Emily Davison was a firecracker – with a cause. She fought for women’s rights in Britain at the turn of the 20th century, a volatile and oftentimes violent movement. Her British legacy is compared to America’s fiery Carrie Nation, who smashed saloons to make her point. Davison was even more extreme. She set fires, was arrested multiple times, even deliberately fell down a flight of stairs just to draw attention to herself. But her most outrageous stunt took place in 1913 at the Epsom Derby. A flossy affair that turned deadly.
The Epsom Derby is a grand event similar in prestige to the Kentucky Derby in the U.S. The race in 1913 was of particular interest due to the inclusion of a horse owned by King George V who had just taken the throne three years earlier in 1910 after his father’s death. He would remain King for nearly three decades. On July 5 1913, just as he was beginning to establish a role in Britain’s hierarchy, Anmer, a horse owned by the King himself, was entered in the Epsom Derby. King George was expected to be there. Excitement mixed with apprehension filled the air.
Davison found this heightened level of attention the perfect stage for her extreme activism. During the race, she positioned herself close to the rail. As the horses passed, Davison stepped onto the track and appeared to reach for the reigns of the King’s horse. Anmer struck Davison and knocked her off her feet. She violently tumbled to the ground and was trampled by the horse who also fell. It was a horrifying scene. Anmer got to its feet and continued ahead, dragging jockey Herbert Jones who was knocked unconscious by the impact and caught in the leather straps. Jones slipped out and eventually recovered. Davison lay motion less on the ground, her skull fractured. Four days later she died.
Davison was accused of deliberately stepping in front of the horse and offering herself up for martyrdom, which would fit her views and extreme actions so far. But an examination of her day suggest otherwise. She had a return train ticket home and planned to attend an upcoming suffragette event. Nothing substantial would support the theory that she tried to kill herself for attention. A newsreel film of the incident appears to show Davison coolly stepping on the track and reaching for something, possibly the horse’s bridle. Perhaps she was trying to stop the horse or more pragmatically place a scarf or flag in its reigns, a plausible idea, if unrealistic.
Other arguments centered on how she knew which horse was the King’s. There was no race caller and from the perspective of someone on the rail seemingly impossible to distinguish one horse from another so quickly. Perhaps it wasn’t the King’s horse Davison was focusing on after all, but any horse. The result would still be the same. Newspapers across the world would have blared headlines describing her actions, results and reactions, especially her own. Instead, the tragic turn of events were examined, debated and mostly ridiculed.
Typical of the suffragette movement as a whole, Davison got a fair mix of admiration, shock and criticism after her death. Her funeral was a lavish affair, coveted by her supporters who used the pageantry to further their cause. On her tombstone is inscribed the phrase, “Deeds not Words.”
In 2013, on the 100th anniversary of Davison’s death, a plaque commemorating the incident was placed on the track’s grounds. A “moment of silence” for Davison was planned but for reasons unclear were dropped.
In the U.S., her story is not widely known. But even if her actions that day were not directly related to the sport itself, it resonated. Today there are female jockeys winning important races and the day before the Epsom Derby – similar to its counterpart the Kentucky Derby – is traditionally known as one for the fillies.
It’s called Ladies Day.