The Derby, the King and the suffragette - A tragic tale from Epsom's great history

Justin Kelly


Justin Kelly


Ahead of this weekend's Epsom Derby, we're looking back at one of the most controversial and divisive moments when the suffragette movement tragically bled onto the front pages of the newspapers after an incident in the 1913 running of the race. 

The 1913 Epsom Derby made headlines for every reason but the sport itself. A woman had stepped in front of King George V’s horse, Anmer, as the field rounded Tattenham Corner for the home straight. This woman was Emily Davison; a suffragette of the early part of the 20th Century who had been involved in high profile, violent, and extreme forms of protest for Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) since 1906.

The story of that day, and of Emily Davison, is more than just a couple of pages in history. A copy of ‘The Suffragette’ newspaper following Davison’s death bore the caption, “She died for women.” This is the story of that day, that woman, and that movement.

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, women in Britain could not vote, and this injustice heralded the Suffragette Movement, which consisted of protesting women determined to change political and social attitudes toward women’s rights. At the forefront of this movement were the WSPU founders, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel. The WSPU split into a non-militant and militant fraction, with the latter emerging due to the frustration at the lack of success in diplomatic talks with Parliament.

The militant fraction partook in various extreme forms of protest, including hunger strikes, arson attacks on mailboxes, chaining themselves to railings at government buildings, as well as physically attacking politicians and their homes. The Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, David Lloyd George once remarked that these forms of protest were actually damaging their movement’s validity.

Their actions in this manner regularly landed their members in prison, including Emily Davison. In 1912, when serving a six-month sentence in Holloway Prison on hunger strike, Davison threw herself off a ten-metre high iron staircase in protest at her fellow suffragettes being force-fed. Her severe protesting led her to Epsom in June 1913 for Britain’s most prestigious horse race.

The modern-day Derby still maintains a touch of royalty with the Queen regularly attending, but the elitism is not seen to the same extent as past centuries. From its first running in 1780, the race was an elite event, attended by the King and Royal family, and large cohorts of the upper middle classes.

On the day in question, June 5, 1913, both Queen Mary and King George V had come to watch the Derby. The middle part of the track away from the King and the grandstand was a free area, and this is where the working-class crowds would congregate to enjoy the racing. It was amidst these crowds that Emily Davison placed herself at the sharp turn of the famous Tattenham Corner of the track, holding her Suffragette banner of purple, white, and green.

As the first large group of runners thundered past, Davison pushed her way to the rail and emerged onto the track. She attempted to grab the bridle of Anmer who was in the second group, but with the horse travelling over 30mph, she was thrown to the ground in a blur of flailing limbs and turf. Some eyewitnesses claimed the woman had just been attempting to cross the track, thinking all the horses had passed, but it is widely thought her intention was to disrupt the race, and not sacrifice herself for the cause.

This contention was supported by the fact a return train ticket and ticket for a Suffragette dance had been found in her handbag following the incident. Some say she may have been attempting to attach the Suffragette banner to Anmer to garner publicity. Davison was taken to Epsom Cottage Hospital with severe head injuries for treatment, but four days later, on June 8 1913, Emily Davison passed away. Herbert Jones, the jockey of Anmer suffered a mild concussion, but he is quoted as saying he was “haunted by that woman’s face” for years afterwards. He was found dead by his son in 1951 having taken his own life.

The reaction to Emily Davison’s death was varied, with ‘The Suffragette’ dedicating its June 13 front page to a tribute to her, but the Daily Sketch describing the whole race, including the Davison incident, a disqualified horse, and a 100/1 winner as “History’s Most Wonderful Derby.” The Royal reaction included a diary entry by King George V which read, “poor Herbert Jones and Anmer had been sent flying” on a “most disappointing day,” while Queen Mary sent Jones a telegram wishing him well after his “sad accident caused through the abominable conduct of a brutal lunatic woman."

An unread letter from Emily Davison’s mother was left at her bedside contained the telling words, “I cannot believe that you could have done such a dreadful act. Even for the cause which I know you have given up your whole heart and soul to, and it
has done so little in return for you.”

Emily Davison’s funeral attracted a large crowd, and her gravestone bears the WSPU slogan, 'Deeds not words.' The funeral was held in London on June 14, 1913 and her coffin was brought by train to Morpeth for burial on June 15. She was buried in the same plot as her father who died twenty years previous in 1893.

Some historians subsequently argued that Davison’s actions on June 5 had damaged the Suffragist Movement because of how highly respected the Royal family were at the time in Britain, but the day has survived as a symbol of women’s struggle for equal rights in the early part of the 20th century.