined and correlated footage captured by three different newsreel cameras, and determined that Davison was much closer to the start of the bend than had been previously assumed, and so would have had a much clearer view of the oncoming horses than previously thought.[5] It concluded that Davison, who clearly carried in her hand something that could have been the folded Votes for Women sash as she ducked under a barrier and onto the course, did intend to attach it to the king's horse, and that there was no question of her deliberately throwing herself under the horse.[2]

However, in his 2013 book The Suffragette Derby, Tanner examined the provenance of this 'sash', which is in fact a scarf, and found it wanting: its 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, he argued, could the article in Davison's hand be safely identified as a scarf in the first place: the evidence was skewed to suit. In a letter to the 'Racing Post' Tanner went on to deplore the reiteration of 'several myths' attached to Davison that he had debunked in his book, and expressed deep reservations about the film footage analysis, stressing once more 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 9 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 contained Anmer. It was pure chance that she stumbled upon Anmer.'


She died four days later in Epsom Cottage Hospital due to a fractured skull and internal injuries caused by the incident. Jones suffered a mild concussion in the incident, but, allegedly, 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". However, Tanner refutes both this and the inference that the Epsom incident contributed to the jockey's suicide in 1951, having interviewed both of Jones's children for his book. 'Their father killed himself 38 years later following the death of his wife and a loneliness brought on by deafness.'


Davison is buried in the church yard of St. Mary the Virgin, Morpeth, in a family plot where her father was buried (he died 1893). The cemetery is about 7 miles south of Longhorsley, where she had lived with her mother and family. A memorial service, which attracted a great crowd, was held at St. George's church in London on 14 June 1913. Her coffin was brought by train to Morpeth for burial on 15 June.[18] Her gravestone bears the WSPU slogan, "Deeds not words."

On 18 April 2013 a plaque was unveiled at Epsom racecourse to mark the centenary of the death.[19] 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. [20] However, the campaign failed after the racecourse said that this would be "logistically impossible".[19]


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.[21]

Emily Davison is the subject of an opera, Emily (2013), by the British composer Tim Benjamin.[22] 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.

In June 2013, Cambridge Devised Theatre Company produced a one woman show based on Emily's life. The show, Emily Wilding Davison : the one who threw herself under the horse, had a short initial tour including some significant venues. Opening at St George's Church, Bloomsbury, the show performed on the anniversary of the Derby at Epsom where Emily was struck by the kings horse. The show toured to several other venues, including the picture gallery at Royal Holloway. The show was written and devised by Ros Connelly, Kath Burlinson and Elizabeth Crarer and performed by Elizabeth Crarer. Lighting and sound design was provided by Stuart Brindle. Further information at[23]

See also



The archives of Emily Davison are held at the 7EWD

External links

  • An exhibit on Emily Davison, London School of Economics.
  • History Learning Site Bio
  • 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 Davidson' a poem by Ethel Rolt-Wheeler published in the Daily Herald on the 14 June 1913
  • Pathe video of the accident


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