Last week I visited the grave of militant suffragette Emily Wilding Davison. I’ve wanted to visit it for a while and had driven close to it once or twice, but I didn’t want to inconvenience my fellow traveller with a diversion that amounted to a two-hour addition to our already considerable driving time from Surrey, England, to Scotland. Having found myself with a spare morning and only thirty minutes away, I decided to make my pilgrimage. The grave, now 104 years old, is situated in Morpeth, Northumberland, in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin.
The 1913 Epsom Derby is infamous for having Emily duck under the railings holding racegoers back from the racecourse and step in front of King George V’s horse, Anmer. The jockey was unseated and concussed, the horse finished the race alone and Emily suffered fatal injuries and died four days later in Epsom Cottage Hospital. She died the epitome of the suffragette motto – ‘Deeds not Words’.
As Davison lay dying in hospital, she received hate mail from people aghast at her actions. The first, dated 5 June 1913, and signed ‘an Englishman’, is shocking in its ferocity. Its violent content demonstrating clearly how the suffragettes polarised public opinion during their ‘Votes for Women’ campaign.
‘Dear Miss Davison,
I am glad to hear that you are in hospital. I hope you suffer torture until you die. You idiot.
I consider you a person unworthy of assistance in this world, considering what you have done, I should like the opportunity of starving and beating you to a pulp. ‘You Cat’. I hope you live in torture a few years, as an example to your confederates.
Why don’t your people find an asylum for you?’
Another letter was dated 6 June 1913 and contained the line;
‘When you are fully conscious it may be that the crazy fanaticism which drove you to break the laws of God will have left your poor brain clearer and in that case surely you will thank him for sparing you the sin of murder!’
‘Cat’ was a derogatory term for a suffragette and indeed, is depicted in several anti-woman suffrage postcards of the day, the allegorical symbolism clear to those in the know. The vitriol directed at Emily during her hospitalisation was mirrored in the reporting of the event. Her actions were not understood, for she had not shared her plans with anyone.
Many questions still remain; had she intended to commit suicide? Some historians argue that Emily had holiday plans with her sister and therefore was categorically not intending to kill herself. Should we take the return train ticket at face value and deduce that she had not intended to take her own life? Or was buying a return ticket a ruse, as someone with her notoriety may have been watched by the many police attending the event? There was also a tradition of the racegoers walking the racecourse after the last horse had run by, Anmer was in the last group. Was Emily just a little eager? Grainy film of the event shows that she had aimed her arm towards Anmer’s bridle and it is argued that she was attempting to attach a suffragette flag to the king’s horse, something it is said that some suffragettes had previously practised. A police report held in the archives records that Emily was carrying two flags at the time of the incident.
Emily had previously been imprisoned for setting fire to the contents of post boxes. Post boxes did then, and do now, display the royal cyphers of the reigning and past monarchs. She was symbolically attacking Crown and State. Was her attempt to stop the king’s horse another headline-grabbing stunt, attacking the Crown and its failure to support women gaining the vote? Whatever her rationale, it cost her her life.
Emily’s funeral took place on 14 June 1913, with a procession organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union. A letter, digitised at the Women’s Library @ LSE, offers us more insight into its planning. It invited a suffragette ‘friend’ to attend and disclosed that the coffin would be brought ‘from Epsom Cottage Hospital to Victoria and then to St. George’s Church, Bloomsbury, where a service would be held and then on to King’s Cross, where the coffin would be en-trained for the journey to Morpeth’. The letter also stated that they were asking hunger strikers to ‘take their place in section E.’ Therefore, presumably the recipient of this letter was an infamous suffragette hunger striker. They also stated that it was ‘essential’ for those in the procession to be dressed in white and carry a Madonna lily. Further to this, it was requested that the mourner wear a black armband, two inches in depth, on the left arm.
Emily’s grave is in a family plot and is surrounded by wrought iron railings and bedecked in the colours of the WSPU. The centenary of Emily’s death in 2013 reawakened interest in suffragette activism and her apotheosis was complete; from a misunderstood maverick, to a respected feminist who fought for the rights of half of the country.
Further material can be found in the archives of The Women’s Library at the London School of Economics, whose collection I have used for part of this post.
If you want to read more about how suffragettes attacked the post in their fight for the vote click here.
If you want to read more about how images of suffragettes were used as propaganda during the Votes for Women campaign click here.