~ Posted by Kassia St Clair, January 17th 2013

On June 4th 1913 Emily Wilding Davison was knocked over and fatally trampled by a horse at the Epsom Derby. The horse, as it turned out, belonged to King George V. In the crush of people at Tattenham Corner, and without a loudspeaker commentary, it’s unlikely that Davison was targeting a particular horse. It is still more unlikely that she meant to become a martyr—she had bought a return ticket at the station and was planning to attend a ball later that day. Whatever her intentions, her death became an important moment in women’s struggle to win the vote. It is surprising, then, that the centenary of her death looks as if it will pass with barely a ripple of public interest. There are currently no national exhibitions or events planned to mark her death beyond a petition asking Epsom Derby "to observe a minute's silence in tribute to Emily Wilding Davison and the sacrifice she made". 

A minute's silence is a small ask. But so far the petition has only attracted 1,500 signatories and with numbers that low it’s unlikely that the racing authorities will budge from their current position of ignoring Davison’s death. Last year much was made of the fact that it took Epsom just four years to honour Generous, an Irish thoroughbred racehorse, with a statue, while they have yet to mark Davison in any form. Their reluctance—or perhaps indecision—is understandable. After all Davison disrupted their race, an odd thing for a racecourse to commemorate. Also many people sympathised with the horse, Anmer, and the jockey, Herbert Jones. (The horse was fine, although the Times reported it had bruised shins and Jones survived but was said to have been haunted by the memory). Others focus on the apparent futility, irrationality and even stupidity of her act. A letter sent to Davison from "An Englishman" a day after the accident reads "I am glad to hear you are in hospital, I hope you suffer torture until you die. You idiot." Even her mother disapproved, calling her daughter’s actions "dreadful". Davison never regained consciousness and died days later. Her gravestone carries the suffragette motto: "deeds not words."

Several historians have argued that Davison and her fellow militant suffragettes actually damaged the suffrage movement: such emotional instability was hardly what was wanted in early twentieth-century voters. Nevertheless, Epsom would be unwise to do nothing about this centenary. It was one of the most dramatic moments in racing and Emily Davison was on the side of history. Perhaps the best way to mark this would be an occasion that involves the two female jockeys who have ridden in the Derby, along with the most promising young female jockeys today. They would surely see both sides.

Kassia St Clair is editorial assistant at Intelligent Life. Her recent posts for the Editors' Blog include Must be the champagne and A narrow view of corsets