Grace Young

The life and death of Emily Davison

A hundred years ago on this day the militant suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison died. Her death was caused by the injuries she sustained from jumping on the track at Epsom races before being trampled by the Kings horse. If the thought of a person being knocked to the ground by a horse hurtling down a track at 35 miles an hour is not shocking enough, it was also captured on some of the earliest film photography. This short film shows the events in real time and while faces are unfathomable and the picture is grainy it still packs a punch. The events of this day have provoked much intrigue into the short life and untimely death of Emily Davison.

In 1872, Emily Davison was born in Blackheath, London to a middle class family. She attended Kensington High School before winning a bursary to study in the Royal Holloway College of London in 1892. Her father died shortly after she accepted her place leaving her mother responsible for paying the extra fees of £30 a term. This proved unmanageable and Emily was forced to drop out in 1893. However, several years later she returned to higher education, accepting a place at Oxford University where she achieved a first class honours degree. While this is hugely impressive in itself it must be noted that at this time women were unlikely to have any formal education, and were even banned from many higher education institutions. From an early age Ms Davison was pushing social boundaries, but as will soon become clear, this was only the beginning.

Emily Wilding Davison

In 1906 Davison joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a group formed three years previously by Emmeline Pankhurst. This group brought together individuals who shared the belief that militant, confrontational tactics were needed in order to achieve women’s suffrage. From this platform Davison became actively involved in the movement, quickly gaining a reputation for being militant and violent. In the years that followed she acted on her own initiative, often without WSPU approval, engaging in activities such as disrupting meetings, stone throwing, even arson. Perhaps her most well known exploit was in 1909 when she launched a violent attack on a man she mistook for then Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George.

These crimes inevitably came with severe consequences and she was imprisoned nine times between the years of 1906 and 1912. However, this did not perturb her passion and one time in prison when many suffragettes were enduring force-feeding she threw herself down a 10-metre iron staircase causing herself spinal and head injuries. Her intension, she wrote afterwards, was to stop the suffering of everyone else by carrying out this action. Whether such actions were brave or erratic it was clear that Davison was always looking for the next thing to do and no prison sentence would stop her. However, in the summer of 1913 her extreme actions this time had fatal consequences.

On the fateful day of 4th June 1913 Emily Davison attended the Epsom Derby, one of Britain’s most prestigious horse races that attracted the wealthy and the powerful together each year. Ms Davison knew all too well that a public stunt at this event would send a strong message to the nation, and she was not afraid to play a leading role. When the main race began she jumped onto the tracks and ran in front of Anmer, the horse owned by King George V. A split second later the horse collided with her and she immediately fell to the ground whereupon she was trampled by its hooves as it too fell. Hundreds swarmed onto the field to help, but her damaged body was never to recover. Ms Davison died from her injuries in hospital on 8th June 1913.

Until recently, it was widely believed that Emily Davison had planned this public stunt to draw attention to her cause, and that she chose to make the ultimate sacrifice. However, further research challenges this view and with evidence of a ticket purchased to a formal event that evening and a return train ticket home the next day her motives appear less clear-cut. Furthermore, with modern technology able to examine the horse race footage frame by frame, it has become apparent that rather than hurling herself in front of the horse, she reached up towards the horse’s bridle. Some have speculated that just before impact she tried to attach something onto the horse, a suffragette flag perhaps? Indeed, her actions were ill-judged and reckless, but suicidal? It would appear not.

The death of Emily Davison is shrouded in mystery and continues to provoke discussion and debate in the media, as well as in academic and feminist circles. However, I do not think that we should define her by the way she died, rather by the extraordinary life that she led. Yes, her actions were extreme, controversial, often self destructive, but the contribution she made to achieve women’s suffrage cannot be denied. She had great passion, devotion and tenacity, qualities that I believe are vital for creating social change. It is true that not many women are documented in the history books, and even less are remembered a century later. The life of Emily Davison therefore marks a rare case and even though her life ended abruptly, her legacy still lives on.

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