#Emilymatters – V. Irene Cockroft: The anniversary of the death of Emily Davison

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Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison’s Epsom Derby protest remains a controversial act, with some arguing to this day that it damaged the case for women’s suffrage.


Image via: Get Surrey article ‘Dying for the Vote’ explores suffragette death;
May 09 2013. By Amy De-Keyzer


However, in 2013 more evidence came to light to suggest that Emily had every intention of returning from the Derby victorious, having carried out her assignment. We will of course never know for sure.

The following guest blog post, written in 2014 by women’s suffrage expert V. Irene Cockroft, re-examines what happened on that fateful Derby day.


The 101st anniversary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison
8th June 2014


By V. Irene Cockroft, guest curator of Dying for the Vote exhibition commemorating the 2013 centenary of the death at Epsom of Emily Wilding Davison; Bourne Hall Museum, Borough of Epsom & Ewell.




Having watched the newsreel of Emily’s Epsom Derby misadventure many times; having stood in Emily’s position at the Derby two years running; and having tried to enter the mind of a fit, mature, intelligent woman with Emily’s mission to deliver a petition to the King whilst he was as accessible as he ever would be, I have reached my own conclusion about Emily’s motivation on that fateful day at the Derby on 4th June 1913, when she ran onto the racetrack and was fatally injured.  Emily died in hospital four days later, without regaining consciousness. My imagined solution to the mystery of Emily’s motivation won’t satisfy everyone but this is how I see the scene. 


Emily would have realized that

  •  the royal enclosure for King George V and Queen Mary was on the outer side of the track, some distance from where she was trapped by the crowd against the inside rail;
  • the King almost certainly would depart from Epsom racecourse directly the Derby winner was announced. (His horse Anmer was in the running);
  • once the Derby winner was declared, the immense crowd would surge, cutting off Emily’s path to the Royal Enclosure.


Logically, therefore, Emily had to summon her courage, cross the track and make a dash for the Royal Enclosure before the race ended.  When a gap in the horses occurred it found Emily poised and ready, long skirt notwithstanding, to pelt across the danger zone near the inside rail, to the safe, outer side of the track beyond.  She must have rehearsed her move many times in her mind, well aware of the danger from galloping hooves. 

From trial runs with galloping horses and suffragettes reputedly observed in Northumberland, Emily might also have been aware that a horse will generally do its utmost to avoid trampling a human in its path.  One might, with a degree of safety, weave between oncoming horses.  With a prayer to Joan of Arc that no-one would impede her fleetness of foot by trying to stop her, Emily ducked under the rail.  Clutched in one hand was the rolled-up petition to the King which she had penned, pleading for Votes for Women and a pardon for hunger-strike-frail, imprisoned WSPU leader Emmeline Pankhurst. 


Votes For Women_RADA_Photo_VBurgess_2011

Sabina Arthur and Katie Russell, ‘To Freedom’s Cause’ cast members, RADA
Photo: Val Burgess, 2011


Hidden under Emily’s jacket were two WSPU flags.  Emily would feel confident that the newsreel and press camera lenses would converge on her slight form once she drew attention to herself by crossing the track. When she reached the royal entourage she would thrust the petition into the hands of any member of the royal party who would take it.  That accomplished, Emily could produce and brandish a WSPU flag to identify her Cause. 

If the first flag was snatched from her, she had a second flag hidden in reserve to ensure maximum publicity.  Emily only had to survive, to pull off the most daring coup of the suffrage campaign.  One woman acting alone could do it.  If self-interest there was, her resulting notoriety would ensure volumes of work as a paid speaker.  That would solve the problem of finding the regular, paid employment which she had recently, unsuccessfully, sought.


Herbert_Jones_Lesley Gray

Herbert Jones, the King’s jockey


Emily darted onto the track.  Almost at the same moment the King’s horse, Anmer, ridden by jockey Herbert Jones wearing the King’s colours, rounded blind Tattenham Corner, sharper in 1913 than it is now. The colours caught Emily’s attention.  She stopped, transfixed and collision became inevitable.  Otherwise she might have made it across the track and put her plan into action. 

The police list of the contents of Emily’s pockets when she fell and was rushed to hospital, indicate that she carried envelopes, paper and postage stamps with which she could notify the WSPU, her landlady, her close friend and fellow suffragette Mary Leigh, and her Mother, which police station she was being held at after the event.  Arrest was vital.  Without a police guard to protect her, a suffragette who had caused betting men to lose money, would be in danger from the crowd.



Tattenham Corner – Bourne Hall Museum scale model of the Epsom Downs racecourse. Photo: K Willoughby, 2013


Emily’s petition to the King would have been knocked flying when she collided with Anmer.  What might have been the fate of this key to her motivation?  The scroll might have been crushed under Anmer when the horse, caught off-balance by trying to avoid her, fell, throwing Herbert Jones who suffered concussion.  (Thankfully, neither horse nor jockey suffered serious injury.)  It might have disintegrated under the impact of hooves as the straggling horses in the field finished the race. 

The fragile sheet of paper might have perished beneath hundreds of human feet rushing to the scene of the misadventure.  Working alone, Emily was the only one who knew its significance.  Equally possible, the petition might have been confiscated by race stewards and its message suppressed to avoid involving the King.




The survival of an apparently valueless sheet of paper might have solved a mystery that otherwise will probably defy unraveling forever.  In the absence of evidence, we can only speculate as to what was in the mind of Emily Wilding Davison when she stepped into the path of galloping racehorses on Derby Day, 1913. 

Emily died at Epsom Cottage Hospital four days later, without regaining consciousness.  Whatever the truth of the matter, let us remember Emily’s courage and the sacrifice she was willing to make to bring about the idyll of equality and mutual respect between the sexes.

© V. Irene Cockroft, 4th June 2014   



V. Irene Cockroft, Women’s suffrage expert & guest curator of the ‘Dying for the Vote’, exhibition. Photo: K Willoughby, 2013




#Emilymatters highlights gender equality issues & supports campaigns that seek to redress the balance and was created as part of the social media campaign to promote ‘To Freedom’s Cause’ the campaign for equality – still worth fighting for? event at the House of Commons in February 2014.


HoC photostream_debate_General_ML_EWD_Feb2014_J

#Emilymatters event included a performance included a performance of ‘To Freedom’s Cause’ & a debate chaired by
Jane Garvey with Chi Onwurah MP, Dr Helen Pankhurst, Yas Necati & Emma Barnett.


Powerful legacy: the bravery of Emily Davison & her sister suffragettes in campaigning for the right to vote still resonates today.

Voting is just the start. The team is developing plans for some innovative new projects, which will include To Freedom’s Cause and draw on the campaign’s outreach work to date.

To find out more about our voting matters campaigns and how you can get involved, see our #Emilymatters page.

And we’re on social media:

Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | Email

Listening and valuing what others have to say is very much a a part of what we do. It matters to me that you are heard and not just at election time.

If you believe that equality and democracy matter, please do get in touch.


Kate Willoughby
Actor & Writer of Emily Wilding Davison play To Freedom’s Cause




Emily Davison’s legacy is for life, not just for 2013.



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