The Grand Gesture
Wednesday 4th June 1913
It is the second day of the Suffragettes Summer Festival but, although Emily has a steward’s pass in her purse, she has chosen not to attend. Instead, she is making her way from her abode at 133 Clapham Road to Victoria Station. Although she has risen early, the streets are already a seethe of horse-drawn vehicles – from private carriages and charabancs, to barrow boys’ carts – all on a mass exodus from the capital. It is Derby Day, and everyone can afford to go to the races - because today, a view from a position on Epsom Downs is free.
Emily shakes her head at the cry of: ‘Jump on, miss. Still room for a small one.’ Before she can start her journey to the races, she must stop off at the Women’s Social & Political Union Headquarters at Lincoln’s Inn House – a magnificent, and newly-acquired five storey building on Kingsway.
Once in the majestically colonnaded entrance hall, she approaches the desk behind which her friend and comrade, Mary Leigh is sitting, and to whom she makes her request. Mary hands her two Suffragette Union flags made of a woollen material – each one almost four foot long and twenty-seven inches wide – their distinctive coloured bands of purple, white and green denoting dignity, purity and hope.
Mary asks what her purpose is today. ‘Ah!’ is the only reply.
‘Emily! I hope you are not intending too much mischief. Nothing too militant. Nothing too dangerous. You know quite well how you are being ostracised by some of our members. Not arson I beg of you, and no “grand gestures”. You know how the Pankhursts feel about that.’ Mary sighs and shakes her head. ‘It has already cost you your job here. And your health will not take kindly to another long jail sentence.’
‘I don’t have arson in mind today, my dear.’ Emily reassures her friend with a mischievous smile. ‘As I said to you yesterday, look in the evening paper later and all will be revealed. I will see you at the Suffragette Dance this evening. I have my ticket already.’
‘Then I will just have to be patient,’ Mary says.
As Emily makes her way to the railway station, her flags now neatly folded and pinned to the inside of her jacket, she remembers walking in the gardens of the Empress Rooms yesterday, on the opening day of the Summer Festival. She sees herself and Mary standing close together as they admire the statue of the Movement’s patron saint – and Emily’s personal heroine – Joan of Arc. The inscription at the base of the statue is burnt deep within her soul: Fight on and God will give the Victory. Like the Maid of Orleans, Emily is a fervently religious woman who believes that rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.
She had turned to Mary and clasped her hand. ‘Although I will not be attending tomorrow, my dear, I fully intend to come every other day until the end of the week. Now, let us go and enjoy ourselves. I’m off to browse the bookstall first. There is a particular publication that I have been after for some time. And then we will indulge in a pot of tea and some of those delicious little cakes we were admiring earlier!’
Once Emily has boarded the train at Victoria station, she places her return ticket to Epsom Downs into her purse – a not inconsiderable expense at eight shillings and sixpence. But she still has money left to place a few moderate bets on the races prior to the main event. At three o’clock the King’s horse Anmer will be running – the race that everybody has come to see.
‘Here miss. Take my seat, if you please.’
Emily looks round to see a young tradesman in his best Sunday suit and flat cap preparing to vacate his seat. She gratefully accepts, taking her place next to his lady friend who clutches on her lap a large-brimmed hat, flamboyantly decorated with feathers. Emily takes off her smaller one modestly sporting a single carnation, and pats at her disrupted curls before leaning back against the soft material of the headrest.
Normally she would not have accepted a seat so readily, but today she is suffering particularly with the pains in her head, neck and back. She shifts in her seat, adjusting the bulk of the flags hidden under her jacket. The train moves off with a jolt, jarring her spine and aggravating her other injuries brought about by her suicide attempt last year in Holloway Prison. Her throat constricts as she recollects the force-feeding that had taken place, both before and after her fall. She twists her body, trying to fight off the memory of the wardresses as they pinned her down, allowing the doctor to forcibly open her mouth with the aid of a steel gag. She gags at the thought of the feeding tube being inserted. Of the choking and coughing the moment it touched the back of her throat. At the retching as copious amounts of liquid invaded her gullet.
The young lady with the extravagantly decorated hat addresses her. ‘Are you all right, love? You look rather peaky, if you don’t mind me saying.’
‘I’m quite all right, thank you. Just a momentary feeling of motion sickness, that is all.’
But Emily knows this to be untrue. She is indeed decidedly ‘peaky’. Her health has been permanently compromised by her actions during her last stay in Holloway. But she had had no alternative. Once again she and her comrades had been refused Class A political prisoner status. Once more they had been put into solitary confinement and had been obliged to go on hunger strike. The screams, moans and sounds of their struggling resistance to the feeding tube had decided her. The idea in her mind that day had been: One big tragedy may save many others. Somebody would have to make the ultimate sacrifice before their cause would be taken seriously. And that somebody had to be her.
At the first opportunity, she had walked up the iron staircase and thrown herself from the top. The fall should have proved fatal – it was a clear drop of thirty to forty feet. But she had caught on the edge of the wire-netting, cracking two vertebrae and badly injuring her head.
And the force-feeding had continued immediately.
Emily’s friend Elinor Penn Gaskell had admonished her during her recuperative stay at her home after her release, ten days later. ‘You have done enough for the cause, Emily. You may be right in your belief that a life needs to be given for us to be heard, but not yours.’
Unwillingly at first, Emily has now accepted this. She has already sacrificed her personal life – her career prospects, her old pre-suffragette acquaintances and any chance of a family of her own. How she had delighted in playing with her little nephew and niece on her last visit to her sister, now living in France! Emily is now forty years old, unmarried and childless, and she knows that this state will forever be her lot. And although the ‘grand gesture’ will now fall to someone else, again she argues with herself: But why not I as well as another?
But it had not been God’s will that she should die. Unlike St Joan, she is obviously not the chosen one.
She releases the tension in her fingers. Their grip will ruin the brim of her new hat. She wonders now if a single act of sacrifice will ever be enough. Perhaps it would take the death of hundreds of people to make the government appreciate the unfairness of women’s enforced inequality. Perhaps it would need a war where thousands of men’s lives would be lost, before women could prove their worth as equally valuable citizens.
But today she will not dwell on such matters. Today she intends to enjoy herself. She will lay a few modest bets on the early races and indulge herself in the festivities taking place on the Downs – the funfair, the performers, the stalls selling food and all manner of knick-knacks.
And, later on, she will take great pleasure in putting her plan into action.
Approaching the King’s thoroughbred, Anmer, in the parade ring before the start of the big race, will be easy. The distinctive purple, scarlet and gold of the royal jockey’s silks will no doubt stand out from those of the other riders’. And Anmer is bound to be leading the procession. She will bide her time, inconspicuously releasing the flags from the inside of her jacket before rushing forward as he trots slowly past the assembled crowd. As she waves them above her head, these symbols of Suffragette protest will fly out behind her in the breeze and her message will be unmistakable. The race will be delayed, nobody will be injured and she will get the press coverage that she has promised Mary.
And with any luck she will only incur a fine.
But, as the time approaches three o’clock and the start of the big race, Emily discovers a fatal flaw to her plan. She scolds herself for being so naïve. Although her slight, emaciated form allows her to weave her way through to the front of the crowd awaiting the parade, the massive police presence has formed an impenetrable barrier. Her frustration rises as she is buffeted by the human tsunami of malodorous bodies, too hot in their Sunday finery, all trying to catch a glimpse of the horses and jockeys before they place their last minute bets. Her longed for photograph on the front page of this evening’s newspaper, together with its accompanying article, no longer seems a certainty.
But there is still a way to disrupt the race and to ensure the necessary publicity. More difficult, and undoubtedly carrying a greater element of risk – but she will have to try. People without grandstand seats have started to climb onto the roofs of carriages parked alongside the racetrack. Others are positioning themselves on higher ground. But neither of these options will suit her plan. Dodging around the crowds of people surging towards the railings separating the spectators from the horses, she gains a position right at the front, just where the sweeping, downhill curve at Tattenham Corner meets the final straight.
The race has started. People around her are hanging dangerously over the guardrails, desperate for a view of the jockeys as they hug the tight, left-hand turn. There is a single policeman warning them to keep back. He will be too occupied to be alerted to her intentions. The rumble of horses’ hooves shakes the ground. The roar of the crowd is deafening as the first, tightly-bunched group of horses career around the corner. A giant earthquake shudders beneath her feet as the leaders rush past, their speed creating a blurred and moving wall before her eyes. Has the King’s horse already passed her? She has had no time to release her flags. But, aware of a gap as three more horses approach…
Emily ducks under the railings. As if in slow motion, the leading horse swerves from its intended path unhindered, and is quickly gone. She needs to step further out. As she raises her flag-less hands above her head, the head of the approaching horse jerks upwards in response. She smells his hot, snorting breath. She feels a momentary searing pain in her side, before–
Hurried to the nearby Epsom Cottage Hospital, Emily Wilding Davison was operated on two days later, but she died on 8th June without ever regaining consciousness. Found on her person were two suffragette flags, the return stub of her railway ticket to London, her race card, a ticket to a suffragette dance later that day and a diary with appointments for the following week.
After the end of WW1, a coalition government passed the Representation of the People Act 1918, enfranchising all men over 21, as well as all women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications. But it was not until the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 that women were given the same voting rights as men.