New book sheds light on tragic Suffragette Emily

Author  Maureen Howes with her new book about Emily Wilding Davison.
Author Maureen Howes with her new book about Emily Wilding Davison.

MYTHS and misinformation about Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison could be dispelled forever as a new book rewrites history.

Morpeth genealogist Maureen Howes has spent 10 years painstakingly researching her book Emily Wilding Davison – A Suffragette’s Family Album, using relatives’ archives never-before seen by the public.

The book looks at the family at the heart of the tragedy of June 1913 when Emily stepped onto the track of the Epsom Derby and was struck by the King’s horse, suffering fatal injuries.

But it also contains some fascinating revelations.

Not only has Mrs Howes’ research suggested that Emily had no intention of killing herself in the protest, but there are strong indications that she was not acting alone.

In fact, she says, the Epsom protest was to be the first militant action of a band of Morpeth Suffragettes that went terribly wrong.

And there is even a hint that Emily may have been engaged at the time.

“The way history has portrayed Emily has been so flawed,” said Mrs Howes.

“I have had to peel away all of the urban myths and what I want now is for people to stop perpetuating these myths.

“We have got to start looking at Emily with new eyes and pretend we don’t know anything about her at all. What has been put out into the ether so far about her is not the real Emily.”

Mrs Howes’ investigation into Emily’s history started in 2002 when she was asked by a Northumberland working group to try to trace the Suffragette’s relatives for the 90th anniversary of her death and commemorations at her grave in St Mary’s Churchyard in Morpeth.

She started by looking at the people in the funeral cortege and three weeks later presented her initial findings.

The work continued, with Mrs Howes finding more and more Northumberland ties to Emily. Countless relatives were tracked down and numerous photographs and items connected to the Suffragette were brought out.

There was also a different picture emerging of the protester, not of a mad fanatic intent on becoming a martyr, but of an intelligent woman whose death was a terrible accident.

Mrs Howes said: “When I started this I knew Emily was buried in Morpeth and that was it. I probably thought the same about Emily as everybody else did, but it was worrying because so many people were coming to me with different stories.

“I realised there was an entirely different story to Emily than what I had heard before, but I thought ‘who is going to believe me?’. Then I realised that as long as I researched it, got evidence and stuck to genealogy guidelines I couldn’t go wrong, that was my safety zone.

“Genealogy has been the key that has opened the door to all of this.”

When the anniversary was over, head of the Davison family, Emily’s great nephew Geoffrey, urged Mrs Howes to continue her research and the book today is the result of that.

There are family stories, photographs, postcards and letters, showing Emily’s background and character.

The campaigner’s obvious Northumberland links are to Longhorsley, where she lived with her mother, but Mrs Howes has found there are deeper family ties to Morpeth through grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

Her father Charles and mother Margaret lived in the County Town before Emily’s birth, in Winton House in Dacre Street, and there are accounts that Emily lived in Morpeth before her death.

“Through this I hope to give Emily back her heritage because it has been airbrushed out of existence,” said Mrs Howes.

“All the reports mention is Longhorsley, but that was only the last 20 years of Margaret and Emily’s lives.”

Emily was born on October 11, 1872, at Blackheath, near Greenwich, after Charles’ business interests had taken the family south, but after her father’s death in 1893 Emily and her mother returned to Northumberland.

Two years later Emily achieved First Class Honours in English Language and Literature from St Hugh’s College, Oxford, but was not given a degree because she was a woman, though she later obtained one from the University of London.

Emily found work as a governess and in 1906 she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded by Emmeline Pankhurst to press for women’s rights.

Mrs Howes suggests a number of factors that may have influenced Emily. She had seen her sister left destitute by divorce and her aunt ‘compromised’ by an upper class man while in service, resulting in the birth of her cousin Jessie May.

She had worked for a New Zealand mistress as a governess eight years after that country had given women the vote, and she was in Manchester for a christening around the time that Mrs Pankhurst was particularly active there.

Whatever he reasons, Emily became increasingly involved in the organisation. Within two years she was a chief steward at meetings and by 1910 she was a paid organiser. By this time she had been arrested and imprisoned several times, going on hunger strike and being force-fed.

There is no doubt that Emily was a fearsome campaigner, but Mrs Howes also shows another side. There are stories of musical soirees with friends, delivering food parcels to soup kitchens, having a strong sense of humour and being beloved of children.

She would rush off the train to buy sweets for a young relative, give money to the boy who swept the path at church and take babies out in their prams.

On the campaign trail she became more militant, but Mrs Howes has found no evidence to support the suggestion that the Pankhursts considered her too extreme and in fact the Derby protest was organised after their declaration that sporting events would be legitimate targets.

Lilias Mitchell had been the WSPU organiser in Aberdeen and organised a small group of women to carry out a night-time raid on Balmoral Golf Course, changing all the flags to Suffragette colours ahead of a visit by the Prime Minister. Lilias was then appointed organiser for the North East.

Emily had been imprisoned in Aberdeen after attacking a church minister she mistook for Lloyd George and Mrs Howes said that when she was released she and Lilias met up in Morpeth. After the Epsom accident Lilias was moved from the North East to Birmingham.

“At the time of the Epsom protest Emmeline Pankhurst had declared war on male orientated sporting events. Nobody has ever said Epsom was part of it, but it was,” said Mrs Howes.

“After Lilias’ golf course protest the WSPU realised how good it was for publicity. When Emily left prison in Aberdeen Lilias had been sent to be the North East organiser. It is too much of a coincidence. I think they started planning the Morpeth Suffragette protest together.”

Research has shown there were around 70 members of the Morpeth Suffrage Society. It was a non-militant organisation, but Mrs Howes said there was a splinter group that was intent on action.

She said members would meet at Morpeth Common to practice pinning Suffragette colours to passing horses and they drew straws to decide who would go to Epsom.

She believes the plan was to attach the colours in the parade ring, but something went wrong – perhaps Emily was recognised, so she took more desperate measures, stepping onto the course.

“It is fascinating. Emily went to Epsom as a representative of the Morpeth women,” she said.

“It was their first militant protest, but for some reason nobody has ever looked into it.

“The drawing of straws definitely happened, it was recorded by too many people not to be true.

“The London Suffragettes said they didn’t know anything about the protest, but witnesses said there were Suffragette placards held up in the crowd and ‘Votes for Women’ was called out so there were some Suffragettes there.

“I’m wondering if some of the Morpeth women went down to Epsom.”

In the book, Mrs Howes acknowledges that Emily had at one time believed the campaign needed a martyr and had thrown herself from a staircase in prison, landing on netting 30ft below, but she said at the time of her death she had a return train ticket to Morpeth and was planning to visit her sister in France to meet her new baby.

There is also the mystery ‘engagement’. Mrs Howes has so far found no proof of any such relationship, but Emily did have an emerald and diamond ring, and there was a ‘gift stone’ commissioned for her grave by a friend known only to the immediate family.

“Emily did not go to Epsom to kill herself, she had too much to live for,” said Mrs Howes.

“There was no question of it being suicide at the time otherwise she wouldn’t have been buried in St Mary’s Churchyard.

“I believe she was engaged and I hope somebody will come forward and tell us more about that. I am not saying that Emily was engaged, I am asking was she engaged?”

The family album is the first of two books on Emily by Mrs Howes, with a biography to be published later.

“It has been a roller-coaster ride of discovery,” she said.

“It has been so special because of the wonderful people who have supported me. Some people were dead against me doing this because there is no black or white with Emily, you are either for her or against her, but to counter that I had wonderful people bringing things to show me.

“There have been more highs than lows due to the friendships it has brought me. I’m an adopted family member now, which is so nice.”

She added: “If I have managed to change history I am so pleased. It shows that there must be so much more in history that is wrong.

“People might question what I have said, but they haven’t dug as deeply as I have. I have been living and breathing this story for 10 years.

“What happened to Emily and the way she has been portrayed was because of the political needs of the WSPU and the Government at the time. They were all scrambling to get the moral high ground and in the process they buried this poor lady.

“I’m just glad if we can bring Emily into the 21st century because she has been frozen in the time-frame of 1913. Now people can get beyond that.”

The book will be officially launched at Appleby’s book shop in Newgate Street, Morpeth.

Mrs Howes will sign copies of her book at the shop on Saturday, from 10.30am.

Emily Wilding Davison, A Suffragette’s Family Album is published by The History Press and costs £12.99.

l All photographs, unless stated otherwise, have been published with kind permission from The History Press and are taken from the book.