How Emily Davison and the suffragettes targeted sport to bring attention to their cause
The Derby was not the only sporting venue used to make their voices heard - golf courses, football grounds and Wimbledon were all targeted
The impression given by so much that has been written about Emily Davison’s famous intrusion at the Derby a century ago is that it was an isolated incident. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was part of a campaign waged by suffragettes against sport in 1913-14, and was not even the only sabotaging of a famous horse race that year.
Sports facilities – left unattended for long periods, and emblematic of male clannishness – presented an inviting target for suffragettes wanting to do more than a little light window-breaking. And, after yet another Parliamentary rejection of their case in early 1913, the militants were increasingly keen to show their outrage.
Golf, especially, was a temptation. It was probably played by more members of the ruling class than any other game, and its courses were conveniently sited well away from patrolling policemen and passers-by. So, at night, suffragettes armed with spades and trowels could spend many uninterrupted hours carving “Votes for Women” or impromptu holes into greens. Courses in the Midlands, South-east, Scotland, Wales and Yorkshire were hit in 1913; clubs as far apart as Braid Hills near Edinburgh and Surbiton in Surrey were still being attacked well into 1914.
Plus-foured politicians were waylaid on the links, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith being among those put off their stroke by the sudden appearance of chanting women. For a time in 1913, setting fire to clubhouses in the name of the suffragette cause seemed an almost daily occupation. Many of the perpetrators were never caught, an exception being Olive Hockin, who set fire to Roehampton Golf Club, but left behind a copy of The Suffragette newspaper with her name and address written on it. According to Dr Joyce Kay’s excellent article in the International Journal of the History of Sport, the subsequent raid on Olive’s home uncovered an impressive saboteur’s kit: acid, paraffin, false car number-plate, and wirecutters. She got four months.
Cricket pavilions at Tunbridge Wells and Perth went up in flames; boathouses at Oxford, Nottingham, and Hampton Court met the same end; bowls clubs in Newcastle, Fulham and Glasgow were attacked, football stands at Crystal Palace and Blackburn targeted. And at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club grounds at Wimbledon one suffragette clambered over a hedge into the grounds equipped with paraffin and wood shavings. Only a sharp-eyed groundskeeper stopped her setting the place ablaze.
But horse-racing bore the brunt of the more spectacular attacks. In April 1913, grandstands or courses at Ayr, Kelso and Cardiff were attacked and in June, nine days after Emily Davison’s death, two suffragettes set fire to Hurst Park, at West Molesey, Surrey. The stewards’ quarters, press box, two grandstands and much else besides went up in flames.
A short while after Davison’s funeral, according to a new biography of her by Lucy Fisher (and – declaration of interest – published by my family’s venture, Black Toad Books), there was a bizarre copycat incident. During the running of the Gold Cup at Ascot, a young man waving a suffragette flag and brandishing a loaded revolver ran onto the course, tried to block the path of the leading horse – Tracery, the second favourite – and called on the jockey to stop. There was a collision, jockey and horse were unhurt, but the man – an Old Harrovian called Harold Hewitt – was taken to hospital, operated upon, and duly recovered.
He was the son of wealthy parents, an unsettled individual who, after graduating from Cambridge, led a nomadic existence in the colonies. Deemed what was then called a lunatic, he was carted off to an asylum, where it was hoped he could be coaxed into sufficient sanity to be prosecuted. But he escaped, made his way to Canada, and ran a farm for several years. In January 1921, he returned to England, gave himself up, and was sentenced to two days in prison.
And sport’s reaction to all this? Much tut-tutting and smoking-room discontent but, elsewhere, surprising tolerance. Cricketer Jack Hobbs joined marches in support of women’s suffrage and, most touchingly, Herbert Jones, the king’s jockey up-ended by Davison, took a wreath to Emmeline Pankhurst’s funeral 15 years later. Its inscription read: “To do honour to the memory of Mrs Pankhurst and Miss Davison”.
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