It was Epsom Derby Day in Epsom, Surrey, England on June 4th, 1913. People arrived in newfangled motorcars, in carriages and broughams pulled by horses, on bicycles and even in donkey carts. The well-to-do rubbed shoulders – well almost – with the commoners, and King George V’s racehorse, Anmer was entered in the race. It was the social event of the season! The news reel cameras were in place and although the movies were soundless back then, boards with comments and information were later filmed and dropped into the grainy black and white film to clarify the sequence of events. To top off this annual gala event, King George V and Queen Mary were in attendance.
At the train station, a nervous woman alighted from her carriage. In her handbag were flags ready to be placed where the world would see them. This was to be her finest moment; one that would make her previous newsworthy activities for women’s rights – famous and infamous – pale by comparison. Little did she know that her return train ticket would never be used, the planned dance party would have one less guest and the future holiday with her sister would never take place.
This is the true story of Emily Wilding Davison and her part in the 1913 British Epsom Derby when she brought the King’s horse down, made history by her actions and brought attention – some positive and much negative – to the suffragette movement.
Emily Davison was born in Blackheath, England in 1872 and later in life was an ardent activist for women’s rights. She was well educated and won a bursary to Royal Holloway College in 1891 but had to drop out when her father died and she could not afford the fees. She then became a governess and later a school teacher. Finally she had enough money saved to go to St. Hugh’s College at Oxford. This was at a time when women didn’t go in for higher education so she was setting the tone from an early age.
She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (W.S.P.U) in 1906 and left a teaching post two years later to dedicate her time and talents to the cause which she did with a vengeance. She was militant and violent: disrupted meetings, went to jail nine times and objected to being force fed after a food strike by throwing herself, along with dozens of other Suffragettes down the stairs.
However, like so many people who die tragically, Davison was more famous in death than in life. Digging into the background of the 1913 Epsom race course incident reveals that she and other suffragette sisters practiced tying scarves onto horses at a nearby park and they drew lots to see who would do the actual deed at the track. They obviously had no idea how fast a galloping racehorse travels; their park horse “guinea pigs” were no doubt moving at a sedate walk or trot and not at the 30-35 mph that a racehorse travels at.
The Derby was a flat sprint and the Epsom course was shaped like a horse shoe. From the start the horses galloped along a fast straightaway that turned into a gradual bend. The bend turned and sharpened at Tattenham corner where the horses were then into a straight home run to the finish line in front of the Royal box.
On Derby Day, Davison placed herself at Tattenham Corner with her suffragette banner of purple, white and green in hand. During the race, when the crowds were going wild, the cameras were rolling and the horses were going flat out, she ducked under the fence and walked onto the track, was passed by a few horses and then got hit bang on by the King’s horse Anmer. This was no glancing blow but a full on whack that sent her, the poor horse and jockey to the ground. Anmer got up and finished the race with no jockey and no doubt asked his befuddled equine brain, “What the heck just happened?!” The jockey Herbert Jones also suffered a mild concussion, a bruised face and cracked ribs but was back on the course the next day and was described to be, “quite cheery.” Sadly, the vision of the woman’s face haunted him for years and his son found him gassed to death in 1951. He had killed himself, no doubt from misplaced guilt. In the black and white news reel showing the 1913 Epsom Race the actual incident takes place at around the 6.10 minute mark.
Davison collapsed on the track, was unconscious and died four days later. Jones sent a wreath to her funeral with a ribbon saying, “to do honour to the memory of Mrs. Pankhurst and Miss Emily Davison.” Mrs. Pankhurst was also a fervent suffragette who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903 to demand votes for women.
So, what was Davison really trying to do besides make a political statement? Was she trying to pull down the royal racehorse? Was she actually trying to tie a scarf or flag to him? Or, was she just walking across the track thinking that the race was finished?
Today, thanks to modern technology there is new information available about the events that day. British documentary investigators Stephen Cole and Mike Dixon returned to the original nitrate film stock taken from the three news cameras in 1913 and switched the film to a digital format. The images were cleaned and the new software cross-referenced the three different camera angles. Now, it would be easier to access what really happened.
In 2011, horse-racing historian Michael Tanner said Davison’s position at track side would not have given her a clear enough view to have been able to see the King’s horse approach. The film researchers Cole and Dixon suggest that re-viewing the film shows that she would have had a clear view. Others feel that she thought that the race was over, and that she was crossing the track to get to the other side of the track, or to walk to the finish line; Epsom Derby tradition allowing spectators to walk to the finish line after the last horse had passed.
There were two eyewitness statements that exist. One unknown man said that, “I was watching the horses approaching Tattenham Corner, when I noticed a figure bob under the rails on the opposite side to which I was standing. The horses were thundering down the course at a great pace bunched up against the rail. From the position in which the woman was standing it would have been impossible for her to have picked out any special horse. It was obviously her intention to stop the race. Misjudging the pace of the horses she missed the first four or five. They dashed by just as she was emerging from the rails. With great calmness she walked in front of the next group of horses. ”
The first missed her, but the second, Anmer, came right into her, and catching her with his shoulders, knocked her with terrific force to the ground while the crowd stood spellbound. The woman rolled over two or three times, and lay unconscious. She was thrown almost on her face. Anmer fell after striking the woman, pitching Jones, the jockey, clear over its head. Fortunately, Anmer fell clear of the woman, and the horses following swerved by the woman, the jockey and the fallen horse.
Another witness named John Ervine said that, “Ms Davison, who was standing a few yards from me, suddenly ducked under the railings as the horses came up. This was very near Tattenham Corner, and there was a very large crowd of people on both sides of the course.
“The King’s horse, Anmer, came up and Ms Davison went towards it. She put up her hand, but whether it was to catch hold of the reins or to protect herself I do not know. It was all over in a few seconds. The horse knocked the woman over with very great force, and then stumbled and fell, pitching the jockey violently onto the ground. Both he and Ms Davison were bleeding profusely, but the crowd which swarmed about them almost was immediately too much for me to see any more.
“I feel sure that Ms Davison meant to stop the horse, and that she did not go on to the course in the belief that the race was over, for, as I say, only a few of the horses had gone by when I first saw her leave the railings, and others had not passed when she was knocked down. I could not see whether any other horses touched her, for the whole thing happened so quickly, and I was so horrified at seeing her pitched violently down by the horse that I did not think of anything. The affair distressed the crowd very much.”
Jones, the jockey and obvious major witness, later recalled that he clearly saw her reaching up to grab at the horse. The clarified film also shows her trying to reach up to the horse’s bridle.
Well, all manner of theories abound….nobody will ever really know.
So, what of Anmer? Sadly his claim to fame was not for winning countless races for his Royal owner but for having hit Ms. Davison at Epsom and for coming a cropper himself. He went on to race a little more and placed a few times but never made the record books for having a stellar career. He seems to have faded from the history books and right into oblivion. The National Horseracing Museum in England has a racing plate worn by Anmer during the 1913 Epsom Derby. Where he ended up is anybody’s guess.
Craiganour, the 6/4 favourite owned by Charles D. Ismay was first over the finish line on that historic day but was later disqualified. Ismay’s brother was J. Bruce Ismay, Managing Director of The White Star Line of Titanic fame, and the disqualification was very controversial; it is suspected that people were still reeling from the Titanic disaster. The race was awarded to the 100/1 outsider Aboyeur.
Aboyeur (1910–circa 1917) ran seven times from 1912-1913 and won two races. At the end of the season he was sold and exported to Russia where he disappeared during the Revolution. A sad end for a horse that had raced in front a King and Queen.
Ironically, Davison’s actions to bring women’s suffrage to the forefront may have done more harm than good. Her actions, according to some historians, so horrified those politicians at the peak of power that they may have actually set the suffrage movement back. They argued that Emily was a highly educated person and if a highly educated woman was willing to do what she did, what could society expect of less educated women? An extension of the vote to women would plunge British society into bedlam – so they argued.
Davison’s motto, “Deeds not Words” were ironic considering that women in some other countries had won the vote years earlier and not one rock was thrown, not one window was broken and not one woman was trampled at the racetrack.
All women over the age of 21 got the right to vote in England in 1928 and in 2013 a plaque was unveiled at Epsom Racecourse to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1913 event. Davison was buried in Morpeth, Northumberland and her funeral attracted thousands. The funeral procession was the last great suffragette march.