Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the incident at the Epsom Derby which— four days later—claimed the life of suffragette Emily Davison, who had stepped out onto the course during the race, but was knocked to the ground by King George V’s horse Anmer.
Born in 1872, Emily Davison was a militant and occasionally violent campaigner for women’s rights who served several terms in jail and endured being force-fed on numerous occasions.
I watched a recent documentary, which explained in graphic detail how a prisoner would be force-fed—it was a brutal process and whether or not you agree with the principles and actions of the more radical suffragettes, it’s hard not to be in some way impressed by their selfless determination in pursuit of their cause.
There are several theories regarding the fateful events of 4th June 1913, but the remarkable footage that was shown during the documentary certainly seems to give some insight into Miss Davison’s possible motives.
She was standing at Tattenham corner, in a position where she will have been aware of oncoming horses, but given the speed they were travelling, merely ducking under the barrier and setting foot on the course would have been fraught with danger and identifying one particular horse would have been almost impossible.
It appears that Emily was carrying a scarf or sash promoting women’s suffrage and may have been intending to gain some publicity by somehow putting the scarf over the head of one of the horses. She actually did remarkably well to evade two horses as she moved across the track, but the slow motion footage of the collision with Anmer shows the horse almost rear on its hind legs in an attempt to jump over the obstacle that had unexpectedly appeared right in front of it. This is probably something that Emily would not have foreseen and the impact sent her crashing unconscious to the turf.
Whether or not she intended to kill herself (and I don’t think she did) and whether or not she intended to pick out the King’s horse (and I’m less certain about this), Emily Davison’s desire to promote women’s rights ended with her paying the ultimate price.
If you ignore the underlying politics, the century-old footage is extraordinary, but the tragedy of the situation wasn’t restricted to Emily Davison: Anmer’s jockey Herbert Jones was haunted by the incident—so much so that he would eventually take his own life some thirty-eight years later.
Given the world we live in now, it is hard to comprehend the way things were just one hundred years ago. There will be many who will honour the memory of Emily Davison and whilst I can’t say I condone her methods, her courage deserves (and has) my admiration.
All my own work... almost.