THE story of Emily Wilding Davison and her fatal Derby day protest is coming to the fore this year as tributes are paid in the centenary of her death.
Various events are taking place across Northumberland through the Emily Inspires programme to celebrate the life of the county’s Suffragette, including the staging of a new play by Kate Willoughby, To Freedom’s Cause.
Emily Davison is known around the world for what was to be her final protest for women’s rights when she stepped onto the course at the 1913 Epsom Derby and was struck by the King’s horse Anmer.
She suffered massive injuries and died four days later in Epsom Hospital.
But Miss Willoughby’s play focuses more on Emily the person and her relationship with her mother, family and Northumberland home than on the drama of that fateful race day.
She said: “I was always interested in Emily and I started in about 2009 doing a lot of research on her.
“I came across a letter from Emily’s mother Margaret, which was written after Emily’s Derby protest when she was in hospital. It was so full of love and hurt and she really didn’t understand what had happened. Emily’s mother supported her, but it was difficult for her to keep seeing her daughter coming back to Longhorsley so battered and bruised from force-feeding and protests and then there was this. There was also the fact that Emily had told her mother never to go to her if ever she got into a scrape.
“The heart of the play is the mother and daughter in Northumberland. People forget that, they see only the image of Emily at the Derby.
“There is an image of Emily as a dour, serious woman and not much fun to be around. She was called the ‘lawless lassie’ and she could be lawless, but there was another side to her. Children loved her and she was a teacher.
“I wanted to explore the other side to Emily Wilding Davison because there is so much more to her than the image. She was a really interesting woman and daughter and she was a lot of fun.”
Miss Willoughby, who is from Yorkshire, but has relatives from Northumberland, has already penned plays about Mary Queen of Scots, Marie Stuart — Fleur D’Ecosse, and Elizabeth Fry, A Fiver’s Worth.
After starting her research on Emily she learned that a working group was planning centennial events in Northumberland and got in touch to link up with the programme.
“The play has evolved and developed ever since,” said Miss Willoughby.
“I feel very strongly that it is a play about Emily’s Northumberland roots. Although she wasn’t born there, she was a Northumbrian and she was so full of life, love and laughter. That is not always the way that she is seen.
“She did make mistakes, but perhaps because she did make mistakes it makes what she did in the end all the more emotional because she was human. She was a brave woman and full of life, but she was an ordinary person.
“I really do feel that the reason Emily did these things is because she cared. Sometimes you have to step outside your comfort zone. She was a teacher and had a secure job, which she gave up to protest because it wasn’t right that women didn’t have the vote and she was prepared to risk everything.”
Miss Willoughby, who plays the part of Emily herself, said there was some difficulty writing the piece because it is impossible to know for certain why the Suffragette stepped onto the course that day.
And actress Kay Renner, who plays Emily’s mother Margaret, also had to consider the question.
“I think that the only way that Margaret could cope with what happened was if she felt that her daughter had done this on the spur of the moment,” she said.
“She really had to believe that she did it because the emotion grabbed her at the time. It was the only way to come to terms with it.”
Miss Willoughby got more of a feeling for Emily’s character when she joined descendants of the Suffragette’s family at Epsom Racecourse for the unveiling of a plaque earlier this year, and one of the family members, 19-year-old Lauren Caisley, will be involved in some of the performances of the play.
“When I went to Epsom there were about 30 or 40 of Emily’s relatives there and I got a real sense of her there,” said Miss Willoughby.
“I realise that the play is quite an undertaking and I just hope I do Emily justice.”
The play also touches on the effect Emily’s fatal protest had on Anmer’s jockey Herbert Jones, who escaped serious injury, but for whom the events had a profound impact.
“Everybody tends to forget about Herbert Jones, but it affected him very much,” said Miss Willoughby.
“Years later he went to Mrs Pankhurst’s funeral and laid a wreath for her, but he said it was for Emily Wilding Davison as well. He bore Emily no malice and I think that is very important. It shows what a gentleman he was.”
The play will premiere in Morpeth next month to launch a packed weekend programme of events marking 100 years since Emily’s funeral in the town. However, local school pupils, including Year 7 classes at Chantry and Newminster Middle Schools, have been given a flavour of what’s in store at workshops led by the two main characters.
Miss Willoughby said: “We have been getting the children to think about how they would have felt about not having any power as it was for women in Emily’s day.
“As we are involved in drama, the children took part in activities around that and did some wonderful tableaux. After that they were able to question Emily and her mother.
“The children seemed to take a lot from the day. At the start they knew a little bit about Emily, but by the end of the workshop their understanding had significantly increased.
“The children really responded to it and recognised how important it is to have a voice and to use it.”
Newminster English teacher Jane Sampson said: “The workshop was very good. The children were learning about Emily and what the play is about. They were learning about conflict and were able to ask questions of the two women in their roles. They really loved it and were very interested.”
The two schools have also been working on various projects about Emily and the Suffragettes, which has included projects with Woodhorn and Beamish museums, as well as sessions in the classroom and participation in local events.
Chantry English teacher Judith Michie said: “Our Year 7 classes have been doing a lot of work around Emily Davison and the Suffragettes.
“Some Chantry children attended the International Women’s Day service and heard more about Emily at St Mary’s Church, we have done a lot of research on the Cat and Mouse Act, we have done an art project and were involved in the Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering.
“We also had a debate on whether children would have acted as the Suffragettes did and if there is anything they feel strongly about today. There were strong opinions about whether children were for or against what Emily and the Suffragettes did.”
Pupils will take part in the centennial commemorations in Morpeth and will also visit Beamish on June 29 and 30 to join in a community weekend.
Beamish Community Learning Coordinator Alex Fairlamb said: “We have looked at the community heritage approach to the Suffragettes, working with local schools.
“Children have been going to Woodhorn to learn about the Suffragettes and took part in a rally at Beamish. They will play a full part in the Emily Inspires events in June.
“They have been coming up with songs and banners and at Beamish next month it will be the culmination of all the work they have done when they can show it to another audience.”
Emily Inspires Director Penni Blythe-Jones said she is delighted at the increasing interest in the Suffragette’s anniversary.
“There is a lot of activity and interest constantly evolving,” she said.
“When we started talking about this last summer it was a case of being asked what we were doing and why, but there is much greater awareness now that something is happening across the county to remember Emily, which is exactly what we wanted. We need a lot more interest in her.”
For more information about the Emily Inspires programme visit www.emilyinspires.co.uk