Thursday 6 June 2013

The Suffragette Who Died To Be Heard - Katherine Roberts

100 years ago today, suffragette Emily Davison lay unconscious in hospital after stepping in front of King George V’s horse while it ran in the Derby on June 4th, bringing down horse and jockey and being thrown across the course. She never regained consciousness. Four days later, on June 8th 1913, she died of her injuries.

The whole tragic episode was caught on film. I've chosen the longer 7 minute film here to show the build up of the race. There is no sound. Watch closely after Tattenham Corner...

Having worked in horse racing, I’ve always thought of Emily as a crazed woman who threw herself in front of a horse galloping flat out in a race – rather like someone might throw themselves in front of a bus today. I was always told that this was a publicity stunt by the suffragettes campaigning for Votes for Women, and Emily planned to become a martyr on Derby Day by taking her own life in the most public way possible for the time. But Clare Balding presented an interesting programme on Channel 4 recently, investigating the truth behind Emily’s desperate act. There is now evidence that Emily meant to petition the king by attaching a suffragette scarf bearing “Votes for Women” to his horse, and did not in fact mean to kill herself or bring down the horse and jockey in the process.

Sadly, however, Emily’s attempt ended in tragedy. The jockey Herbert Jones and king's horse Anmer both survived the fall, though Jones' career never recovered after getting his foot caught in the stirrup and being dragged for some distance. Many years later, he killed himself by putting his head in a gas oven.

The suffragettes resorted to many other such desperate acts as fire-bombing buildings and other actions of civil unrest that might today be counted as acts of terrorism. For their efforts, they were arrested and punished in prison by beatings, rape and force feeding. Yet these were not terrorists as we know them. They were otherwise civilised Western women, campaigning for the vote and equality with men. What I find remarkable is that this happened a mere 100 years ago, here in Britain, a country proud of her democracy. I have been alive for half of those years and take my right to vote for granted - indeed sometimes I haven't even exercised it, for which I apologise to Emily and her suffragette sisters all over the world, and promise to be more appreciative in future.

suffragettes active in the US earlier that year - picture copyright Adam Cuerden

A year after Emily’s death, the First World War intervened, and the suffragettes paused their militant campaign to aid the war effort enabling the UK government to “reward” them afterwards with a limited vote for women in 1918, followed eventually by The Representation of the People Act 1928 extending the vote to all women over the age of 21 and granting women the vote on the same terms as men. Yet I can’t help wondering what might have happened otherwise, with no war effort to pull the country together.

We hear over and over that “this country will never give in to terrorism”. It's a scary thought but would we, as independently-minded History Girls, still be throwing ourselves under speeding horses in an effort to get our voices heard?


Katherine Roberts writes historical fantasy for young readers.

Her latest series is the Pendragon Legacy quartet about King Arthur's daughter, published by Templar in hardcover, paperback and ebook editions:
Sword of Light
Lance of Truth
Crown of Dreams
Grail of Stars

Her Seven Fabulous Wonders series is now available for Kindle, Nook, Kobo and Apple i-devices.
Read Book 1 "The Great Pyramid Robbery" for only 77p/99c on Kindle & Nook, or FREE at Kobo & Apple itunes.

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Unknown said...

I remember a school project I did at the age of about 10 on this brave lady! I will think of her and her bravery today, thank you for reminding me of the importance of her sacrifice

Katherine Langrish said...

Fascinating footage - I've never seen this long cut before. The build-up to the race is most interesting - I love all those chomping policemen! - but it all feels very modern, really, doesn't it? Nothing much has changed around race-courses. She was brave - if perhaps unaware of the extreme danger she as putting herself in - and we do owe those suffragettes a huge debt.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Thank you, Katherine - as you say, astonishingly recent history. We have a great deal to thank them for as a generation who grew up never having to question our right to equality. Though as the recent 'Everyday Sexism' project shows, it's not over yet...

adele said...

I agree! Never take the vote for granted...what an interesting post!

Katherine Roberts said...

You're right about horse racing being very similar 100 years ago, Kath... those horses could be running races today, which proves how carefully the thoroughbred bloodline has been preserved. I think the jockeys rode with slightly longer stirrups, and now we have starting gates for flat races, but otherwise much is the same. said...

Thank you for the information. I did not know the circumstances of Emily Dickinson's death. I enjoy all the blogs you post. Thank you, again! Annie