The Suffragette Derby

The Times, Saturday 1 June 2013

Exactly a century after Emily Wilding Davison was trampled by the King’s horse at the 1913 Derby, there is still a mystery about why she ran onto the course. Davison had a couple of suffragette flags wrapped round her body but no time to unfurl them, while a return train ticket among her possessions does not suggest a suicide bid. But she was an unusual woman in every respect and something of a loner, leaving behind no evidence of her intentions.

Davison was well-educated, having attended both London and Oxford universities, but her life took a different direction when she threw herself into the increasingly radical campaign for votes for women. She was imprisoned many times and force-fed on 49 occasions, enduring a procedure which supporters of the suffragettes compared to oral rape. Emmeline Pankhurst’s sister, Mary Clarke, died in 1910 of an embolism which was probably caused by force-feeding in Holloway prison; after one bout of force-feeding in Manchester, Davison was so traumatised that she barricaded herself in her cell and was drenched with freezing water by the warders. The incident prompted questions in Parliament and Davison sued, receiving token damages of £2.

Davison’s death from her injuries four days after the Derby provided the cause with a martyr and her funeral cortege brought thousands onto the streets of London. ‘We were making a march of penitence behind a victim we allowed the Government to do to death’, Rebecca West wrote angrily. She is quoted in March, Women, March: Voices of the Women’s Movement from the First Feminist to Votes for Women, an account of almost 150 years of women’s political struggle by Lucinda Hawksley (Andre Deutsch £18.99), which devotes a short chapter to Davison.

In reality, it seems more likely that Davison’s death was a tragic accident. A sports journalist, Michael Tanner, argues in The Suffragette Derby (Robson Press £20) that she positioned herself on a bend of the Epsom race course where she could hear but not see the runners approaching Tattenham Corner; Tanner believes she would have had little time to identify an individual jockey, and that her collision with the King’s horse,
Anmer, was a coincidence. That puts him at odds with Clare Balding, who argued in her recent TV documentary claims that Davison intended to attach suffragette colours to Anmer’s bridle.

Tanner’s attempts to dispel some of the myths about Davison are undermined by his own prejudices, which make their appearance when he describes Davison as looking like ‘a bit of a battleaxe’. She disappears from the text for the next 150 pages, allowing Tanner to write exhaustively about bloodstock and the class-ridden world of owners, trainers and jockeys. His grasp of feminist history is less certain, leading to some dubious assertions, such as his claim that lesbianism ‘was certainly rife among the suffragette sisterhood’.

Tanner’s belief that Davison was probably in a lesbian relationship at the time of her death is contradicted by Maureen Howes, a local historian from the family’s home town of Morpeth, who suggests that she was actually engaged to an unnamed MP. Emily Wilding Davison: A Suffragette’s Family Album (History Press £12.99) reproduces touching post-cards Davison sent home from France and Italy before she threw herself into the suffrage campaign, but it is stronger on family history than politics.

Clearly Davison remains a mythopoeic figure. In 1913 her death was overshadowed, at least for some race-goers, by the contested result of that year’s Derby. ‘The whole thing was a terrible tragedy,’ observed the jockey Steve Donoghue, who was riding Bachelor’s Wedding, ‘and the verdict was a most unpopular one’. He was talking not about Davison’s death but the controversial disqualification of the favourite, Craganour.


Comments are closed.