The Epsom Derby is one of the famed ‘five classics’ held annually and the event has had its fair share of drama over the years. However, the 1913 Derby is arguably the most dramatic horse race in history as it involved the death of Emily Davison, a suffragette who threw herself in front of Anmer, King George V’s horse. Davison later died from her injuries and for decades, it was assumed that martyrdom was her intention all along and that the King’s horse was her target.
Yet in the last few years, new research has come to light which suggests that all may not be as it seems with regards to this story. In this piece, I will look at the life of Emily Davison to try and understand what drove her to such extreme measures before analyzing evidence to determine if Anmer was even her target.
Who Was Emily Davison?
Emily Wilding Davison was born on 11 October 1872 in Blackheath, South East London. She won a bursary to study literature at Royal Holloway College in 1891 but had to withdraw due to the death of her father as her mother was no longer able to afford the high fees. She ultimately enrolled at St Hugh’s College, Oxford but despite earning first-class honours in her final year exams, she did not get a degree as women were not allowed graduate from Oxford at that time.
The lack of options available to women in society angered Davison and this sense of injustice caused her to become more militant at a time when women’s groups believed they needed to be more aggressive in order to attain basic rights. After spending some time offering private tuition to children, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Unit (WSPU) in 1906 and quickly became a radical member. According to this group, the state viewed women as second class citizens by not allowing them to vote. They believed that more confrontational tactics were required to achieve the goal of women’s suffrage.
Within a couple of years, Davison had quit her job and dedicated her life to the movement. She soon gained a reputation as a hardline protestor. Here are some quick facts about her activism:
- Davison entered the House of Commons air ducts on at least three occasions.
- She tossed metal balls with ‘bomb’ written on them through windows.
- She tried to break into a room where the Chancellor of the Exchequer was speaking and hurled rocks at his car on another occasion. Each rock carried the slogan “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God’.
- Davison managed early release from Strangeways prison on a couple of occasions by engaging in a hunger strike.
- During another trip to prison, the warden tried to force-feed her. Davison barricaded herself in her room and the warden had the room filled with ice cold water. She almost drowned but was rescued. She sued the prison and was awarded 40 Shillings compensation.
- Davison set fire to London post boxes in 1912. During her 10 month prison sentence when her hunger strike tactics again failed, she threw herself off a balcony.
- She was arrested at least 9 times and used hunger strike tactics on up to 49 occasions!
The authorities soon realised that women were prepared to become martyrs for the Suffragette cause and introduced the Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge for Health Act. It meant that prisoners on hunger strike would be released but incarcerated as soon as they got their strength back. Davison believed if she died in prison, the authorities may cover it up so she searched for a new way to gain attention for the women’s movement.
Davison & the Derby
The tens of thousands of race lovers who attended the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913 had no idea that they would witness history. In that era, the social significance of the event was as important as the race itself. Society’s elite were the main attendees in 1913 including the royal family who had a horse by the name of Anmer entered in it; the King’s horse was ridden by a jockey named Herbert Jones.
The Epsom course was shaped almost like a horseshoe and the Derby was of course a flat race. The beginning of the race consisted of a fast straight that went into a long, gradual bend which sharpened at Tattenham Corner. This would cause the horses to slow down before they made their way into the home straight in front of the Royal Box where a sprint finish would ensue.
As it transpired, Anmer was third from last as the horses went around Tattenham Corner and it was there that Davison made her move. She pushed her way through the crowd, went under the railing and stood in front of the charging Anmer allegedly holding the suffragette flag in front of her. Jones had no chance of avoiding a collision and Anmer crashed into Davison. Jones was thrown from the horse and sustained bruising, concussion and broken ribs. Davison suffered a skull fracture and serious internal injuries and died four days later.
Horse racing historian and author of The Suffragette Derby, Michael Tanner, claims that Davison’s actions were not as meaningful as intended. He suggested that because of the lack of race commentary and Davison’s position on the track, she wouldn’t have been able to tell the King’s horse from all the others.
A 2013 film by Channel 4 on the 1913 Derby claimed that Davison was intending to throw a ‘Votes for Women’ sash around the neck of Anmer to gain publicity for the Suffragette movement.
Some historians claim that Davison and other suffragettes had practiced the grabbing of horses and had drawn lots to determine who would go to the Derby. Unidentified witnesses also claimed Davison was trying to cross the track but this was debunked as evidence suggests she stood in front of the charging horse and was well aware of her purpose on the track.
Even analysis of the black and white film footage of the incident has resulted in different interpretations. During the aforementioned Channel 4 film, experts ‘cleaned up’ the footage and transferred them to a digital format. There were a total of three camera angles that shot the footage on the fateful day and it appears as if Davison was trying to attach something to the horse rather than recklessly killing herself.
The film came to the conclusion that Davison was closer to the start of Tattenham Corner than originally believed which meant she had a clearer view of the race than was previously thought. This would have allowed her to spot and identify Anmer since Jones was wearing the royal colours.
Tanner dismisses these claims and insists that it was impossible for Davison to have seen and singled out Anmer and is adamant that bringing down the King’s horse was pure chance.
The WPSU organised Davison’s funeral on 14 June. Thousands of suffragettes and tens of thousands of Londoners lined the streets. The service took place in Bloomsbury and she was buried in Morpeth, Northumberland which is where the family grave was located.
Herbert Jones was invited to the funeral but injuries prevented him from attending. He rode Anmer just two weeks after the Derby at Ascot and in 1928; he laid a wreath at the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst, a leading suffragette. Jones said he did so to honour Pankhurst and Davison.
Some rumours suggest he was ‘haunted’ by the face of Davison but his son John dismisses this as fanciful nonsense. In later life, he suffered from two strokes and became deaf. Michael Tanner suggested that these health problems along with the death of his wife caused the jockey to commit suicide in 1951 aged 70.
When it comes to Davison’s death at the Derby, there are still contrasting theories. Davison’s previous actions certainly suggest she was willing to die for the Suffragette movement. It is not a stretch to suggest she deliberately stood in front of Anmer and brought him down.
Yet there is also evidence that her intention was simply to send a message to the world rather than becoming a martyr. Her handbag contained a return train ticket (although a Return was the only option on Derby day) and an invitation to a Suffragette meeting that very night. Whether or not she specifically targeted Anmer is also open to interpretation even though recent analysis of the film footage suggests she did.
If Davison thought her act would expedite the process of suffrage for women, she was mistaken. The public were outraged and saw her as a ‘mentally ill fanatic’. Some previous supporters of the movement distanced themselves after the incident and the media focused on the wellbeing of horse and jockey. World War I began in the next year and took the focus off the Suffragette movement. It wasn’t until 1928 and the passing of the Equal Franchise Bill that Davison’s dream was realised. It allowed women over the age of 21 to vote.