Emily Davison’s ‘Deed[s] not words’: Epsom protest 99 years ago

Emily Davison

On this Jubilee weekend, it’s perhaps appropriate to post something linked to the Royal family. I was at first intending to get together something on the role of royalty in working-class identities at the beginning of the 20th century. But then I realised that today was actually the 99th anniversary  of Emily Davison’s tragic act of protest – throwing herself beneath the King George V’s horse, Anmer, at the Epsom Derby. And this event is relevant with regard to one theme of the blog – resistance to and subversion of dominant ideologies by exploited and oppressed ‘minority’ groups.

Emily’s exploits

Emily Wilding Davison (born in Blackheath, South East London, October 11 1872) showed academic promise during her early years at Kensington High School, winning a place at Royal Holloway College to study English literature (which had to be abandoned after 2 years, due to the cost of the fees). She secured a post as a governess, and subsequently returned – again only for a short time – to higher education to spend a term at St Hugh’s Hall, Oxford, achieving a first class honours in English in the University examination for women, although it would be sometime before women were permitted to graduate from the University (see below). Emily Davison’s teaching work (thanks to a blog reader for flagging up possible inaccuracies in historical accounts regarding at least one of the schools at which she is supposed to have taught) enabled her to save sufficient funds to study – again at the University of London, where she graduated with a first class honours degree in English Language and Literature (degrees had been awarded by the University to women since 1878).[ii] She continued teaching privately.

Emily Davison: graduation (from here)

In 1906 Davison joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – a militant splinter group from the earlier National Union of Women’s Suffrage – and in 1909 left teaching to work full-time for the WSPU. Her activism included an attempt to petition the Prime Minister Asquith – for which she was arrested (on charge of causing a disturbance), receiving a prison sentence of one month. A few months later she was imprisoned after attempting to enter a hall where the chancellor David Lloyd George was speaking (in principle, he seems to have been a supporter of equality, but was wary of the benefits that the vote might give to the opposition, and therefore opposed moves for universal suffrage); she also hid herself in Parliament several times. Her militant acts included setting fire to post boxes, and throwing missiles: for throwing stones (wrapped around which was paper bearing the words “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God”) at Lloyd George’s car, she was sentenced to one month sentence of hard labour at Strangeways, Manchester. However, many suffragists believed that militancy was counter-productive, as outlined by Lady Asquith (Violet Bonham Carter) and Lady Stocks (Mary Danvers), within this BBC film of 1968.

Newspaper report of Davison’s treatment at Strangeways

On this occasion, her hunger strike was met with further attempts at force-feeding. She barricaded her prison door to avoid the fate, but a prison officer, using a ladder to reach the window of her cell, inserted a pipe through the bars, and began the task of filling her cell with water. The atrocious treatment experienced by suffrage protesters in prison was brought up in the commons by Keir Hardy, and there was public outcry over such brutality. Emily Davison sued the  prison officers responsible for her treatment at Strangeways, and received 40 shillings payment for damages.


The Suffragette magazine (1913): a victim of force-feeding, describing the pain of the treatment

A suffragette describes her experiences of force-feeding in radio a recording here. The brutality is terrifying, and amounts to torture – the physical and mental damage was long-lasting; the film Iron Jawed Angels, on Suffragism in America during the early 20th century, dramatises force-feeding at the time. Hunger strikers would receive medals and badges for their endurance

Holloway Brooch

The text in the lid of the presentation box reads:

Presented to Constance Collier by the Women’s Social and Political Union in recognition of a gallant action, whereby through endurance to the last extremity of hunger and hardship, a great principle of political justice was vindicated.

Emily Davison reacted extremely to such treatment – setting a precedent for her Epsom protest, nearly a year later: when at Holloway prison, she threw herself down stairs and off a balcony, but was saved by netting below. A report of the incident  (which includes comments reputedly made by Davison) in the Daily Herald, 4 July 1912 reads:

Desperate Leap: One Big Tragedy to Save Others

As a desperate protest against the indignities suffered by herself and others while in prison, Miss Emily Wilding Davison threw herself down the staircase. What actually happened is given below in Miss Davison’s own words:

‘We decided that most of us would barricade our cells after the had been cleaned out. At ten o’clock on Saturday a regular siege took place in Holloway. On all sides one heard crowbars, blocks and wedges being used; men battering on doors with all their might – My turn came, and my door was forced open with crowbars. I protested loudly that I would not be fed by the junior doctor, and tried to dart into the passage. Then I was seized by about five wardresses, bound into a chair, still protesting, and they accomplished their purpose.

‘In my mind was the thought that some desperate protest must be made to put a stop to the hideous torture. As soon as I could get out I climbed on to the railing and threw myself on to the wire-netting, a distance of between 20ft to 30ft. The idea in my mind was that one big tragedy might save many others; but the netting prevented any severe injury. Quite deliberately I walked upstairs, and threw myself from the top on to the iron staircase. If I had been successful I should undoubtedly have been killed – but I caught once more on the netting.

‘I realised that there was only one chance left, and that was to haul myself with the greatest force I could summon from the netting on to the staircase. I heard someone saying, ‘No surrender!’ and threw myself forward on my head with all my might. I knew nothing more except a fearful thud on my head. When I recovered consciousness it was to a sense of acute agony.

‘That first night was one of misery – I was left alone until about two o’clock, when a specialist came in with the prison doctors. He thoroughly examined me. To my amazement, the doctors came to forcibly feed me that afternoon, in spite of the torture it caused me.’

In subsequently speaking of this, she confirmed: I did it deliberately, and with all my power, because I 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.’ [iii]

Derby Day

Photo of the incident at Epsom (from here)

Emily Davison is best known for her apparent attempted ‘suicide’ at the Derby, 4 June 1913, at the age of 38. The event received much media attention; in considering the portrayal and effects of the suffrage movement upon public opinion, it’s useful to look at these reports, and other associated media. It can be seen from the photo above that most of the crowd are (at least at this point) unaware of what has happened; this is confirmed in the recording of an eye-witness account (by journalist and dramatist St John Ervine). The film of the event (which some might find difficult to watch, as Davison being trampled beneath the horse is shown) shows how she tried to grab the reigns of the King’s horse. The royal family, as symbols of power and Britishness (or more often, Englishness), but particularly as receiving attention in the press, were targets for protest; a defaced penny – stamped with VOTES FOR WOMEN over the earlier King Edward’s head – shows both this association, subversion of a heavily charged symbolic object, and use of money as a vehicle of propaganda (with the idea that the suffrage message would be spread through society as the penny was used commercially).

Defaced penny (see here for further information, and for an audio recording of the BBC’s ‘History of the World’ discussion on this object)

The truthfulness of an account on the Davison incident at Epsom, made several decades later by Canadian Suffragette, Mary Richardson (who had joined the WSPU in 1909, by which time she had settled in London, and later joined the British Union of Fascists), has been doubted. It reads as follows:

The death of Emily Wilding Davison from Laugh A Defiance

Derby Day 1913

It was not until the end of the third race that I saw Emily Davison. We had met several times and from the talks we had had I had formed the opinion that she was a very serious minded person. That was why I felt so surprised to see her. She was not the sort of woman to spend an afternoon at the races. I smiled to her; and from the distance she seemed to be smiling faintly back at me. She stood alone there, close to the white-painted rails where the course bends round at Tattenham Corner; she looked absorbed and yet far away from everybody else and seemed to have no interest in what was going on around her – I shall always remember how beautifully calm her face was-

   I was unable to keep my eyes of her as I stood holding  The Suffragette up in my clenched hand. A minute before the race started she raised a paper of her own or some kind of card before her eyes. I was watching her hand. It did not shake. Even when I heard the pounding of the horses’ hooves moving closer I saw she was still smiling. And suddenly she slipped under the rail and ran out into the middle of the racecourse. it was all over so quickly. Emily was under the hooves of one of the horses and seemed to be hurled for some distance across the grass, The horse stumbled sideways and its jockey was thrown from its back. She lay very still.

   There was an awful silence that seemed to go on for minutes, then, suddenly, angry shouts and cries arose and people swarmed out onto the racecourse. I was rooted to the earth with horror until a man snatched the paper I was holding in my hand and beat it across my face. That warned me of my own danger. I pushed a way through the crowd

and my assailant came pushing his way after me and shouted out to others to stop me. But I managed to reach the roadway and run across it just in front of the King’s carriage as he and the Queen were hurriedly leaving from the back of the grandstand. Their Majesties’ carriage and the carriages of their party which followed baulked my pursuers and gave me just the few minutes head start I badly needed. Mercifully, I was able to run faster than I had ever run before. My pursuers, who now seemed legion, were pelting across the Downs after me and shouting and howling like maniacs.

‘Quick! Hide me somewhere,’ I gasped to an astonished porter. He pointed towards the lavatory. ‘Get in there,’ he said. ‘And bolt the door behind you.’

Next minute the tiny station seemed to be seething with the angry mob. The porter was trying to quieten them. I could hear him say, ‘What’s all the fuss about?’ He seemed admirably cool about it.

‘A Suffragette! Where’s she gone?’ a man gasped. He was so breathless, so angry he could scarcely get the words out.

‘Oh her?’ the porter’s voice said. ‘You’re too late, pal. She nipped on to the train that just left. What’s been going on, anyway?’

‘A Suffragette.’ The voices were raised again. ‘Brought down the King’s horse.’

The porter kept silent. Then a train came in. Most of the people seemed to get on it. It was growing dark, hours later, when the porter tapped on the lavatory door. ‘train for Waterloo’s due, Miss,’ I heard him say. ‘Now’s your chance to hop it.’

I unbolted the door and came out, glad to find my return ticket to Waterloo was still in an inside pocket.- The train, with its light on, came in. I thanked him and boarded it. It was quite dark when I reached Bloomsbury. I felt I could not go and deliver my report. Instead I went straight to bed, exhausted and stunned –

   The vision I had of Emily as she darted under the rail at Tattenham Corner and then lay in the grass horribly stretched out recurred. Over and over again I saw it. And now, after nearly forty years later, it remains as vivid.[iv]

Richardson not only adopts a distinctly dramatic style of writing, but makes herself appear in the leading role. There are also some suspicious comments, such as the time she is supposed to have spent locked in the toilet: the race took place during the afternoon, yet she did not emerge from her sanctuary until it was nearly dark – in June, this would have been quite late in the evening. And the porter knows of her destination to Waterloo – but perhaps she had informed him of this at some point…

According to the police transcript of the report made on Emily Davison’s protest, when she was examined after the event (she did not regain consciousness before dying four days later), two ‘Suffragette flags, 1½ yards long by ¾ yards wide, each consisting of green, white and purple stripes, folded up and pinned to the back of her jacket’ were found. This leaves little doubt that she had performed a political act.

Tickets found in the possession of Davison after the Derby, held at the Women’s Library (currently under threat of closure)

However, there is debate surrounding the intentions of Davison with regard to her final act of defiance – whether or not she meant to kill herself in this way, or just to disrupt the race (hoping to sustain no injury, or at least none-fatal injuries). A return rail ticket to Victoria Station, and a ticket for a Suffragette meeting to be held later that day was found on her person (see photo above), and perhaps suggests that she did not intend suicide. But, it is otherwise possible that this reflects her preparation for the possibility that, for some reason, she might not have been able to carry out her plans at Epsom. It has been noted above that Davison had seemingly previously attempted to commit suicide as an act of protest against the brutal tactics employed within the prison, particularly regarding force-feeding. The inquest into her death due to the Epsom incident returned a verdict of ‘Misadventure’.

Report in The Times, 11 June 1913, on inquest into Davison’s death

Many public figures condemned Davison’s act. Reports labelled her as ‘mad’ (see cutting below), and a telegram from Queen Mary to the jockey, Herbert ‘Diamond’ Jones (who was apparently severely traumatised by the experience – at one point having said that he was ‘haunted by that woman’s face’ – later committing suicide), expressed regret over the ‘abominable conduct of a brutal lunatic woman’. Despite the physical and mental injuries that Davison’s act caused Jones, he does not seem to have shown resentment for her: he attended the funeral of Pankhurst in 1928, leaving a wreath with the message ‘To do honour to the memory of Mrs Pankhurst and Miss Emily Davison’.

Morning Post, 5 June 1913 (from here)

Although many dismissed her act – and attempted character assassination – Emily Davison was effectively martyred for her Epsom protest, and received the respect of many other Suffragettes. A Memorial leaflet shows Emily Davison in her graduation gown and cap.

The Suffragette Magazine, honouring Davison

Tribute was paid at her funeral – which became a propaganda media event – attracted a crowd of thousands, with leading activists providing what appear as military honours, as shown at the end of this film. But opposition was reputedly demonstrated by bricks being thrown at her coffin by some. What is particularly interesting regarding the portrayal of Davison, is she is presented as intelligent and scholarly – this is also found as the beginning of this film (in which she is described as ‘learned’), which shows more footage of the funeral. Her intelligence was seemingly used both by supporters of the cause, and its detractors. Her grave stone emphasises her activism and bravery with the words ‘Deeds not words’.

The Standard, 4 June 1913 (from here)

Those who opposed the suffragist cause seem to have been acutely – and immediately – aware of the possibility of her impending martyrdom. On the day of Davison’s action at the Derby (4 June 1913), The Standardseems to try to counter this by reporting attempted murder by suffragettes in the past. The report reads:


The occasion of the tragic death of Sir Henry Curtis Bennett, the chief magistrate at Bow Street, has brought to light a sensational story of a daring attempt on his life by suffragettes. Two women made a determined effort to push him over some steep cliffs at Margate. There were obvious reasons for not publishing the facts during the lifetime of the late chief magistrate, but the narrative was given in detail yesterday to a Standard representative by Mr Harry Wilson, one of the solicitors at Bow Street. The dastardly attack, which would seem incredible, but that it is recorded on the best authority, was made on Sir Henry when he was staying at Margate last summer, after the convictions following on the window-smashing raid in the West-end. The adventure, which might easily have ended in tragedy, was told by Sir Henry to Mr Wilson. It was before the late chief magistrate had had any occasion to be attended by police officers wherever he went. As a matter of fact, this incident compelled him to seek that protection, and ever since detectives had always been in the vicinity to his house or had followed him when walking or driving anywhere. ‘I was walking along, enjoying the breezes on the North Down Cliffs’, Sir Henry related the day after the outrage, ‘when suddenly a woman sprang up from a steep slope, and, seizing me by the leg, sent me staggering backwards. Just then another woman caught me by the shoulders and tried to push me over – a sheer drop of about 100ft. It was very good luck, however, to swing round and drop on the ground face downwards. I slipped down several yards, and when I managed to climb up to the top of the slope again the women had disappeared. It was a terrible experience, and I have had the attendance of Scotland Yard men ever since.


Emily Davison has remained a contentious figure – her extreme acts (and those of others who were similarly militant) have been condemned by non-militant suffragists (this issue is discussed in a recording made in 1968, of Lady Asquith (Violet Bonham Carter) and Lady Stocks (Mary Danvers) speaking about early 20th century suffrage protest in Britain), who believe that this did more harm than good, turning public opinion against the cause. This may be true; but we must see Davison’s position as a campaigner. She had become a desperate women, who after many years of peaceful protests was not only frustrated by lack of change, but angry at the unfair treatment in court – and by the public – experienced by peaceful protesters, and especially their despicable brutality they suffered at the hands of police and prison staff. This frustration was accompanied by a belief (as evident from her comments regarding her apparent suicide attempt a year earlier, see above) was that her sacrifice might make people take notice; at least in this she was right. There can be little doubt that, however ill-advised her protests, she exhibited bravery. She was of course unaware of the impact that WWI was to make with regard attitudes to women during the early 20th century (the involvement of women within war work was recognised by politicians during and after the war), and did not live to see the first stage of franchise in 1918, when women aged over 30 were granted the parliamentary vote.

Cartoon of Emily Davison after her death (1914), in the Daily Herald (from here)

Just in case anyone fancies a sing-song: Suffragette anthem ‘March of the Women’ available here, composed in 1911 by Dame Ethel Smyth

A more general piece is in preparation (‘Suffrage in the early 20th century in objects, pictures, and words’), and will be posted in the future.


[i] See Jane  2009 Bluestockings. The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Marlow, Joyce (ed.) 2001 Votes for Women 
[iv] Ibid.

Further information: websites and online articles on Emily Davison

‘Time to Remember, The 1913 Derby. Remembering when Emily Davison leapt under the King’s horse’ (BBC 1961) http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/suffragettes/8317.shtml http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/davison_emily.shtml http://www.epsomandewellhistoryexplorer.org.uk/Davison.html http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2267/is_2_75/ai_n28048828/ http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/emily_wilding_davison.htm http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Wdavison.htm http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Davison Emily Davison killed at the 1913 Derby http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/21cc/struggle/suffragettes1/derby1/derby.html Record of death http://blog.findmypast.co.uk/2010/04/astonishing-1911-census-find-emily-davison-in-parliaments-crypt/ Archive documents, Women’s Library http://calmarchive.londonmet.ac.uk/DServe/dserve.exe?dsqIni=Dserve.ini&dsqApp=Archive&dsqDb=Persons&dsqSearch=Code==’NA443’&dsqCmd=Show.tcl Archive documents, AIM25 (Archives in London and the M25 area) http://www.aim25.ac.uk/cgi-bin/vcdf/detail?coll_id=10363&inst_id=65&nv1=search&nv2= Transcript of the Report of PS 4NR Frank Bunn Relating the Events at Epsom on Derby Day June 4 1913 http://www.epsomandewellhistoryexplorer.org.uk/Derby1913PoliceTranscript.pdf http://www.nickelinthemachine.com/2009/03/the-epsom-derby-and-the-deaths-of-emily-wilding-davison-and-herbert-jones/


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