Davison’s decision at the Derby divided the nation

As one of the most famous suffragettes, Emily Wilding Davison has historically divided public opinion, writes Claudia Lee.

Fatally injured after colliding with the King’s horse at the Epsom racecourse during the Derby in 1913, her legacy continues to create controversy.

Ms Davison was born on October 11, 1872, at Roxburgh House, 13 Vanbrugh Park West, in Blackheath, Greenwich.

She was educated at Royal Holloway College in Egham as well as Oxford.

She passed her Oxford examinations with a first class honours in English language and literature but was unable to be awarded her degree because at the time only men at Oxford could be granted such an honour.

Emily Davison at her graduation in 1908 Picture: North East Life, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

She then went on to study at the University of London, in Malet Street, Fitzrovia, which did award degrees to women on equal terms with men, and graduated with honours in classics and mathematics.

Ms Davison joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1906, within three years she was working for them full time.

She gained a reputation as a campaigner who would resort to attention-grabbing tactics in order to be heard.

Throughout her career as an activist for women’s rights she was imprisoned eight times – for a variety of offences including arson and stone throwing.

Like many other suffragettes, Ms Davison resisted imprisonment, demanding to be treated as a political prisoner, refusing to be put in criminal cells, wear prison dress, or eat their food.

Still from video footage showing the King’s horse as it fell after colliding with Ms Davison Picture: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

The prison authorities responded with brutal force-feeding, and on one occasion deliberately flooding her cell.

On June 4, 1913, Ms Davison attended the Derby at Epsom.

As the jockeys took their places along the start line, Ms Davison edged her way to the barriers at the side of the track at Tattenham Corner.

The race began. As the horses took the bend closest to Ms Davison, she ducked under the barrier and stepped out.

From film footage taken on the day you can see her walk straight to the horse owned by King George V, barely avoiding the racer leading the pack.

It looks as if she goes to grab the bridle before she crumples under the impact and falls beneath the horses hooves, fracturing her skull.

She never gained consciousness and passed away four days later.

Some say her motive was a deliberate suicide and she died a martyr – drawing global attention to the cause of votes for women.

Others say her aim was to disrupt and not die.

Ms Davison was born at Roxburgh House, 13 Vanbrugh Park West. Vanbrugh Park Road West today. Picture: Google Street View

In 2013, footage from three newsreel cameras that recorded the incident were studied for a Channel 4 documentary on Ms Davison’s death.

Investigators transferred the original film to a digital format allowing new software to cross-reference the three different camera angles.

The study of the images revealed that the 40-year-old campaigner was not, as assumed, attempting to pull down the royal racehorse, but in fact reaching up to attach a scarf to its bridle.

The study also found that she had positioned herself with a specific view of the race – meaning she did not run out recklessly as some claimed.

Despite the controversy, Ms Davison’s death is widely remembered as one of the defining moments of the women’s struggle for the right to vote.

As for her first house in Greenwich. When the 1939 register was compiled, the house had been divided into three flats.

During the bombing of the Second World War several of the properties along Vanbrugh Park Road West were damaged beyond repair.

By the 1960s, the houses along the street were rebuilt as the Vanbrugh Park Estate completed in 1965.


Picture: A procession of Suffragettes, dressed in white and bearing wreaths during the funeral procession of Emily Davison in Morpeth, Northumberland in June 1913 Picture: Imperial War Museum collection, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain. Inset: Emily Davison wearing her Holloway brooch and hunger strike medal, 1910–1912. Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Andrew William Dron, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

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