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Tracing Emily Wilding Davison’s family history


Author Maureen Howes has been researching the family and life of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison for many years and yet she is still surprised by discovering new genealogical connections and pieces of evidence. Here she outlines some key points that have helped to rewrite history - and others that still have missing pieces.

Emily Wilding Davison was born at Roxburgh House in Blackheath, near Greenwich, in 1872. Known as ‘Pem’ by her family she was brought up within a large, wealthy and loving home that included her half brothers and sisters. She was the third of four children of Charles Edward Davison’s second marriage to his second cousin Margaret Caisley of Morpeth. 

Davison was well educated from a young age and went to St Hugh’s College in Oxford for English Language and Literature. She earned a First Class (Honours) award in 1895 but was not given it as Oxford did not grant degrees to women at that time. After her exams Davison went to work as a governess and as a teacher.

In 1906 Davison joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) because she felt that a vote for women was the only way forward. Davison grew up with a clear understanding of the urgent need for social reforms which sprang her maternal side. To understand ‘Emily the suffragette’ you only have to look at her mother and grandmother’s lives. These were women whose strength of character Davison inherited in full measure. Her female ancestors possessed backbones of steel and gritty determination: no matter what life threw at them they carried on unbowed.

Joining the WSPU was simple. As Emmeline Pankhurst said, “Any woman could become a member by paying a shilling, but at the same time she was required to sign a declaration of loyal adherence to our policy and pledge not to work for any political party until the women’s vote was won.”

Within eighteen months Davison was very involved with the organisation and even acted as a chief steward at a WSPU demonstration in London. By 1909 she was signing her name as ‘the suffragette’ and being arrested on a number of occasions in Manchester, London and Newcastle. She marched, rallied, threw stones, and even snuck into the ventilation shaft at the House of Commons over a weekend with the intent to make a speech. She was arrested nine times and force-fed 49 times while hunger striking during her incarceration. She wrote, “Through my humble work in this noblest of all causes, I have come to the fullness of joy and an interest in living which I never experienced.”

There was real danger in being a suffragette. It was not a crime for a woman to ask for the vote and yet at least four women Suffragettes died after daring to raise that question. Perhaps the increasing militancy by suffragettes can be seen as understandable retaliation against the cruel treatment and attitudes towards those supporting equal suffrage, and the treatment that both male and female suffragists were subjected to as prisoners for the cause. During their campaigning for votes suffragettes were more sinned against than being sinners themselves. Emmeline Pankhurst reportedly said, “As long as women were ‘outlaws’ they were justified in open rebellion. The fight would be carried on, as before, with every regard for human life. If there were any lives to be lost they would be their own.”

On Derby Day, 4 June 1913, Davison ran onto the racecourse, waited for horses to pass, and tried to grab the bridle of King George V’s horse Anmer. The horse struck her at speed and she died on 8 June from a fractured skull and internal injuries.

Ever since that day at the Epsom racecourse there has been speculation about Davison’s real intent. Did she run onto the racetrack intending to die in her protest? Recently discovered archive material from the De Beacker family (whose great aunt was Emily Wilding Davison) helps to rewrite history by proving that the Epsom Protest was planned by the women of Morpeth months before the race and there was no suicidal intent whatsoever.

Alongside new evidence such as this there is an entire generation of inspiring, wonderful warrior great aunts yet to be discovered. For example, was Miss Kate Evans of Paisley your great aunt? She was a suffragette, political agent, poet, Broadway star, comedienne, and friend of Ivor Novello the Pankhurst. Her letters to Marie Stuart nee De Baecker include poems and songs for a tribute to Davison and yet today her identity remains a mystery. Only with more research and artefacts unearthed from family historians can we begin to fully understand the courageous efforts and self-sacrifice our female relatives have made in fighting for the vote. 

By Maureen Howes

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