The Life of Emily Wilding Davison
Much has been written about Emily, particularly the event at the Epsom Derby 4th June, 1913. The following provides a summary timeline and some clues as to what she was like as a person, not just the one-dimensional figure she is often portrayed as. It’s aim is to give a sense of Emily’s family background, events in her her early years and education that may have had an influence on her later activism, which can clearly be seen to increase in the years leading up to the event at the Derby
Early Years and Education
1872 Born on 11th October in Roxburgh House, Blackheath, London, to Charles Edward Davison, retired merchant who had spent time in India, and Margaret née Caisley, both from Northumberland. Emily was the third of four children born to the couple. The marriage to Margaret was Charles’s second; his first marriage produced nine children (half-sisters and brothers to Emily) before the death of his wife in 1866.
1873 The family moved to Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire, where Emily was educated at home until 11 years of age.
1880 Death of Emily’s younger sister from Diphtheria aged six
1883 Started school at Lausanne School, Russell Square, London
1884 Left Lausanne School, and spent a year studying in Dunkirk, France
1885-1891 From 13 to 19 years Emily attended Kensington High School (now Kensington Prep School), where her passion for Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale led her to adopt the name Emelye as her own.
1891-1893 Won a scholarship to attend the Royal Holloway College.
1893 Father died when Emily was 21, leaving insufficient funds to complete the course; (£20 a term). Emily left and worked as a governess. Emily’s mother moved to Northumberland and opened a baker’s shop in Longhorsley, which Emily regarded as home, though she never lived there.
1895 Emily enrolled at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford for one term (April-June), to sit her finals. She achieved first-class honours pass in English, but could not graduate because degrees from Oxford were closed to women until 1920. She then taught briefly at a church School in Edgbaston, Birmingham
1896 Moved to Sudbury, a private school in Worthing, where she worked for three years.
1899-1907 Became a private tutor and governess to a family in Spratton, Northamptonshire
1901-1907 Started teaching night classes in Pittman shorthand at Tottenham Polytechnic.
1902 Began reading for a degree at the University of London
Activist Years: 1906-1913
1906 On 30th November, Emily joined the Worker’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
1907 Left employment as live-in Governess in Spratton. Took part in her first WSPU march
1908 Emily was awarded a first class honours pass in English Language and Literature from the Royal Holloway, but once again was unable to be awarded a degree. Emily quit teaching to work for the WSPU full-time. On 21st June she served as a chief Steward at WSPU Women’s Sunday Rally in Hyde Park.
1909 On 30th March, Emily was imprisoned for one month for being part of a deputation of 21 women who marched from Caxton Hall to see Prime Minister Asquith. There was a fracas and she was arrested for assaulting the police. After her release, she wrote to Votes for Women, the WSPU newspaper, saying that “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”. On 30th May she was imprisoned for two months for obstruction. Then on 30th July, she was imprisoned for two months for obstruction at Lime house, London. Released after 5 1/2 days hunger strike, during which time she lost 21 pounds (9.5 kilos). She had been arrested with fellow suffragettes Mary Leigh and Alice Paul for interrupting a public meeting from which women were barred, which was held by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George. On 4th September, Emily was imprisoned for two months for throwing stones and breaking windows at a political meeting at White City, Manchester, which only admitted men. She was sent to Strangeways Prison but was released after 2 1/2 days of hunger strike. She subsequently wrote to the Manchester Guardian that her actions, ”were meant as a warning to the general public of the personal risk they run in future if they go to cabinet minister’s meetings anywhere”. She went on to justify this because of the “unconstitutional action of cabinet ministers in addressing ‘public meetings’ from which a large section of the public is excluded”.
On 20th October, she was sentenced to Stangeways again for one month’s hard labour for throwing a stone at a ministerial car at a political meeting at Radcliffe, Greater Manchester. She mistakenly believed that the cabinet minister, Sir Walter Runciman was Lloyd George. She was released after eight days, during which time she went on hunger strike. She was then force-fed for the first time. Emily said that the experience, “will haunt me with its horror all my life, and is almost indescribable…the torture was barbaric”. To prevent a repeat of the experience, she barricaded herself in her cell using her bed and a stool and refused to allow the prison authorities to enter. They broke one of the windowpanes of the cell and turned a fire hose on her for 15 minutes, while attempting to force the door open. By the time they succeeded the cell was six inches deep in water. She was taken to the prison hospital and warmed with hot water bottles. She was then again force-fed shortly after and released eight days later. She went on to successfully sue the prison.
1910 In January, Emily was awarded 40 shillings compensation for the hose incident. In April, Emily became an employee of the WSPU and began to write for Votes for Women. Emily decided to try to gain entry to the floor of the House of Commons to ask Asquith about giving the vote to women, She entered the Palace of Westminster with other members of the public and made her way into the heating system, where she hid overnight. However, on a trip from her hiding place to find water, she was discovered and arrested, but not prosecuted. On 29th June, Emily was arrested on the great deputation with Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst. In July, she took part in another WSPU march. 19th November was known as ‘Black Friday’. Emily was not there but was incensed at the treatment of her fellow suffragettes by the police and went on to break several windows in the Crown Office in Parliament in protest. She was arrested and sentenced to a month in prison. She went on hunger strike, was force-fed and released after eight days.
1911 On 2nd April she hid overnight in a broom cupboard in St. Mary Undercroft, the chapel of the Palace of Westminster. She stayed overnight to avoid being listed in the census. She was found by a cleaner, who reported her. Emily was arrested but not charged. The Clerk of Works at the House of Commons completed a census form to include Emily in the returns. However, she was included twice, as her landlady also included her as being present at her lodgings .In June, Emily took part in a WSPU march. She also hid in the crypt at the Houses of Parliament again. In July she took part in a WSPU march. On 14th December, Emily was sent on remand to Holloway Prison for a week for setting fire to pillar-boxes in the City of Westminster.
1912 On 10th January, Emily was sentenced at the Old Bailey and imprisoned for six month for the above offence. She subsequently went on hunger strike twice and was force-fed twice. She was released 10 days before completing the sentence due to injuries sustained during a protest made against force-feeding of other suffragettes. On 29th February, despite not going on hunger strike, Emily was force-fed for seven days because the authorities considered her health and appetite to be in decline. During this time in Holloway Prison she wrote the poem L’Envoi which was the last poem in the Holloway Jingles a collection of poems by other suffragette prisoners. In June, along with other suffragette inmates, Emily barricaded herself into her cell and went on hunger strike. The authorities broke down the cell doors and force-fed the strikers. Following this, Emily decides on what she described as a “desperate protest… made to put a stop to the hideous torture, which was now our lot”, and jumped from one of the interior balconies of the prison. She cracked two vertebrae and badly injured her head. Shortly afterwards, and despite her injuries, she was again force-fed before being released ten days early. As a result of her action, Emily suffered discomfort for the rest of her life. On 30th November, Emily was sentenced to 10 days in prison for assaulting a Baptist minister with a horsewhip, at Aberdeen Station, whom she mistook for Mr. Lloyd George. She went on hunger strike and was released four days early.
1913 On June 4th Emily attended the Epsom Derby where she ran out in front of King George V’s horse Amner and was fatally injured. Found in Emily’s effects were two suffragette flags, the return stub of her railway ticket to London, her race card, a ticket to the WSPU Summer Festival at the Empress Rooms in Kensington later that day and a diary with appointments for the following week. On 8th June, Emily died of her injuries at the Cottage Hospital in Epsom on 10th June, at the inquest, Davison’s half-brother, Captain Henry Davison, gave evidence about his sister, saying that she was, “a woman of very strong reasoning faculties, and passionately devoted to the women’s movement”. The verdict of the court was that “Miss Emily Wilding Davison died of a fracture of the base of the skull, caused by being accidentally knocked down by a horse through wilfully rushing on to the racecourse on Epsom Downs during the progress of the race for the Derby: death was due to misadventure”.
On 14th June, a train took Emily’s body from Epsom to London. Her coffin was inscribed with, “Fight on. God will give the victory.” Her funeral was organised by the WSPU. The Procession from Victoria to King’s Cross comprised of 5,000 suffragettes and their supporters. 50,000 people lined the streets. It stopped at St George’s Church, Bloomsbury for a short service, before her coffin was taken by train to Newcastle, with a suffragette guard of honour for the journey. Crowds met the train at scheduled stops along the way. The coffin remained overnight at the city’s central station before being taken to Morpeth, Northumberland. The following day, 100 suffragettes accompanied the coffin to St. Mary Virgin Church where a private burial took place at the family plot. After the funeral, Emily’s family closed ranks about Emily’s death, due to its controversial nature and over the next 100 years, myths emerged about Emily and her motives.
Years following Emily’s Death
1914 World War I starts. Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst considered that the threat posed by Germany was a danger to all humanity, and that the British government needed the support of all citizens. They persuaded the WSPU to halt all militant suffrage activities until fighting on the European mainland ended.
1918 On 6th February the Representation of the People Act passed, allowing landowning women over the age of 30 to vote. On 11th November the Armistice was signed. World War I ends On 21st November the passing of the Qualification of Women Act gave women over 21 the right to stand for election as an MP.
1919 On 23rd December the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act Passed permitting women to train for professions like the law and accountancy.
1928 On 2nd July the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise Act) 1928 grants the vote to all women on equal terms with men (over 21).
2013 8th June was the centenary of the death of Emily Davison; Commemorative events took place at Westminster, Epsom and Ewell, Epsom Racecourse and in Morpeth, Northumberland (Emily Inspires Facebook). A simple plaque was placed near the spot where she walked on to the course on the 4th June 1913
2018 6th Feb was the centenary of some women getting the vote and was the official start of the Emily Davison Memorial Project campaign to install a statue of Emily in Epsom town centre.
Interests: Enjoyed physical activity such as swimming and cycling, She also liked studying, theatre, music, singing and religion. She loved poetry (especially Walt Whitman), literature, and writing articles and letters. Travelled to both Ireland and France, where she had sisters. She spoke French.
Physical traits: Described as attractive, tall and slender. Emily’s chief glory was her thick, reddish hair. Her eyes were green and her smile was said to light up a room.
Personality: Emily had a zest for life and a cheerful nature; she was very religious and determined and had a strong moral sense of justice. She was proud of her academic achievements, often wearing her cap and gown on marches.
Letter-writing Emily was continually writing letters to the press to put forward the WSPU position in a non-violent way. Between 1909-1911 she had 12 letters published in the Manchester Guardian and between 1910-1912 26 letters were published in the Sunday Times. It is know that between 1911-1913 she wrote nearly 200 letters to over 50 newspapers. Many were published.
Direct Action Window breaking, stone-throwing, setting post-boxes on fire, and hiding in the Houses of Parliament.
Personal Consequences of her actions
Arrested 9 times
Force-fed 49 times
Multiple Force-feeding led to some facial paralysis and damaged teeth which led to her needing dentures.
Following her death, she was vilified by the press and others for many years.
John Sleight, One-way Ticket to Epsom (ISBN: 9780951263020)
Ann Morley and Liz Stanley, The Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison (ISBN 0704341336, 9780704341333)– which incorporates the primary source authored by Gertrude Colmore in 1913 (The Women’s Press, London 1988);
Maureen Howes, Emily Wilding Davison, a Suffragette’s Family Album (ISBN 0752493736, 9780752493732)
Carolyn P.Collette, In the Thick of the Fight: The Writing of Emily Wilding Davison, Militant Suffragette (ISBN: 9780472119035)
Contributors and collators: Irene Cockcroft, Philippa Bilton, Sarah Dewing