Friday, 4 September 2015

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Emily Wilding Davison (11 October 1872 – 8 June 1913)

Emily Davison was something of a notorious gaolbird in her day, having been in and out of prison nine times between 1909 and 1912, for offences such as breaking windows and heckling Lloyd George, not to mention not going away when asked to by a policeman, which shows the depths of her depravity. Back then, it was much frowned upon for women to take part in sports, be educated or to hold her own opinions: naturally enough, for such a bad ‘un, she went in for a spot of cycling and could have made a professional career out of her swimming activities, only she declined the offer. Needless to add, she also dabbled in schooling to a dangerous level, gaining first class degrees from both Oxford and the University of London – well, she would have, only Oxford didn’t grant degrees to women at that time. Nor were women allowed the vote either, which is where the trouble really began. Mostly, though, she is remembered for her association with a racehorse called Anmer.

Emily was born in Blackheath, though both her parents were originally from Northumberland. Mind you, theirs was an odd union. The dad, Charles, was both posh and rich, being an affluent businessman who had been happily married for eighteen years previously, in pretty standard middle-class wedlock to Sarah Chisholm, daughter of George Wilding Chisholm (hence Emily’s middle name) and, numerically speaking, he took his husbandly duties most sedulously, siring nine offspring before his exhausted wife finally pegged out from the effort of it all. For poor old Charles, this was a decided nuisance, seeing he liked to spend his time gallivanting, doing deals, making cash and all that kind of caper, but now it seemed like he was going to be saddled with looking after an army of sprogs all on his own, a prospect that didn’t appeal to him in the least. Something had to be done. Glancing up from his ruminations on this thorny issue, what should his eye light upon but his teenaged housekeeper, Margaret, a woman from so humble a background, it seems, that she didn’t even possess a surname, though she was young, very pretty and, above all, a woman, thus eminently suited for the task he had in mind: free childcare, with some extras thrown in. Before you could say, “Look here, Davison, old boy – you’re a forty seven year old bounder and she’s nothing but a chit of a domestic lassie, barely nineteen and hardly much older than that lad of yours that’s just become a lawyer,” she was nursing their firstborn, a daughter called Letitia, born in February 1868, and so, in order to make the situation all above-board (or above-stairs, anyway), he promptly told her she’d passed the audition so how about a trip down the aisle to stop the neighbours gossiping. They married in August of that year, with a son Alfred and then sisters Emily and Ethel following in quick succession.
After schooling in Kensington, Emily won a bursary to attend Royal Holloway College in 1891, at which point her old man chose this rather inconvenient moment to drop down dead, meaning she was forced to quit, seeing her mother could no longer afford the fees. Quite what happened to all the fabulous Davison riches is nowhere adequately explained but Emily now found herself having to take work as a governess before turning to teaching, though she did eventually raise enough money to support herself through Oxford, reading Biology, Chemistry, English Language and Literature, making her something of an all-round boffin, a fact fully endorsed by her gaining first-class honours in her final exams. Quite the academic. And yet no degree to show for it. Well, it just wasn’t the done thing in those days, the big fear being that a good education would make women “unfit” for marriage and motherhood, at which they might well turn their energies to social reform and careers instead, when what Britain and her Empire really needed at the time was not social reform but (the same old) men in charge with wives behind them to do their bidding, just as it had always been. In the face of such uninformed enlightenment, what was a woman supposed to do?
Well, she could join the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) for a start off. This was an organisation formed in 1903 by six women, including Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst, who believed that militant and confrontational tactics should be used to achieve women’s suffrage. In 1906, they argued the point of equality with the Prime Minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who broadly agreed with what they were saying but told them that he was “obliged to do nothing at all about it” – his overall policy was Do Nothing, If At All Possible – and advised them to “keep pestering” and to exercise “the virtue of patience.” Sentiments so ill-chosen that even adding “my dears” to the end couldn’t have made them sound any more condescending, the effect of which – on the ears of some who had been “pestering” for fifty years without result – was to stir them up to righteous indignation and to “Deeds, Not Words.” The incident led to the coining of the term “suffragettes.” By a man, Charles Hand. Who could be described as a journalist, only he worked for the Daily Mail. It was now that Emily joined the WSPU and, by 1908, she had given up teaching to dedicate herself to the movement. At the same time, she was also entering the University of London examinations as an external candidate for a degree in Modern Foreign Languages, resulting in first class honours and thus probably ruining her chances of ever becoming a good wife.

Emily Davison was always regarded by the WSPU as something of a maverick, having gained a reputation as a militant and violent campaigner – for her Deeds, Not Words – whose radical methods failed to gain the approval of the leadership and would ultimately land her in a prison cell. More than once. That particular career got off and running in March 1909 when she attempted to hand a petition to Prime Minister Asquith, for which she got a month inside for causing a disturbance. In July, she wantonly attempted to enter a hall where Chancellor Lloyd George was making a speech and was this time given two months, ostensibly for obstruction but actually for not listening politely while a great man was orating (it’s said that she even shouted at him). She went on hunger strike and was released after five days. By September, she was at it again, this time for throwing stones – another two months but soon released after going on hunger strike. It’s unclear what poor old Lloyd George had done to so get up Emily’s nose – granted, he was a portly and ageing womanising Welsh windbag, but you can’t hold his nationality against him – but, come October, he once again found himself being used for target practice by a stone-hurling Davison, who had wrapped her missiles with the words: “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.” She got a month’s hard labour in Strangeways for that one but, when she went on hunger strike this time, the authorities were cute enough to have seen that one coming. They decided some force-feeding was called for. Only Emily got wind of what they intended. Mind you, it would’ve been hard not to, once you’d spotted a mob of one matron, two doctors, and five or six wardresses armed with a length of rubber tubing clanking inexorably in your direction. She barricaded the door. This so incensed one prison officer that he got a hosepipe and started to fill the cell with freezing water, not stopping until he’d all but drowned her (though she was a top swimmer, remember), his misguided efforts doing much to inadvertently aid the suffragette cause. Keir Hardie would eventually complain in the Commons about this treatment and Emily took legal action that resulted in her being awarded forty shillings damages. Didn’t do her much good at the time, though. They battered the door down – which would’ve been a sight easier, had some idiot not filled the cell with water – sat their heftiest members atop her and forced the tube into her gut.

November 1910 saw her getting another month’s stir, this time for breaking the windows of the House of Commons, though whether or not Lloyd George was anywhere about the place isn’t recorded. In 1911, she took things a little more sedately, confining herself to hiding in a cupboard in the Palace of Westminster on the night of the census (2 April) so that she could legitimately give her place of residence as the House of Commons. They failed to see the funny side, though Tony Benn got a plaque put up to commemorate the event in 1999. By January 1912, she was back to her fieriest best, quite literally, this time being banged up for six months for arson (setting fire to pillarboxes). Near the end of her sentence, and what with force-feeding being very much the in-thing with the authorities and dozens of her fellow suffragettes being subjected to this barbaric torture, Emily decided that a gesture – “a tragedy” – was called for, in order to draw attention and thus put a stop to anyone suffering this brutality again. She climbed to the top of an iron staircase and threw herself down the thirty foot drop, intending to kill herself. A safety net saved her life, though she sustained severe head and spinal injuries that would cause her discomfort for the rest of her life. Which would not be long. Though still time for two final acts, the second of which would prove to be her greatest. The first, however, was a bit of a lash-up, seeing she got ten days for beating up an innocent Baptist minister who she mistook for Lloyd George (him again!) Mind you, if this clerical sort had the effrontery to go round looking like Lloyd George, well, he was pretty much asking for it really, wasn’t he?
By April 1913, Asquith’s Liberal government had, in its infinite wisdom, come to the conclusion that all this force-feeding of women business was making them look beastly and brutal fellows altogether (just when they needed be preparing themselves for bloody war), so some bright spark came up with the idea for The Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913. This made the women’s hunger strikes legal but, the minute they started to look a bit off-colour, they would release them, the cunning part being that, as soon as they took a bite to eat, it was straight back inside with them again. Seen in much the same light as a cat toying with its victims, it quickly became known as the Cat & Mouse Act. At least it meant the government wouldn’t look quite so callous, though they did end up with egg on their collective face, seeing that they could let the women go, no problem, only they couldn’t catch some of them again afterwards, thanks to a network of suffragette sympathisers and an all-women team of bodyguards, who employed tactics of misdirection, subterfuge and direct confrontation with the police. What had been intended as the means to quietly put a lid on these female trouble-makers quickly became a public scandal. Just in time for the Derby.

The Derby of 4 June 1913 would have been infamous, even had Emily Davison not attended and done what she did, thanks to a bunch of blue-blooded but hopelessly incompetent stewards, who disqualified the winning favourite because he was owned by what they considered a damnable coward. But that’s another story. As the field of fifteen began to thunder round Tattenham Corner, Emily Davison ducked under the rails and stepped out onto the course, straight into the path of the oncoming Anmer, owned by King George V and only really in it because he traditionally had a runner, which was why the forlorn beast was languishing amongst the stragglers. Horse and jockey would both survive (Anmer even completed the race, though riderless). The suffragette would not. What had been in her mind when she committed this grievous act will never be known (some were outraged because she might have “injured a valuable racehorse”) and the best we can do is to speculate on supposition. And prove nothing. Though that hasn’t prevented myriad opinions from being voiced down through the years.
It can’t have been intentional martyrdom, some say, because she had a return rail ticket (that was the only type you could buy then). She simply wandered onto the course assuming the field had all passed (unlikely that a woman with intelligence enough for two first-class degrees would do such a thing). She tried to stop the King’s horse by grabbing its bridle (ditto, given that even a slowish specimen like Anmer would be a halfton travelling at thirty five miles an hour, a bit like stopping a car by getting hold of a wing mirror). She could only have hit on Anmer by pure chance, given that there was no racecourse commentary and she couldn’t have known whereabouts in the field he was at the time (Pathé had three cameras at Tattenham Corner and the film shows two horses pass her before Anmer hits her – plus she was found in possession of a racecard, not only giving the King’s distinctive colours but even a rudimentary knowledge of form would show that Anmer was likely to be struggling; also, any of the gents perched on high on the charabancs might have commented on Anmer’s poor showing). One theory is that she was attempting to throw a Votes For Women sash across Anmer so that the King’s horse would be seen crossing the line emblazoned with the message, apparently endorsed by the monarch himself (who, incidentally, would not have been able to see the incident from his position and had to be told that a woman had brought down his horse – he is supposed to have responded: “Good god! Is the horse all right?”). This sash-throwing idea has also been pooh-poohed (partly on the grounds that it was a scarf, not a sash – for pity’s sake! – and partly because the person who picked it up at the time was not the Clerk of the Course, as claimed, but “an East End docker with no racing connection whatsoever”). Which pretty much scotches that one, don’t it? And yet, if you look closely at the photograph, Emily is clearly holding something very sash-like (or scarf-like) in her right hand as she hits the turf. The idea still holds water …

One aspect that barely gets mentioned is how Anmer hit her at all. One jockey complained that he would’ve been placed, had he not had to swerve to avoid a woman on the track. A racehorse’s instinct is to avoid: time and again, you’ll see steeplechasers pick their way with infinite daintiness through the flailing limbs of a horse and jockey that have fallen in front of them and only in a melee, where it becomes unavoidable, will they be forced into making contact. Why, then, did Anmer not swerve? Unless the sash plan became impractical and suddenly changed at the last instant to martyrdom with a swift step to the right. After all, a woman that doesn’t flinch at a thirty foot plummet down an iron staircase is hardly likely to settle for another sentence, this time for mere trespassing on a racetrack. Is she? We will never know.

Emily Davison died four days later in Epsom Cottage Hospital due to a fractured skull and internal injuries. At her funeral, on 14 June 1913, thousands of suffragettes accompanied the coffin and tens of thousands of people lined the streets of London. Much later, more than a World War later, women would grudgingly be given the vote, but then only when they reached the age of thirty.

One small woman, one immense Giant …


Emily Davison: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Emily Davison: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
The Class of Doctor Charcot: By André Brouillet [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Votes for Women: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Lloyd-George: By Not known (The Illustrated War News, 13 December 1916) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Suffragette: By The original uploader was Lordprice at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons 
Cat & Mouse Act Poster: By Women's Social and Political Union...NOR. (Museum of London) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Emily Davison hit by Anmer: By Arthur Barrett [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Force-feeding: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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