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Derby Day: Emily Wilding Davison and votes for women

To encourage students to consider their commitment to an important cause (SEAL theme: Motivation).

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To encourage students to consider their commitment to an important cause (SEAL theme: Motivation).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and two readers.
  • Find an image of well-dressed spectators at a horse race meeting and display it during the assembly.
  • There is a very blurry clip that shows what happened on the day (at: It’s quite difficult to make out the event, but it is graphic if you know where to look.
  • Please note that not all historians agree with the interpretation of the events of 1913 described below. Some believe that Emily Davison was simply crossing the track in the belief that all the horses had passed by, so the event was a true accident.


Leader (in role of sports commentator) Welcome, on this fine June day, to the 1913 Epsom Derby. As well as being the premier event in the flat-racing season, today’s race offers the elite of London society the chance to see and be seen. His Majesty King George the Fifth is present, together with many members of the royal family, including Queen Mary. They are here to cheer on Anmer, a horse from their own stables, who is ridden today by famous jockey Herbert Jones.

The horses are now under way, galloping down the starting straight. As the race is a sprint, they should soon come into sight.

I’m afraid to say that Anmer hasn’t had a particularly good start and lies in third to last place as the horses take the sharp Tattenham Corner to head into the finishing straight.

No! I don’t believe what I’m seeing! A woman has ducked under the barrier and is on the track. Most of the field has passed her, but she’s diving towards the King’s horse, reaching up to grasp the bridle. Anmer has hit her hard, flinging the woman’s body up in the air and the jockey has been sent flying over the horse’s head.

Reader 1 The woman was Emily Wilding Davison, a well-known member of the Suffragette Movement.

Reader 2 The Suffragettes were an organization, founded in the late nineteenth century (when they were called the Suffragists), that lobbied for women in the UK to be given the right to vote. Initially they lobbied quietly and peacefully, but their tactics changed when Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, took the lead to gain attention for their cause and hasten change. They interrupted political meetings, burned down churches, broke shop windows on Oxford Street in London, chained themselves to the railings of Buckingham Palace and went on hunger strike.

Reader 1 Emily Davison was one of the most militant members. She set fire to postboxes, threw metal balls labelled ‘bomb’ through windows, hid inside Parliament on three occasions and was often on hunger strike. She was continually in and out of prison. Once she threw herself from a balcony when in the prison and was saved only by the net placed to prevent suicide attempts. She wrote that her jump was an intentional attempt to sacrifice her life in order to publicize the right of women to have the vote. There is strong reason to believe that her invasion of the track at the Epsom Derby was in order to achieve the same result. She died of her injuries four days later.

Leader Were the Suffragettes correct? Do women have as much right to the vote as men? I don’t think anyone would deny that their cause was justified. It seems incredible that, less than a hundred years ago, women in the United Kingdom didn’t have the same right to vote as men. Yet the protests of the Pankhursts and Emily Davison were seen as scandalous at the time. Despite quiet and reasonable requests, their human rights were denied by a male-dominated political system. That’s why they felt it necessary to step up their action, resulting in Emily Davison’s sacrificial act.

There are still injustices around us, both in this country and in the wider world. Do you have the courage to protest? It can be calm and reasonable – writing letters, making phone calls, sending texts. Organizations such as Amnesty International can give you details of how best to do this, but there may be a time when more direct, public action could help raise the profile of the cause. I’m not suggesting that anyone start a fire or break windows and certainly not undertake suicidal acts like that of Emily Davison. A protest march, a boycott, a public rally can achieve a great deal, as was shown by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, half a century ago. What matters is how important the cause is.

Time for reflection

Let’s take inspiration from Emily Davison and be prepared to commit ourselves to tackling some of the injustices in our country and our world.


Dear Lord,
thank you for the freedom we have in this country to express our opinions.
May we have the courage to use that freedom so others may be free also.
May we be ready to tackle setbacks until human rights are freely shared.



‘Which side are you on?’ by Natalie Merchant (a protest song from the 1930s)

Publication date: June 2013   (Vol.15 No.6)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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