Emily Wilding Davison Centenary

8 June 2013 marks the centenary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, four days after the Epsom Derby race, where she stepped into the path of the King's horse and was knocked unconscious to the ground. Although Emily is best known for the manner of her death there is much more to learn about this courageous campaigner for Votes for Women in Edwardian Britain and this exhibition celebrates her suffragette life with some images from The Women's Library @ LSE collection.

The Exhibition has been co-curated by Elizabeth Chapman, Director of Library Services, London School of Economics and Political Science and Professor June Purvis, University of Portsmouth.

1. Portrait photo of Emily Wilding Davison - 1893

Emily Wilding Davison was born in 1872 into a comfortable middle-class home at Blackheath, Kent, where her family had travelled from Morpeth, Northumberland, a short time before her birth. At the age of nineteen, she attended Holloway College to study for the Oxford Honours School in English Literature but had to leave half-way through her course and find work when her father, the main family provider, died. After a period as a governess she was able to complete her studies at St Hugh's Hall, a women's college recently founded in Oxford, where she gained a First Class degree in English in 1893 (although at that time women could not actually take their degrees). She then took up employment as a schoolteacher, a not entirely happy experience, and so went back to working as a governess. Sylvia Pankhurst described her as being "tall and slender, with unusually long arms, a small narrow head and red hair", and as having "whimsical green eyes and thin, half-smiling mouth".

Emily joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1906, a women-only organisation that had been founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903 to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women. From 1908, the campaigning colours of the 'suffragettes', as members of the WSPU were called, were purple for dignity, white for purity and green for hope.


Back to top

2. Census resistance leaflet - 1911

Many suffragettes refused to be counted in the 1911 census, in protest at their inferior status as individuals rather than citizens with parliamentary voting rights. Emily took her protest one step further by hiding overnight in a cupboard in the House of Commons near the Chapel. Unfortunately she was discovered by a cleaner and added to the schedule for the Houses of Parliament, albeit with her name spelt incorrectly. She was also counted at her lodgings. During her lifetime Emily hid 3 times in the Houses of Parliament. Such imaginative and novel escapades made her well known.

The 1911 census was the first where respondents completed their own details and uniquely included a question for married couples on how many children they had, both living and dead. This census provided data for campaigners for the vote who saw enfranchisement as a means to improve the general lot of women.


Back to top

3. "Nation's need of Woman Suffrage" manuscript of Emily Wilding Davison's speech - 20 November 1911

This 26 page handwritten document is Emily's address to the London Westminster and County Bank Debating Society. She lays out her case with fervour and clarity:

"There is not a single question in the country which touches men which does not also touch women, and for that reason in order that such questions may be fully and adequately dealt with the women's point of view is needed equally with the man's."

The text is carefully planned with headings including: 'The National Standpoint' which deals with figures on infant mortality and 'The Imperial Viewpoint' which points to the forward looking nations of Australia and New Zealand with their universal suffrage. 'The Moral Standpoint' quotes the great nineteenth-century social reformer Josephine Butler, whose Papers are also held in The Women's Library @ LSE Collection, and who worked to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts, passed in the 1860s, to provide compulsory medical examinations of those believed to be prostitutes. 'The Financial Standpoint' asks for equal pay for equal work since, as Emily said, "Women are cheap today".

The manuscript ends with her summary and what could be her notes from the debate itself.


Back to top

4. Militant action - 1911

Emily's handwritten paper describes the campaign of setting fire to post boxes which she started late in 1911. She sets out the legislative impasse regarding the granting of the vote to women and describes how she decided to step up public protest from stone throwing to pillar box fires. The account is detailed and, with some humour, tells of her arrest and trial. Her actions were very public and after the first attempt she made certain that she was seen. At her trial she stated that she was acting on her own. She was sentenced to six months in prison and, despite her efforts, was not given leave to appeal. Although not on hunger strike, she was forcibly fed for 8 days in March 1912.

The page shown describes her first incendiary route down the Strand to the Fleet Street Post Office.

"I took out of my pocket a packet of the same size as an ordinary letter. It was of grease proof paper tied with cotton. Inside was coarse linen well soaked in kerosene ... I calmly applied a match ... held it for a second ... I let the packet, now well alight go down the receptacle, & threw the matches in afterwards. I then quietly walked on down Fleet Street & turned into the first Lyons I came to to get lunch."


Back to top

5. Letter to Emily in prison from her mother - February 1912

This is one of two letters in The Women's Library @ LSE Collection written to Emily by her mother Margaret in Northumberland. This one is in reply to what must have been a positive description of prison life from Emily and has encouraged her mother to think prison life has its compensations. Margaret refers to the pleasures of exercise in prison and how "it will be cheery to meet & talk with the other suffragettes". She notes Emily's fondness for baths (once a week in Holloway Prison at that time) and the need for a hot water bottle. News of family members and cold weather at home ends with "Oceans of love from Mother."


Back to top

6. Emily Wilding Davison's personal account of being forcibly fed in Holloway Prison - June 1912

In this dramatic description of her life in prison, Emily writes about barricading herself in her cell and the forced entry of her warders to force feed her. It was subsequently published by the WSPU.

"I called at the top of my voice 'I will not be fed by the doctor if it must be done it must be by the Senior Dr...'"

This was the first occasion on which she joined the suffragettes' hunger strike to protest differential treatment accorded to some prisoners who, as WSPU leaders, had higher status and privileges in prison. She bravely withstood the torture of being fed through a tube forced into her nostrils as she writes:

"The senior doctor (then operating) said: 'Miss Davison you are determined' I replied in the brief interval as the tube was out 'I am'." Nevertheless the sound of other women being similarly tortured made her determined to protest and she later twice threw herself off the prison landing railings, causing herself considerable injury.

Many of the contemporary descriptions of force feeding were smuggled out of prisons to alert supporters outside. Women and men who suffered this treatment had subsequent associated health problems throughout their lives.


Back to top

7. Letter from the WSPU to Emily Wilding Davison concerning her hunger strike medal - 20 February 1913

Suffragettes who had been imprisoned were greeted with celebrations on release and from 1908 onwards a "Holloway" brooch designed by Sylvia Pankhurst was given to those who had endured their sentence. Emily was imprisoned for the cause eight times and this letter would not have been the only one she received recalling her medal so that another bar could be added to record the most recent hunger strike.

Emily was buried with her medals.


Back to top

8. Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-health) Act

Passed by parliament in late April 1913 the 'Cat and Mouse Act' was notorious in its effects. The government (the Cat) was able to temporarily discharge prisoners who were weakened by force feeding into the community, and once the prisoner (the Mouse) had sufficiently recovered, they could be re-arrested to serve out the rest of their sentence. In this way any potential deaths in prison could be avoided and those released kept under surveillance.


Back to top

9. Home of a Pillar Box Firer by Emily Wilding Davison

A short scene which forms part of a small collection of Emily's more creative writing. Another piece deals with an unexpected and happy marriage while the one displayed here, portrays a postman trying to deliver a damaged package to a suffragette. The latter is offered compensation for the damage caused by as the postman says "them Suffering Cats", meaning the suffragettes. 'Cat' was often used as a term of abuse for the suffragettes. The fictional damage to the package is the very kind of thing Emily would have caused herself in her own militant actions (see item 4).


Back to top

10. Emily Wilding Davison re-writes the words of Shakespeare - 1913

Emily may well have been familiar with Shakespeare from her degree studies.

Using speeches from Act III Scene I and Act I Scene III of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice she plays with and rearranges the words spoken by Shylock as he attacks the anti-Semitism of those who would borrow money from him but not pay back what he asks. As Shylock presses home the adverse treatment of Jews so the substitution of the word Woman for Jew, and Man for Christian, underlines the case for equality of treatment for women campaigning for the Vote.

"Sufferance is the badge of all our tribe" leads into Emily's introduction of the insults used against suffragettes such as "law breaker". Perhaps the mention of demands for money is a reference to the Tax Resistance League, an organisation which she supported and where she tried unsuccessfully to get work.


Back to top

11. Emily Wilding Davison's race card from the Epsom Derby - 4 June 1913

Emily's race card from the Derby shows she has marked up some of the runners for the first race at 1:30pm, perhaps to note which horses she wanted to see including those wearing the King's colours so that she would be able easily to recognise them later. Perhaps she placed a bet or perhaps she just recorded the results. It may be that annotating the card made her look more like one of the crowd and less suspicious. The King's horse Anmer is at the top of the list on the card for the Derby race itself at 3pm.

Contemporary film footage shows Emily choosing the right moment to get under the white railings and stand in the path of the horses until Anmer is within reach. What she actually intended we do not know but the consensus seems to be that she wanted to make a dramatic gesture, perhaps by pinning the suffragette colours on the horse. She was knocked to the ground unconscious and was taken to Epsom Cottage Hospital where she died 4 days later.


Back to top

12. Return ticket Epsom to London Victoria

The return portion of Emily's ticket from Epsom Racecourse to London was found in her purse, indicating perhaps that she intended to travel back home and had not planned to commit suicide. Certainly the Coroner of the day recorded a verdict of accidental death. Thus her death certificate:

"Fracture at the base of the skull caused by being accidentally knocked down by a horse through wilfully rushing on to the race course at Epsom Downs Surrey on the 4th June 1913 during the progress of a race."

It would anyway have been unusual to buy a single one way ticket to the racecourse station, and Emily may have been aware that as an ex-prisoner and known protestor she could be under police surveillance. Although some knew she was going to the Derby on that day it would appear that none of her friends knew her intentions.


Back to top

13. Purse belonging to Emily Wilding Davison

The small purse retrieved as part of Emily's personal possessions listed by the Metropolitan Police, Epsom on 10 June 1913 contained at the time:

  • A few coins totalling 3 shillings and 8 pence three farthings

  • The half return ticket to Victoria (item 12)

  • 2 post office counterfoils

  • A railway insurance ticket for New Oxford Street station

  • 8 halfpenny stamps


Back to top

14. WSPU flags in the suffragette colours found with Emily Wilding Davison's body

On the morning before the Derby Emily is recorded as having visited the WSPU offices and asked for 2 flags without giving any particular reason. There is some evidence that Emily was seen as a lone protestor and as somewhat beyond the control of the official organisers of the WSPU campaigns.

It is possible she planned to put one of the flags on the King's horse and one was certainly pinned inside her coat and is visible in photographs at the scene.

Her close friend Mary Leigh, another militant suffragette, visited Emily in hospital along with Rose Lamartine Yates who donated so many of Emily's possessions to The Women's Library Collection and whose lawyer husband, Thomas, represented Emily's family at the inquest into her death. Contemporary descriptions record that her friends hung the WSPU colours around Emily's hospital bed. Mary Leigh visited Emily's grave in Morpeth every year after her death and took with her one of the flags. Mary later carried it at the first Aldermaston "Ban the bomb" march in 1958. The CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) collections are also at LSE.


Back to top

15. Letter with envelope from Emily Wilding Davison's mother Margaret to Emily at Epsom Cottage Hospital - 5 June 1913

This letter obviously written in haste and anguish contrasts with the one Margaret wrote to Emily while in prison (item 5). The letter is dated the day after the Derby race and while the envelope says "Please give this to Emily", Emily would never have read it since she remained unconscious until she died. It is highly probable that her friends read the letter to her.

In the letter, Margaret acknowledges her daughter's vehemence "for the cause, which I know you have given up your whole heart & soul to". She notes the visitors to Emily, Mary Leigh, Mrs Alice Green her landlady in London and Mrs Penn Gaskell who had all been in touch. Eleanor Penn Gaskell had helped to nurse Emily back to health in 1912 when she came out of prison.

Margaret in her despair, sharpened by having read critical reports in the newspapers, cannot understand her daughter's action.

"I need not tell you my heart is full of grief & agony & the thought you are so far away is giving me much misery and pain. I know you would not wilfully give me any unhappiness. Although it must have been some sudden impulse and excitement... With oceans of love from your sorrowful Mother"


Back to top

16. Hate mail to Emily Wilding Davison from An Englishman - June 1913

While Emily lay dying in hospital she received hate mail from those who considered the stopping of the Derby race just as outrageous as the suffragettes' demands for Votes for Women. There were certainly many critical reports in the newspapers although not universally so and the news of her action spread across the world with much reporting in the USA where the struggle for the vote was continuing.

This letter from "An Englishman" describes Emily as "unworthy of existence", hopes she may "live in torture" and wonders why she is not in an Asylum. This last outcome was tried for several supporters of the cause, both men and women, including Emily at one point. She would likely have faced similar vitriol on the streets during protests.


Back to top

17. Funeral Service programme for Emily Wilding Davison - 14 June 1913

The funeral procession across London with Emily's coffin on Saturday 14th June was a well-organized spectacle with five thousand suffragettes dressed in white with black armbands and carrying lilies. The rather austere photograph of Emily on the cover of the service order is taken from her degree portrait and the tone is one of martyrdom for the cause. The clergy conducting the funeral service were members of the Church League for Women's Suffrage. From St. George's Church, Bloomsbury, the procession took her body to King's Cross station and then by train to Northumberland for burial in Morpeth, her family home where her Mother was living.


Back to top

18. Emily's cigar box

This cigar box apparently contained many of Emily's possessions prior to deposit with the Women's Library Collection. There is no proof that the writing on the inside is hers but it certainly fits with her actions and intentions.

Emily's close friend Mary Leigh set up the Emily Wilding Davison Club at 144 High Holborn as a memorial and her Clapham landlady Alice Green was its secretary. Many of her papers and possessions were gathered with those of others for the Suffragette Fellowship's Women's Record Room in Brunswick Square.


Back to top

19. The Price of Liberty manuscript - c.1913

Emily Wilding Davison is most famous for the manner of her death but the collection of her personal papers and possessions at The Women's Library @ LSE reveal a woman intellectually and morally committed to the cause of women and the granting of Votes for Women as a means for social reform. This document is effectively her suffragette manifesto setting out as it does her thoughts, feelings and commitments to the women's cause. It is backed by the considerable number of letters and other contributions she made to newspapers, using her intellectual capabilities to argue for and support the cause so dear to her heart.

It is difficult at the distance of 100 years to fully understand the active struggle for something we take so much for granted today, but here we can see her careful working and re-working of her words and the passion behind the purpose.

The paper begins:

"The true militant suffragette is an epitome of the determination of women to possess their own souls."

And ends:

To lay down life for friends, that is glorious, selfless, inspiring! But to re-enact the tragedy of Calvary for generations yet unborn, that is the last and consummate sacrifice of the militant! She will not hesitate "even unto this last". Emily Wilding Davison.

The Price of Liberty was published posthumously in 1914 in The Suffragette, with some changes from Emily's manuscript.


Back to top

Previous exhibitions

Current exhibition

  • World War One @ LSE

    WW1 @ LSE: a common cause

    WW1 @ LSE: a common cause draws on the Library's collections to feature a selection of digital images related to the First World War.