British suffragettes, 1913-2013

Emily Wilding Davison

By Louise Raw in Britain:

Deeds, not words

Friday 10 May 2013

“Tall and slender, with red hair. Her illusive, whimsical green eyes and thin, half-smiling mouth bore often the mocking expression of the Mona Lisa.”

This is Emily Wilding Davison as described by Sylvia Pankhurst, the “socialist one” in the Pankhurst line-up.

She and Davison, who died under the king’s horse a century ago next month, were sisters-in-arms during the fight for votes for women. They shared a common understanding of the need to tackle class as well as gender-based oppression.

Both women worked for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903 at the Pankhursts’ Manchester home. Sylvia’s mother and sister, Emmeline and Christabel, would become its de facto leaders.

Even as it adopted more militant tactics the WSPU became increasingly middle class. Its leadership would eventually support the first world war. The paper Suffragette was renamed Britannia, and suffragettes even handed out white feathers symbolising cowardice to men not in service.

By this point Sylvia, a lifelong pacifist, had left and set up the delightfully initialed Elfs – the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which attracted considerable working-class support.

And Davison had carried out her final, shocking act of resistance.

Sylvia’s integrity and tremendous efforts for women and the working class have made her the Pankhurst it’s OK to like for leftie feminists like me – fefties? leminists? – and ensured she is not forgotten.

But in Davison’s case the manner of her death has too long eclipsed her life.

I recently visited a hidden memorial to Davison at Westminister and talked to Katherine Connelly, the young woman behind her memorial campaign.

Davison broke into the House of Commons on three separate occasions. On census night 1911 she hid in a broom cupboard in the Crypt chapel so the official record would have to record Parliament as her address.

The crypt is closed to the public but I managed to get inside recently courtesy of parliamentary researcher Kevin Morton, another Davison fan.

“Emily’s closet” is big as cupboards go, but way too small for a comfy night. On the inside of the door is a brass commemorative plaque placed by Tony Benn in 1999.

Dennis Skinner told me it was put there in appropriately illicit style: “Tony wanted to put the plaque up but he didn’t think he’d ever get permission. So I said just do it regardless – and he did.”

Davison was arrested and imprisoned numerous times and adopted the WSPU tactic of hunger strike. She was first force-fed at Strangeways.

The scale and brutality of state violence against suffragettes, both in and outside prison, should not be forgotten. The women were targeted and treated as criminals and terrorists.

Force-feeding was torture and intended to be so. Entries in Davison’s prison diary record the horrific details.

“They forcibly undressed me and left me sitting in a prison chemise. Then I was dressed in prison clothes and taken into one of the worst cells, very dark.

“In the evening the matron, two doctors and five or six wardresses entered the cell. A doctor said: ‘I am going to feed you by force.’

“The scene which followed will haunt me with horror all my life. While they held me flat the elder doctor tried all round my mouth with a steel gag to find an opening. On the right side of my mouth two teeth are missing. This gap he found, pushed in the horrid instrument and prised open my mouth to its widest extent.

“Then a wardress poured liquid down my throat out of a tin enamelled cup. What it was I cannot say but there was some medicament which was foul to the last degree. As I would not swallow the stuff and jerked it out with my tongue, the doctor pinched my nose and somehow gripped my tongue with the gag.

“In my mind was the thought that some desperate protest must be made to put a stop to the hideous torture which was now our lot.

“When a good moment came I walked upstairs and threw myself from the top, onto the iron staircase. If I had been successful I should have been killed, as it was a clear drop of 30 to 40 feet. But I caught on the edge of the netting. I 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 an acute sense of agony…”

Davison was force-fed a total of 49 times.

In 1913, the Asquith government rushed the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act through Parliament.

It became known as the cat-and-mouse act because of its drawn-out cruelty. Under the Act suffragettes who went on hunger strike were released from prison when they became weak or ill. As soon as they recuperated they were reimprisoned.

I’ve always felt this Act gave us an early warning: Never trust a Liberal.

And this was passed in the year of Davison’s death.

In June 1913 she attended the most important horse race of the year, the Epsom Derby.

The royals were there. They traditionally entered a horse.

The racecourse bent sharply at Tattenham Corner, where the horses slowed before entering the home straight and finishing in front of the royal box.

The king’s horse in 1913 was called Anmer and was ridden by Herbert Jones. As the horses rounded Tattenham Corner Anmer was third from last. Davison ducked beneath the barrier.

Reports conflict on what happened next. Did she try to grab the bridle? Throw herself in front of the horse? Or was she simply trying to cross the track?

The Pankhursts, as so often, disagreed – Emmeline saw Davison’s act as a deliberate self-sacrifice, while Sylvia believed she had not intended anything so dramatic.

Mary Richardson, who was with her, remembered that “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. It was all over so quickly.”

Davison was knocked into the air by the force of the collision. Her skull was fractured and she sustained massive internal injuries.

She was taken to a nearby cottage where she survived for four days, but she never recovered consciousness. She died on June 8 1913.

The suffragette flag she took onto the racecourse was carried by her friend and fellow suffragette Mary Leigh – once arrested with her for throwing stones at David Lloyd George’s car – on the Aldermaston anti-nuclear marches of the 1950s.

The tattered WSPU scarf she wore at Epsom can be seen in a display case in the House of Commons.

Crowds lined the streets for Davison’s funeral procession. Sylvia Pankhurst recorded: “The call to women to come garbed in black carrying purple irises, in purple with crimson peonies, in white bearing laurel wreaths, received a response from thousands who gathered from all parts of the country.

“Graduates and clergy marched in their robes, suffrage societies, trade unionists from the East End. The streets were densely lined by silent, respectful crowds. The great public responded to a life deliberately given for an impersonal end.”

Contingents of mourners came from the Dockers Union, Gas Workers Union and General Labourers Union, among others.

The trade union turnout was no coincidence. As well as working full time for the WSPU Davison had been heavily involved in the Workers Educational Association.

She had visited striking women workers in Bermondsey in 1911 and writer Rebecca West saw her on the streets of London in 1912, collecting money for the wives and children of striking dockers.

Davison would doubtless have been proud of Kate Connelly – the founder of her memorial campaign.

Connelly’s teachers’ feelings may have been more ambiguous – she organised her first protest at primary school, for girls’ right to wear trousers.

As a sixth-former in 2003 she was a leading organiser of student walkouts against the Iraq war – and was arrested during one.

Connelly has always been inspired by Davison’s indefatigable spirit and decided that the centenary of her death could not go unmarked.

She began work in 2012 on a campaign for a minute’s silence on Derby Day 2013. Speakers at the launch included Sylvia Pankhurst’s granddaughter Dr Helen Pankhurst.

But when campaigners met with Derby Day organisers their proposal received a “wholly negative, dismissive response.”

Connelly isn’t easily thwarted. She had soon secured an intervention from BBC sports presenter Clare Balding, who “persuaded the organisers to commission us to produce a short photo montage of Emily Davison and the struggle for the vote, which will be shown on all the big screens at the Derby on June 1.”

There will also be a rally next week at the church where her funeral was held. Join us if you can to pay your respects to Davison and the women like her who fought not just for their sex, but in the cause of justice and equality for all.

Rally for Emily Davison

Thursday May 16, 6.30pm

St George’s Church, 6-7 Little Russell Street, London WC1

Speakers include:

Katherine Tupper, Davison’s great great niece

Katherine Connelly, author of forthcoming biography Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, socialist and scourge of empire

Louise Raw, director of the forthcoming Matchwomen’s Festival


Louise Raw is the author of Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen (Continuum Press) and director of the forthcoming Matchwomen’s Festival on Saturday July 6. Go to for more details.

10 thoughts on “British suffragettes, 1913-2013

  1. King’s jockey was behind women’s struggle for vote

    Monday 13 May 2013

    Thank you Louise Raw for your timely tribute to Emily Wilding Davison (M Star May 11-12).

    Timely not just in celebrating the centenary of Emily’s heroic protest and tragic death, but also because of the fact that the behaviour and policies of the main political parties today have reduced election voting figures to an all-time low.

    All too often the Establishment has portrayed Emily as an unbalanced extremist. Louise’s article nailed that lie and was truly comprehensive with many little-known facts about this brave suffragette and socialist woman.

    However I hope Louise won’t mind me adding one small footnote to this inspiring chapter of Britain’s working-class history.

    There was one man who had, perhaps, more reason to criticise Emily’s Derby day protest than any other. That man was Herbert Jones, the jockey who was riding the king’s horse. He suffered a mild concussion in the incident.

    In fact Herbert Jones held no hard feelings and in 1928, at the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst, jockey Jones laid his own wreath.

    The supportive inscription read: “To do honour to the memory of Mrs Pankhurst and Miss Emily Davison.”

    Peter Frost



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