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Travel: Coming face to face with a suffragette’s life and legacy in Epsom

The spirit of Emily Wilding Davison lives on in Epsom, where she was trampled to death by the British king's horse while demanding voting rights for women

The statue of Emily Wilding Davison by Surrey sculptor Christine Charlesworth on the Epsom high street
The statue of Emily Wilding Davison by Surrey sculptor Christine Charlesworth on the Epsom high street (Wikimedia Commons)

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Plonked on a bench in the middle of Epsom’s bustling high street, I stare at the woman immortalised in bronze next to me. She may be all metal, but her spirit seems alive, eyes animated, face asking a question and up in the air. I have taken a fancy to Emily Wilding Davison, a woman well ahead of her time and described as a “tireless and ingenious activist for the cause of women’s suffrage in Britain,” by the Smithsonian Magazine

The suffragette, famously trampled to death by the king's horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913, was born on 11 October 1872 in Blackheath, London. She initially worked as a teacher and governess, and in 1906 joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), a women-only movement founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst to engage in direct action and civil disobedience for voting rights for women.

Women in many countries, including New Zealand and the US, had the right to vote by the end of the 19th century. Pankhurst decided that women had to “do the work ourselves” with “deeds, not words” when Britain desisted from enfranchising them. She launched the UK suffragette movement and the women gave the fight their all—they chained themselves to railings, smashed windows, launched a nationwide bombing and arson campaign, tried to storm Parliament, and heckled politicians. When imprisoned, they went on hunger strike, refusing food for days.

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Davison was infamous for her militant tactics: breaking windows, throwing stones, setting post boxes on fire, planting bombs, and hiding overnight in the Palace of Westminster (on three occasions). On a bright day in June 1913, Davison ran out in front of King George V's horse, Amner, at the Epsom Derby. It isn’t clear what she was aiming to do and the uncertainty of her intentions have had a bearing on her place in history. Varied theories have done the rounds: accident, suicide, or an effort to pin a suffragette banner to the king's horse. Historian Elizabeth Crawford has written that “subsequent explanations of ... [Davison's] action have created a tangle of fictions, false deductions, hearsay, conjecture, misrepresentation and theory”. Be that as it may, Davison remains an emblem of women's emancipation. 

Her statue, created by Surrey sculptor Christine Charlesworth for the Emily Davison Memorial Project, was unveiled in 2021 to commemorate her extraordinary life. In an email interview, Charlesworth tells Lounge that she has depicted Emily as a “kind, very approachable woman”.  “Emily was strong minded, very well-liked, had a great sense of humour, loved children, poetry, writing, dancing and walking. Although she had a smile that could light up a room, she had several teeth knocked out during prison force-feeding and a slightly paralysed face, so it was not appropriate to show a bold smile,” she says. 

The statue is richly detailed and gives an idea of the woman Davison was. She holds a census form and mortar board, hinting at the teacher she became and the fact that she was honoured with a first-class degree at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. She was unable to graduate as this was an award only bestowed on women from 1920. 

She also wears a hunger strike medal with seven stripes that represent the seven times she refused to eat after she was imprisoned, including at Strangeways and Holloway Prison. By her side rests a stack of three pertinent books: The Bible, Leaves of Grass by poet Walt Whitman, and A Golden Key by Geoffrey Chaucer. 

My positioning myself next to Davison’s likeness is just what Charlesworth wanted: a way to make her more relatable, to attract all passers-by to sit by and engage. With the woman who gave “her past”, for “our present, your future”. 

“Emily is sitting, wearing the hat she wore that fateful day, looking with interest at whoever sits beside her, with her hand held in a gesture of welcome, expressing something she is speaking about. People leave flowers beside her. Children and adults stop to spend time with her, hold her hand. A sculpture should tell a story, be approachable, and enable people to learn more about that person,” Charlesworth says. 

A year after the Derby, The Suffragette newspaper ran an essay by Davison, The Price of Liberty. “To lay down life for friends, that is glorious, selfless, inspiring! But to re-enact the tragedy of Calvary for generations yet unborn, that is the last consummate sacrifice of the Militant,” she wrote. Her sacrifice seems even more relevant in the world women inhabit today, more than 100 years after her death, still fearing abuse, ridicule, judgment, and rights violations. 

Last month, Iran forced dozens of female students to attend “mandatory counselling sessions” for failing to wear their hijab "properly" after months of women’s rights and anti-regime protests. In Afghanistan, despite the Taliban’s initial promises that women would be able to exercise their rights within Sharia law, including the right to work and to study, rights violations against women and girls have risen steadily in the last year. In the first-world US, meanwhile, the Supreme Court last year overturned Roe v. Wade, a 1973 decision that provided a constitutional right to abortion. 

Clearly, things change but they stay the same.

I step into the Marquis of Granby, an 18th century red brick building that showcases wood panelling and exposed beams. The large front garden seems ideal for a drink in the sun, and I order a gin and tonic. As the cold liquid trickles down my parched throat, I look at The Evocation of Speed, an iconic sculpture commissioned to showcase the town’s link to the famous Derby race on Epsom Downs. Created by Judy Boyt, the artwork showcases Diomed, the very first winner of the Derby in 1780, racing against the new millennium winner Gallileo through the symbolic winner’s circle. 

The Epsom Derby, which takes place in the first week of June is Britain's richest flat horse race, and is sometimes referred to as the “Blue Riband” of the turf. The bartender, Neil, lets me in on some trivia. “The race is named for Edward Stanley, the 12th earl of Derby, who is said to have won the honour after coin toss with Sir Charles Bunbury, another of the race’s co-founders,” he says. 

He also directs my attention to the cobbled marketplace floor, studded with a series of commemorative roundels that celebrate Derby winners (trainers, jockeys, and horses). The Hall of Fame makes note of Alex Greaves, the first female jockey to compete in the Derby; Geoff Lewis, the first Epsom-based winner, and the late Lester Piggott, who features in two plaques. 

Getting my next G&T to go, I step out and look down the length of Epsom’s high street where chain retailers live cheek by jowl with independent shops and streetside cafes, the clock tower sternly standing guard over us all. The city centre hosts farmers' markets, antiques and collectables fairs, and a weekly market on Thursdays.

Epsom came to life as an Anglo-Saxon settlement in the late 6th century, and was a small rural community in medieval times. Things changed in the early 17th century with the discovery of the eponymous salts. According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, in the summer of 1618 a cowherd came across a spring that his thirsty cattle refused to drink from. Intrigued, he tasted the bitter water. He soon also realised that the water had a purging and healing effect - on his and the livestock’s bodies. 

Word spread and people began to flock to Epsom for its waters, which were rich in magnesium sulphate and helped ease the pain of gout, acted as a laxative, and relieved body aches. The discovery of the world-renowned Epsom salts made the town popular as a spa and leisure destination in the Georgian era, with the waters being taken by Charles II, John Aubrey, Samuel Pepys, and Celia Fiennes. Its popularity declined in the 1720s as other spa towns, including Bath and Tunbridge Wells, grew. 

I walk past pharmacies and indie shops, each with their own salt offering and wonder which ones to pick to take home as gifts. I step into the Assembly Rooms, one of the best-preserved buildings from Epsom’s golden run in the sun as a spa destination. Today, it’s a pub with outdoor seating that lets you enjoy the peace in Epsom. I look at the sun setting in the distance, the pink shine that seems to emanate from Davison’s statue. “Deeds, not words,” I tell myself as I doff an imaginary hat to one of the women who cleared the way for the rest of us.


By Rail: South Western Railway operates a train from London Waterloo to Epsom every 30 minutes (Tickets 600-1,300; 33 mins). 

By Road: Take a bus from London to Epsom via London Road Morden Station ( 200; 40 mins). Vehicles operated by London Buses depart from Trafalgar Square Charing Cross station. The quickest way to get from London to Epsom is by taxi ( 5,000-7,000; 15 mins).

Nearby attractions: Grade II-listed Bourne Hall in the heart of nearby Ewell Village; Nonsuch Gardens, which once housed a Tudor palace built by Henry VIII; Epsom’s Playhouse Theatre, known for drama, music and comedy; Horton Country Park Local Nature Reserve; Headley Heath, popular with walkers, cyclers, and horse riders; and Epsom Common, renowned for its wildlife.

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