Epsom Downs 2: Emily Davison


I want to get Emily Davison right.

Emily is the one who stood in front of King George’s horse, Anmer, as it rounded Tattenham Corner in
the 1913 Derby.

A picture from that iconic day

In Brenton’s Epsom Downs she is represented as serene Earth Mother, coming and going like Hamlet’s
Ghost, maternally embracing the ‘working class’ before floating off to stalk the surrounding hills,
presumably for ever.

Yes, ok.

Modern feminism celebrates her as a martyr to the cause, a simplistic figurehead, conveniently
forgetting that the Suffragette hierarchy had long disowned her as irresponsible, a loose cannon who
slowed progress towards enfranchisement.

On the other hand there are those who think her no better than a suicide bomber, reckless as she was
to the health of the horse and jockey she obstructed, and undeserving of any thought, never mind

It’s probably true that correct lobbying was behind the installation by the Epsom authorities of a
plaque on the course on the centenary of her death. Many in the racing world are indifferent and a
few are still angry.

Possibly it was the right decision made for the wrong reasons.

There is a fascinating newsreel which perfectly illustrates the philosophy of 1913. Played in cinemas in
the silent era a jaunty piano accompanies all the aspects of Derby Day, the build-up, the race, the
aftermath. The collision of horse and suffragette is seen clearly, though from a distance. There is no
effort to edit or conceal. At that point the piano alters tone abruptly and plays a few tragic, death-like
chords, then, as the race continues, gradually recovers some of its merry tone. Someone died, but life
carried on. Did they know something we’ve forgotten?

Here’s the clip.

Some facts about Emily. She was arrested 9 times, went on hunger strike 7 times, and was force-fed 49
times. She aimed to be attention-seeking. She threw stones through windows and set fire to post boxes,
then stood around waiting to be arrested. Once she took a bullwhip to a poor man she mistakenly
identified as an opponent.

She was generally sentenced to 14 days and released after 2 or 3. Her presence seriously disrupted
prison life and governors were glad to get rid of her.

Emily Davison being arrested

Once, tired of the humiliation and pain of forced feeding, she barricaded herself in her cell. The
combined wit of the prison staff couldn’t work out how to get in so they smashed the glass in the tiny
window and turned a fireman’s hose on her. When the water was six inches deep Emily relented. Later,
English law decreed that the hose represented inhumane treatment, and she was compensated.

Although she was treated roughly by the authorities I wonder which other country in Europe (never
mind elsewhere) would have deemed her entitled to redress? At her death the inquest returned a
verdict of Misadventure, allowing her family to bury her in consecrated ground, something that
mattered in those days.

When war was declared all imprisoned suffragettes were released and, after the Armistice, women got
the vote.

Davison never killed anyone or threatened to, she wasn’t brainwashed, at any rate not by controlling
elders, and there is no evidence she took drugs. She hid behind no anonymous ‘group’. She was, to
say the least, independent-minded, so much so that she fell out with almost everyone. Given her
obsessions, she was consistently resourceful and courageous, and refused to change her ways when
things got tough.

The feminists can have a piece of her but the truth is she would hate them, too, if she were alive. If it
hasn’t happened already she should be reclaimed for and by the nation as one who merits her place in
the pantheon of imperfect and somewhat potty nonconformists that the English value very highly.

Potty nonconformist

Once they’re dead.

Not a philosopher, nor politician and not especially bright, she is part of the Derby’s history and part of

Emily deserves her plaque.