Profile: Emily Wilding Davison


Rebecca Myers
Friday 24 May 2013 20:01 BST

My primary sources for these notes are The Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison by Ann Morley and Liz Stanley, and The Life of Emily Davison by Gertrude Colmore. The latter is published within the former, on the basis that it is “now immensely rare”, and Morley and Stanley wish to define their biography as in dialogue with Colmore’s.

The reliability of Colmore’s biography must be called into question, as it was published with a heavily political stance, and is attributed with encouraging the martyring of Emily Wilding Davison. It was brought out “at high speed”, in order to politically capitalise from Davison’s death, and sway more people towards the cause – something Morley and Stanley duly note: “Emily Davison’s death, the martyred militant’s funeral and the Colmore biography became three “moments” within the last and the most spectacular public display of militant suffragette solidarity”. They refer to it as a “basically hagiology”: Colmore heavily eulogises and glorifies Davison’s life and her death, and there are aspects of the narrative of Davison’s childhood that I personally would call into question – anecdotes, for example, about childhood games involving giving a funeral for dead flies with a large procession, which closely echoes the glory of Davison’s own funeral, and, I would argue, is placed to invoke a poignancy and dramatic irony with the readers knowledge of Davison’s later death and funeral.

Similarly, the description of Davison’s soul leaving her body at the same moment that a small bird flies into the bedroom of her mother seems like quite a liberal use of artistic licence. However, as Morley and Stanley note, this biography is the basis for almost all existing biographies of Davison, so it is important to note that, even if it does flesh out the truth somewhat, this is what many other accounts would have taken to be the truth, and so is the perceived reality of Davison’s life.

The Colmore biography also includes various accounts of events that it claims to take from Davison’s own correspondence. Since Morley and Stanley have not called this into question, theirs is an extensive and well-respected biography, and many of the quotes in question appear elsewhere online, it is likely these are reliable.

Childhood and upbringing (pre- involvement with suffragists)

Colmore’s biography details her childhood quite extensively, but, as noted, it is heavily eulogised and of little merit to general research about Davison. It paints her as a kind, “law-abiding” child, but one whose “spirit rose against oppression”, “‘the very reverse,’ says one of her school friends, ‘of the aggressive character generally expected of the suffragette’”. The image constructed by Colmore is one of spirit and courage, but many interjections clarify that Davison was not unruly or aggressive (a criticism faced by the militant suffragettes), but sensitive and only passionately in defiance of authority when it was right to be so – revealing the heavily politicised nature of this biography, and the wider purpose it served.

The two aspects of Colmore’s account of Davison’s childhood that are useful and interesting, however, are her intelligence and her religious beliefs. Davison was exceedingly intelligent, passing the Higher Certificate Examination of the Oxford and Cambridge Joint Board whilst at school, and attending Holloway College working for the Oxford Honour School in English Literature. She went on to become a teacher at a public school, before moving to teach at a private school, where she prepared children for the Cambridge Higher Local Examination. She taught for around thirteen years, until around 1906/1908 (sources differ on this point), at which point she renounced her teaching to focus on the fight for women’s rights and suffrage. Colmore notes she renounced her teaching in part because she could not discuss the issue of women’s suffrage with her pupils, as their mothers “disapproved of the movement”.

As for Davison’s religious beliefs, Colmore makes much of her love for hymns (which she reportedly sang in prison during her many arrests in the name of suffrage), and paints her as a very religious child. This seems to have stayed with her in later life, and Colmore claims she told her mother she never acted militantly in the name of the suffragettes without seeing God, “under the Influence [of God]”. Her favourite slogan during her militancy testifies to the strength of her religious beliefs: “rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”, and a banner at her funeral read, “fight on and God will give the victory”.

Morley and Stanley reproduce Davison’s entry in the Suffragette Annual and Women’s Who’s Who of 1913, which is her only autobiography, and merely the bares bones of her life, detailing all her imprisonments during the movement, and stating “recreations: swimming, cycling and studying”. As it was produced for the public, Morley and Stanley argue it presents “Emily the total militant... the militant as ‘renaissance woman’: the perfectly rounded human being who is scholarly, physically active, and completely dedicated to the ‘Cause’”, but that it does not present Davison as she would have viewed herself, since it was produced for public viewing.

As a Suffragette

List of Imprisonments as produced by Davison herself for the Suffragette Annual & Woman’s Who’s Who in 1913


1. March 30th, 1909, one month for going on deputation;

2. July 30th, 1909, two months for obstruction at Limehouse, released after five and a half day’s hunger strike;

3. September 4th, 1909, stone-throwing at White City, Manchester, two months, but released after two and a half days’ hunger strike;

4. October 20th, 1909, stone-throwing at Radcliffe, one month’s hard labour on each count, hunger struck, forcibly fed, hosepipe incident in Strangeways prison and released at end of eight days;

5. November 19th, 1910, broke a window inside the House of Commons; one month, hunger struck, forcibly fed, and released after eight days.

6. December 14th, 1911, arrested for setting fire to pillar-boxes in City of Westminster; Holloway, remand one week, and

7. January 10th, 1912 for above, sentenced at Old Bailey to six months’ imprisonment; hunger struck twice with others, and twice forcibly fed; released 10 days before sentence finished on account of injuries sustained in protest made against forcible feeding;

8. November 30th, 1912, sentenced to 10 days’ imprisonment for assaulting a Baptist Minister by mistake for Mr. Lloyd-George at Aberdeen Station; hunger struck and released at end of 4 days’ fast; was arrested on great deputation together with Mrs Pankhurst, June 29th, 1909; January 19th, 1910, won case against visiting magistrates of Strangeways Prson, Manchester; has three times hidden in House of Commons – April, 1910, in hot-air shaft, April, 1911 in crypt and also in June, 1911; marches in which took part – March, 1907, July, 1910, June, 1911 and July, 1911.

Davison first became involved in the suffragette movement in attending meetings of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union, the members of which we now know as the suffragettes), and in 1906 she became a member. According to Colmore, around eighteen months into her membership of WSPU she gained an “official position”, and was Chief Steward at the Great Central Station on Sunday 21st June when Cause supporters arrived from all over the country to attend a large procession organised by WSPU.

Although Davison published many articles for the suffrage movement, she is most well-known for her militancy. Davison’s first arrest and the beginning of her infamous career in militancy was on the 30th March 1909, when she was arrested for taking part in a deputation to Mr Asquith, Prime Minister at the time. One of the most interesting acts of protest Davison committed was, along with many other suffragists, in 1911, the year of the Census, refusing to fill in their census papers. Davison’s read “as I am a woman and women do not count in the State, I refuse to be counted [in the census]”, which interestingly matches with some of the comments made by interviewee Alys in my research into young women’s views on voting, where she attributes some of the blame for depleted voting statistics among young women with an inability to see themselves represented in government. Davison is very much considered one of the most militant of the suffragettes, even aside from her death. It was she, along with a handful of other suffragettes, who particularly advocated stone-throwing, arson and the smashing of windows. It should be noted, however, that theirs was a policy of “action against property and not persons” – they bombed and set alight to only empty properties, and tried to take “great care to throw stones as low as possible against official care to ensure there was no possibility of anyone being hurt by them”.

That said, Davison faced opposition within WSPU, and much speculation has taken place over the nature of Davison’s relation with other suffragettes. She frequently acted on her own decisions (“when charged [for setting fire to pillar-boxes] at Bow Street [she added]: I did this entirely on my own responsibility”). Morley and Stanley note that “Emily’s habit of acting on her own initiative meant that she was not in favour with the leadership of the WSPU, and indeed was seen by them rather as an unpredictable thorn in the flesh” and that “by early 1913 Emily was so much out of favour with the leadership [of WSPU] that she was unlikely to have been asked to participate in such ventures [as bombings]”. Sylvia Pankhurst appears to have been sympathetic to Davison, although Christabel Pankhurst was not.

Details of all Davison’s arrests are listed above, but I will now focus on a few key incidents for which Davison is renowned. These were enacted under “Emily Davison’s known style of militancy [which] was to do something militant and then give herself up to the authorities”.

The “hosepipe incident” (1909)

Having suffered force feeding before, when Davison was imprisoned in 1909 and mistakenly given a cell with two beds. She used the beds to barricade the door, wedging herself into the makeshift barricade in order to stay it. After many warnings to unbarricade the door, the prison staff fed a hosepipe through the window of the cell and flooded the cell, aiming at Davison, with icy cold water, maintaining the downpour for around fifteen minutes until it was 6 inches deep. At this point, they turned the hose off and proceeded to bash the door down, which she feared would fall on her (Colmore embellishes the story here with the narrative that Davison thought her moment for martyrdom had come, although I would very much doubt the reliability of this), and she was taken to hospital where she was wrapped in warm blankets and hot water bottles, before being returned to her cell where she was, after all, force fed. She later (1910) successfully sued the authorities at Strangeways prison for the use of the hosepipe, albeit for very little compensation, and the story was “known all over England, and had been brought up in parliament”.

The Holloway prison “attempted suicide”

Sentenced for six months in 1912 for setting fire to pillar-boxes, this imprisonment in Holloway remains one of Davison’s most studied by historians. In protest against force feeding, Davison resolved to, and succeeded in, throwing herself over the railings and down a distance of 20-30 feet, at which point Colmore quotes her as saying “the idea in my mind was ‘one big tragedy may save many others’”, but the wire netting below saved her. She then recounts: “deliberately [I] walked upstairs and threw myself from the top, as I meant, on to the iron staircase. If I had been successful I should undoubtedly have been killed, as it was a clear drop of 30 to 40 feet. But I caught once more on the edge of the netting.” She finally threw herself off the wire netting she had been caught in – “I realised that there was only one chance left, and that was to hurl myself with the greatest force I could smmon from the netting on to the staircase, a drop of about 10 feet”. She sustained relatively severe injuries, including to her spine, from these incidents. Morley and Stanley, however, question the labelling of this incident as “attempted suicide” in the modern understanding of it (see more below), and instead believe it was a purely practical response to her fear of being force fed again.

Bombing of Lloyd George’s house

Davison was among the suffragettes who successfully bombed Lloyd George’s as-yet-unfinished house in February 1913. It was burned down beyond repair.

Lloyd George/Forbes Jackson whipping incident

In 1912, Davison was arrested for, in her own words, “assaulting a Baptist Minister by mistake for Mr. Lloyd-George” with a dog-whip, but Morley and Stanley maintain that the circumstances around this incident are extremely unclear. There was much suffragette action surrounding Lloyd George’s speech in Aberdeen on 30th November, 1912, but the whipping incident remains particularly unclear. “‘Mary Brown’, alias Emily Davison, was arrested for assaulting the Reverend Forbes Jackson with a dog whip. However, a report in The Times... notes that ‘the defendent denied the incident...’. This was the only time in her militant career that Emily Davison denied any of the charges made against her”, and Morley and Stanley consider it to be very “out of character” for Davison, also since “this would be the only incident in her militant career in which she deliberately chose to hurt another living being”. Furthermore, Forbes Jackson admitted in court that someone had offered him an apology on behalf of Davison, which she did not instigate nor permit. Her alias was the maiden name of fellow militant Mary Leigh, which she herself used regularly as an alias. Morley and Stanley suggest that perhaps Davison took the arrest for another suffragette.

Death at the Derby

Emily Wilding Davis’ funeral was a huge event that politically capitalised off her purported martyrdom, and rallied suffragists from all over the country. Irene Clephane in her book Towards Sex Freedom (John Lane The Bodley Head, 1938) says of the funeral, “Her funeral procession across London was the most impressive of all the pageants arranged by militant or non-militant suffrage organisations”.

The Telegraph recently ran an article (January 2013, link below) reporting the commemoration of the centenary of Davison’s death this year by a plaque at Epsom race course, where she died. Although the Telegraph article is factually flawed – it claims “[Davison] was the only suffragette to lose her life in the Votes for Women campaign”, which is not true (according to Morley and Stanley four women lost their lives including Davison, two as a direct and one as an indirect “consequence of ‘Black Friday’”), it reported that, “it has been debated ever since whether she intended to kill herself or became an accidental martyr for the cause while trying to pin a suffragette banner on the King’s horse”. This is one of the greatest debates about Davison and her death: was it deliberate martyrdom, or an accident?

Colmore’s biography makes no reference at all to the idea that her death may have been “accidental”, and Morley and Stanley state: “we think the most plausible explanation of Emily’s death was that she deliberately undertook a militant act with the full knowledge that it might have fatal results. However, we do not feel it was quite the martyrdom for the cause that many people have seen it as.” In terms of the Holloway prison suicide, they are more preoccupied with defining “suicide” (in the sense that it was not ideological in the modern sense but practical to avoid force-feeding, they argue).

Coupled with her earlier attempt at suicide by throwing herself down 20-40ft off a staircase (twice, more details above) while in prison, and various accounts in Colmore’s biography, including quotes of Davison proclaiming the very deliberate nature of these intentions and an onlooker suffragette wondering what she was doing at the races, it seems highly unlikely that her death was an accident. Similarly, the absurdity of the idea that she would run onto the racecourse during the height of the race simply to “pin a suffragette banner on the King’s horse” seems to disregard this theory.

That is not to say, however, that the theory is not seriously regarded amongst historians, nor that there is no evidence for it: a return train ticket and an invitation to a Suffragette event that evening were found in Davison’s handbag, which many see as indicating she did not intend to die. Sylvia Pankhurst argued Davison intended the waving of the suffragette banner to alert the horse and stop it, and a friend allegedly declared Davison would never have committed suicide without writing a note to her mother, which she did not do before this event. Colmore’s biography, however (although we should consider it may not be wholly reliable) cites an incident in the few days before the Derby in which Davison met with a friend and was “showing more affection than it was her fashion to display”, implying she knew she was to die at the Derby.

Morley and Stanley are more dubious, questioning: “there was a race card marked with her fancies [in her handbag] (do suicides mark race cards and place bets thirty minutes before they die?)”; however, they claim to have studied “a copy of a set of stills from a film taken by the Gaumont Picture Corporation which show something quite different, something quite conclusive. This film was taken from a different position [to most photographs of the incident]”. They show her aiming directly for the King’s horse and grabbing it’s bridle – and although Morley and Stanley are reluctant to claim this definitely means it was a deliberate death, they believe the stills “nail one myth concerning her action... it does prove that it was for a specific purpose: she did intend to ‘take a petition to the King’”. They “think she knew she might be injured or killed [for she was neither a stupid nor a silly woman], hoped she would not be, but willingly took the risk”.

Davison wrote an essay, ‘The Price of Liberty’, that has been lauded as a form of suicide note in proving that she deliberately martyred herself, but Morley and Stanley rightly point out “‘The price of liberty’ has no date and gives no indication of any actual act”. Interestingly, it was published posthumously, in 1914, with, I would argue, the clear motive of looking like a manifesto for martyrdom in the name of the cause.

Colmore includes various references to Davison’s commitment to martyrdom that are not cited in Morley and Stanley’s work, drawing them into question. Indeed, many of them are actually part of what seems to be a semi-fictional narrative by Colmore, imagining Davison’s thoughts at various points: “Emily and many others had conceived the idea that ilfe would have to be sacrificed before the cause was won; and as she waited [in prison behind her famous barricade], watching the door, fascinated but not afraid, the thought in her mind was that the moment for sacrifice had come.” It is evident that this is down to the politicising nature of Colmore’s biography, but it is interesting that the movement at the time so decidedly propagated that Davison had died deliberately, and martyred her for their cause, particularly when their militant actions were often frowned upon, and Davison was described by the Queen at the time as a “brutal, lunatic woman”.

Morley and Stanley cite many historians’ works on the suffrage movements in Britain who treat Davison as a “self-dramatising nuisance” and her death as “odd or peculiar”. Lauded historian Roger Fulford does not even include Davison in his index, but rather lists her death under ‘Derby, The’. They also note, however, that most of these historians are men, and possess an “attitude to feminism and lesbianism [that] is obviously one of threat and panic”, and that “none of these accounts can be said to provide any rounded reassessment of Emily Wilding Davison’s life or death”.

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