Voting is something we can all take for granted sometimes. Amidst current calls for a general election and ongoing political battles, many of us have forgotten that the right to vote was not always available to us.
Dragging yourself down to the polling station to check the box and cast your vote can sometimes feel like a chore. But just a century ago, not everyone had the right to vote and women were caught in a massive struggle to gain that right.
Believe it or not, our beloved county of Hertfordshire has played a significant role in the suffragettes’ battle. Activist Emily Davison, who grew up in Sawbridgeworth, gave her life to ensure that woman had the right to vote.
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Unfortunately, Emily never lived long enough to see women gain the right to vote after her death in 1913. HertsLive has rounded up all the information on Davisson including her upbringing, her time in prison and her death.
Long before she became a prominent member of the Women’s Social and Political Union and militant fighter for the suffragette cause, Emily Davison’s family moved to Sawbridgeworth. The third of four children born to Charles and Margaret Davison, Emily was born in Greenwich in south-east London on October 11, 1872.
While she was still a baby, the Davison family moved to Sawbridgeworth. The family remained in Hertfordshire, home schooling their children, until Emily reached the age of 11 and they moved back to London.
Tragedy in Sawbridgeworth
While still living in Hertfordshire the Davison children were hit by an outbreak of diphtheria in the summer of 1880, which claimed the life of Emily’s younger sister Ethel Henrietta.
According to the website Hertfordshire Genealogy, Emily’s father Charles actually sued the owner of the family’s house in Sawbridgeworth because he believed the bad sewage drain was the cause of the illness.
Becoming a suffragette
In November 1906, Emily joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The WSPU brought together activists who felt that more dramatic action was needed in order to achieve the goal of women’s suffrage.
After joining the WPSU, Emily became an officer of the organisation and a chief steward during marches protesting for women to have the right to vote.
Emily was arrested for the first time in March 1909 for assaulting the police in the execution of their duty. She, along with 21 other women, had been on a march from Caxton Hall to see the Prime Minister H.H. Asquith.
Emily was sentenced to a month in prison, but after her release it wasn’t long before was in trouble with the law again. In July 1909, she was arrested for interrupting a public meeting held by Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, which women were barred from.
While in prison for a second time, Emily went on hunger strike and was released after five and a half days. After being arrested in September 1909 for throwing stones to break windows at a political meeting in protest of the 1909 Budget, she was sentenced to two months in Strangeways prison.
However, Emily went on hunger strike again and was released after two and a half days. Less than a month later she found herself in jail again.
In October 1909, Emily and fellow Hertfordshire suffragette Lady Constance Lytton were arrested for throwing stones at the car cabinet minister Sir Walter Runciman was travelling in – mistaking it for Lloyd George’s vehicle.
She was released without charge, but two weeks later found herself back in Strangeways prison for throwing stones at Sir Walter while he was in Radcliffe, Greater Manchester. Emily attempted to go on hunger strike again, but the government had authorised the use of force-feeding on prisoners.
Hiding in Westminster Palace
In April 1910, Emily wanted to try to gain entry to the House of Commons to ask the Prime Minister questions about women’s right to vote. She entered the Palace of Westminster, which is the meeting place of the House of Commons and House of Lords, and hid in the heating system overnight – but was later discovered by a policeman while trying to find water.
Then on the night of the census on April 2, 1911, she hid in a cupboard in St Mary Undercroft, the chapel of the Palace of Westminster, to avoid the census. She was discovered by a cleaner and was arrested but not charged.
Emily’s tactics became even more radical in December 1911, when she started to set fire to post boxes. She was arrested for the final time in November 1912, after attacking a Baptist minister with a horsewhip, having mistaken him for Lloyd George.
Emily went on hunger strike again as was released early – it was the seventh time she had been on hunger strike and the 49th time she had been force fed, according to Rebecca West’s book – The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West 1911-17.
1913 Epsom Derby
To this day it is not known if Emily meant to throw herself in front of the horse that took her life, or if she had other plans. On June 4, 1913, she took two flags bearing the suffragette colours of violet and travelled to Epsom in Surrey by train and attended the Derby.
During the race, Emily had positioned herself at the final bend before the home straight, which is known as Tattenham Corner. She ran out onto the course, as the race was on going, and was hit by Anmer, King George V’s horse, which would have been travelling at around 35mph at the time.
Despite being rushed to hospital, Emily died four days later on June 8, 1913, from a fracture to her skull. It is not known if she had intended to die, although the corner at her inquest ruled that Emily had not committed suicide – saying that her death was “due to misadventure”.
When her body was being transported from Epsom to London on June 14, 1913, there was a procession of 5,000 women, and they marched in ranks wearing the colours of white and purple.