Deeds not words

On the anniversary of Emily Wilding Davison's fatal Derby Day protest, Diane Atkinson suggests there

Emily Wilding Davison's deadly dash on to the race course at Epsom on Derby Day, 4 June 1913, guaranteed her a place in history. Captured on 20 feet of silver nitrate, her blurred, jerky, silent movements have been playing ever since: an iconic moment in the struggle for women's liberation. But although her family and friends were shocked by her suicidal protest, they can hardly have been surprised. Three years of suffragette militancy had taken their toll; even the sympathetic press refused to publish her memoirs of her time in Strangeways and Holloway prisons. Davison may not have shared the religious conviction of today's suicide bombers, but she had an equal disregard for her individual status within the struggle. She threw iron balls labelled "Bomb" through windows, regularly set fire to pillar boxes, barricaded herself in her prison cell and had to be flushed out by water cannon, and was a committed hunger striker. "Deeds not words" - the suffragette battle cry - is strikingly contemporary. It is inscribed on her gravestone.

The forecast for 4 June was for a sultry day with the possi- bility of thunderstorms. The king's jockey, Herbert Jones, had two rides: the Caterham Plate at half past one and the Derby Stakes at three o'clock. At noon, Jones and Richard Marsh, the king's trainer, made their way through the crowds to the jockeys' dressing room, where Jones dressed in the royal silks. "Diamond" Jones then autographed postcards of himself and had to sidestep eager fans. Davison left her lodgings in Lambeth and walked briskly to the Oval to catch a tram that took her to Victoria Station, where she bought a return ticket to Epsom Downs. She was wearing a tweedy suit, high-collared blouse and hat, and had two suffragette flags with her, one pinned to the lining of her jacket, the other rolled and tucked up her sleeve.

In the first race Jones, riding Per Mare, lost ground at the start and came in seventh. All thoughts and bets were on the third race, the Derby. It was easy for Emily to identify the purpose of her journey: the king's horse, Anmer, was in the lead, and she had already seen Jones gallop past in the royal colours. At odds of 50 to one, Anmer, a bay colt, was not much fancied at Epsom that day. The Sporting Life's "Man on the Spot" wrote: "Anmer is said to have his good days and his bad days." With odds of five to four on, Craganour, the mount of Johnny Reiff, was the hot favourite. Leopold de Rothschild had two horses running, Felizardo and Day Comet; Danny Maher was on Lord Rosebery's Prue; W Saxby was in William Hall Walker's blue and white check silks on Louvois; and Edward Hulton's Sun Yat was ridden by Will Huxley in pale blue and orange hoops.

Davison walked down the course to Tattenham Corner, a tricky stage in the gruelling mile-and-a-half dash. Here at Epsom, at three o'clock, the apex of the social pyramid of Edwardian England met its base. The king and queen and their vast entourage were here, as were young working-class women eating, smoking and drinking beer, and relaxing in the company of young men. Grandstanding on the motor buses were toffs in top hats and trilbys, and ladies whose enormous hats spiked the skyline.

Davison squeezed herself as close as she could to the rails. The race began and a great shout went up. The 16 horses and riders ran straight for three furlongs before the course climbed. Anmer made a good start and was in close contention with the two heavily backed horses in the race, Craganour and Aboyeur. At seven furlongs, they took the left turn downhill for five furlongs and Anmer fell away to the group at the back. The leading horses pounded towards the spot where Davison was waiting. Tonnes of horseflesh and men flashed past - white spittle, sweat, huge brown eyes rolling with the effort - and the noise of the crowd was bewildering. Everyone was screaming the name of their horse, jumping up and urging them on.The leading horses pounded past. The trailing bunch, including Anmer, approached. Davison fiddled with the sleeve of her jacket, gave the sliver of cloth a tug, bobbed under the while railings, and made history.

Clutching her unfurled tricolour of purple, white and green, Davison dashed out to make her protest at the lack of progress on women's suffrage in general and the treatment of Emmeline Pankhurst in particular. By targeting Anmer, she was reminding the king of his government's callous injustice to women. Davison stood on the racecourse with her arms above her head, and then stepped with her colours in front of the jockey wearing the royal colours. As the avalanche bore down on her, she tried to grab the horse's bridle. She was knocked over screaming. The collision was described in the Daily Mirror, 5 June 1913:

The horse struck the woman with its chest, knocking her down among the flying hoofs . . . and she was desperately injured . . . Blood rushed from her mouth and nose. Anmer turned a complete somersault and fell upon his jockey, who was seriously injured.

Anmer recovered himself, and Jones - his foot was stuck in the stirrup - was dragged along for a few yards. There was chaos: the jockeys who were behind Jones cursed and struggled to pull their galloping horses away from the woman who had invaded the track. Anmer cantered off, apparently none the worse for his fall. The crowd at Tattenham Corner invaded the racecourse and surrounded the jockey and the suffragette. Davison lay on the grass unconscious. A mounted policeman kept back the people, many of whom were angry. One policeman found her pulse. Another held her smashed head, which had been wrapped in a newspaper.

Davison was taken in a motor car to Epsom Cottage Hospital. Jones lay unconscious where he fell. When he came to, he was found to be suffering from concussion and had his shoulder put in a sling. Shrugging off his injuries, Jones insisted that he did not need to go to hospital. Both Anmer and Jones received a rapturous welcome when they returned to Egerton House Stables.

King George V wrote in his diary that "poor Herbert Jones and Anmer had been sent flying" on a "most disappointing day". Queen Mary sent Jones a telegram wishing him well after his "sad accident caused through the abominable conduct of a brutal lunatic woman". Home Office and Metropolitan Police records show that the director of public prosecutions advised that "if Miss Davison recovers it will be possible to charge her with doing an act calculated to cause grievous bodily harm".

At Epsom Cottage Hospital, Davison's life was ending. Suffragettes formed a guard of honour around her bed, which was hung with purple, white and green bunting. The flag she had flourished, now in the Women's Library in east London, still bears traces of her blood, mud and grass stains. Her skull was operated on to relieve the pressure, but she died four days later, on 8 June, having never regained consciousness. A letter from Davison's bewildered mother lay unread on her hospital bedside table:

I cannot believe that you could have done such a dreadful act. Even for the Cause which I know you have given up your whole heart and soul to, and it has done so little in return for you. Now I can only hope and pray that God will mercifully restore you to life and health and that there may be a better and brighter future for you.
From the Emily Wilding Davison papers in the Women's Library

Everyone denied that Davison had planned to die, clinging to the fact that she had bought a return ticket. Yet there were signs that she had been heading in that direction for at least a year. In 1912, she tried to kill herself twice on the same day in Strangeways jail. While the consensus was that Davison had "given her life for the Cause", no one would have used the taboo word "suicide", which was illegal until 1961. Davison knew the risk when she stepped in front of Anmer. She was familiar with horses: in 1900, there were a quarter of a million horses in London, and during her time as a governess, the hunt would meet at the front gates of her place of work.

When her death was announced, the Women's Social and Political Union created a spectacle. Davison was to be given a ceremonial funeral for her "noble sacrifice" and receive the dues of "a fallen warrior and crusader". On Saturday 14 June 1913, to the drumming of ten brass bands, 6,000 women marched from the determinedly ironic choice of Buckingham Palace Road to Davison's funeral service in St George's Church, Bloomsbury. Specially made purple silk banners included Joan of Arc's last words: "Fight on and God will give the victory."

Central London came to a standstill. Several times, bricks were hurled at the coffin, behind which was the first carriage, carrying Davison's mother, her sister Lettie, cousin Jessie and Miss Morrison, "Miss Davison's intimate companion". Guarded by suffragettes and the police, Davison's body lay in state at King's Cross Station, accompanied by a thousand wreaths, before the journey to Morpeth and her burial in the family grave. Her posthumous life started with the founding of the Emily Wilding Davison club, lodge and pilgrimage to Morpeth on the anniversary of her death.

Herbert Jones later said he was "haunted by that woman's face" as he and Anmer ran her down. While jump jockeys are used to falling off in fearsome circumstances, and develop ways of avoiding serious injury, a flat-race jockey such as Jones would have found the accident punishing. He struggled to recover his confidence, and he won only twice in the rest of the season. During the First World War, his brothers Reggie, Percy and Jack were killed on the Western Front. When the war was over, he returned to Egerton House Stables. He tried to carry on riding, but was forced to retire in 1923 after collapsing with a pulmonary haemorrhage. Astonishingly, in June 1928, when Emmeline Pankhurst died, Jones went to London for the funeral. His wreath read: "To do honour to the memory of Mrs Pankhurst and Miss Emily Davison."

Davison would have been pleased with her posthumous life as a martyr and secular saint. In 1950, Mary Leigh (who founded the Emily Wilding Davison club, lodge and pilgrimage) unfurled her flag at George Bernard Shaw's funeral, yelling that he had been a good friend to the suffragettes. In 1956, it was flown at the rededication of Pankhurst's statue in Victoria Tower Gardens, and it made an appearance at suffragette gatherings at Caxton Hall until the late 1960s.

Davison's combining of politics and sport was referred to and copied by the Anti-Apartheid Movement. But there is not just one suicide in this story. On 17 July 1951, Jones's 17-year-old son found his father dead in a gas-filled kitchen; the coroner recorded a verdict of "suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed". Herbert Jones was born in Epsom and Emily Davison died there. When the jockey met the suffragette, their bodies and lives collided for ever.

Dr Diane Atkinson is a historian. Her book Love and Dirt: the marriage of Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick, a story of Victorian sexuality, is published by Macmillan

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Mob rule