Emily Davison was an educated woman. She had been a literature student at Royal Holloway College and had self-funded her studies at Oxford University, despite the university not awarding degrees to women at the time. She was also a prominent member of the Women's Social and Political Union. The WSPU had been founded a decade earlier by Emmeline Pankhurst with the aim of achieving universal suffrage. Davison was a committed and militant activist for their cause of fighting for women's equal rights, in particular the right to vote. She joined in with campaigning, civil disobedience and confrontational tactics, embracing their motto of ‘Deeds not words’. Along with many fellow suffragettes, she was imprisoned numerous times, experienced countless injuries and suffered brutal force feeding to undermine her hunger strikes.
On Wednesday 4th June 1913, Davison collected two flags from the offices of the WSPU. The flags were in the suffragette’s colours of purple, green and white. She purchased a return ticket from London’s Victoria Station to out-of-town Epsom and boarded the train.
No one, not even in the WSPU, knew of Davison’s plans or her true intentions and what happened next have been the subject to many controversies and speculations since.
Whilst the Derby field, including Anmer, a black colt owned by King George V and ridden by Herbert Jones, turned for home, Davison waited at Tattenham Corner close to the rail. As the runners thundered past, Davison ducked underneath and ran out onto the track. She was knocked to the ground by Anmer, who fell and threw Jones. He broke ribs and received other cuts and bruises.
Davison was taken to hospital with a fractured skull, but never regained consciousness and died four days later. The court ruled that her death was due to ‘misadventure’.
Davison’s motives remain unclear: was it to target the King’s horse, to attach a flag to a horse's bridle or to cause a horse and rider to fall... Afterwards, there were reports of suffragettes practising grabbing at the reins of a moving horse prior to Derby Day. Was her death a tragic accident, suicide or a sacrifice for the cause? Yet, all Davison’s actions betray that she didn't intend to die that day due to the fact that she had the return train ticket inside her pocket.
In the immediate aftermath, the press criticised Davison for her actions and she even received hate mail. But the shock felt by the nation was encompassed by the WSPU and proved incredibly powerful. Over five thousand suffragettes attended her funeral, marching from Victoria Station to St. George’s Church in Bloomsbury, all dressed in white and holding white lilies. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets to watch the possession pass by. Davison's final resting place was in her family's plot in Morpeth, Northumberland.
Despite the movement’s martyring of Davison, it was still another five years before the government finally gave women the vote, be it limited to those over thirty who owned property or who were married to a property owner. Arguably, women’s role in assisting the Armed Forces during World War One may have been the biggest influencing factor. It was another ten years until all women over the age of twenty-one could vote.
A hundred years later, a plaque was erected at the place Davison ran under the rail... A reminder of how she lost her life, which became a cataclysm towards social change.