In 1913, Emily Davison, a suffragette, runs out in front of King George V's horse, Anmer, at the Epsom Derby.
Davison was born in Blackheath, London, the daughter of Charles Davison (of Morpeth, Northumberland) and Margaret Davison (of Longhorsley, Northumberland), with two sisters and a brother, and many half-siblings (from her father’s first marriage) including a half-brother, retired naval captain Henry Jocelyn Davison, who gave evidence at her inquest.
She was a good performer at school and had a university education, having studied first at Royal Holloway College in London. Subsequently she was forced to drop out because her recently widowed mother could not afford the fees of £20 a term. She then became a school teacher in Edgbaston and Worthing, raising enough money to study English Language and Literature at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and obtained first-class honours in her final exams, though women were not at that time admitted to degrees at Oxford. She then obtained a post teaching the children of a family in Berkshire and joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1906, and immediately involved herself in their more militant activities.
She was arrested and imprisoned for various offences, including a violent attack on a man she mistook for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George. She went on hunger strike in Strangeways Prison and was force-fed. In Holloway prison, she threw herself down an iron staircase as a protest. She landed on wire netting 30 feet (10 m) below, which saved her; however, she suffered some severe spinal damage.
On 2 April 1911, the night of the 1911 census, Davison hid in a cupboard in the Palace of Westminster overnight so that on the census form she could legitimately give her place of residence that night as the “House of Commons”. Tony Benn MP placed a plaque there to commemorate the event. The 1911 census documents that were uncovered state that Emily Wilding Davison was found ‘hiding in the crypt’ in the Houses of Parliament.
In 1913, she planted a bomb at Lloyd George’s newly built house in Surrey, damaging it severely.
Davison’s purpose in attending the Derby of 4 June 1913 is unclear. Much has been made of the fact that she purchased a return rail ticket and also a ticket to a suffragette dance later that day, suggesting that martyrdom wasn’t her intention.
A possibility of her reason for entering the race track was that she was trying to attach a flag to the King’s horse, so when the horse crossed the finishing line it would quite literally be flying the suffragette flag. Evidence for this was that she had supposedly been seen in the weeks before stopping horses in the park near her house. However, this is only one of many theories.
Pathe News captured the incident on film, showing her stepping out in front of the horse, Anmer, as it rounded Tattenham Corner, with Davison carrying the banner of the WSPU. But instead of stopping, Anmer knocked her to the ground unconscious. Eyewitnesses at the time were divided as to her motivation, with many believing that she had simply intended to cross the track, believing that all horses had passed; while others reported that she had attempted to pull down the King’s horse.
She died four days later in Epsom Cottage Hospital, due to a fractured skull and internal injuries caused by the incident.