Battle Fields

19th July 2018

As the Suffragettes are honoured at Goodwood this year with MORV London’s exclusive riders’ silks for the Magnolia Cup, Camilla Swift looks back to 1913, when the protesters began to target sporting events.

Words by Camilla Swift

  • suffragettes

  • horse racing

  • Magnolia Cup

gettyimages-6134998601.jpg

ON A WARM SUMMER’S DAY, the Epsom Downs are full of dog-walkers, joggers, and families going for a stroll. But wander along the rails of the racecourse towards Tattenham Corner and something catches your eye: a commemorative plaque with bunches of purple flowers, which are replaced regularly. The plaque is a reminder of a grim chapter in Epsom’s long racing history; for this is the spot from which Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison ran out in front of the King’s horse, Anmer, during the Epsom Derby on June 8, 1913.

Despite the fact that three separate cameras caught the incident on film, to this day no one knows what Davison’s real aim was. Did she set out to throw herself in front of the horse? Did she want to display a flag, mistakenly thinking, because her view was blocked, that all the horses had passed? Or was she, as some believe, trying to pin a Suffragette flag onto Anmer, having  is judged the speed at which the horses were travelling?

The fact that she had bought a return train ticket, and also had a ticket for a suffragette dance that evening, indicates that she was fully expecting to return home at the end of the day. Indeed, in 2013, forensic experts working on a documentary presented by Clare Balding examined the footage from the 1913 Derby and concluded that Davison would have had a clear view of the oncoming field, and that she was in fact reaching up to the horse’s bridle.

gettyimages-735537361.jpg
gettyimages-1136366951.jpg

Of course, the Suffragettes were out to promote their cause, and any form of publicity was seen as good publicity. It wasn’t just racing events they chose to target. Any sport favoured by the gentlemen and politicians whose attention they wanted to attract was seen as fair game. Golf and cricket were also singled out, with pavilions burnt down and courses dug up, and there was a plot to destroy the football stands at Crystal Palace and Blackburn Rovers. Grass was a favourite target; the more hallowed the turf, the better. Writing “Votes for Women” in acid on golf greens used by MPs was a frequent tactic, while one Suffragette was caught climbing into the Wimbledon grounds armed with paraffin and wood shavings.

But horse-racing was arguably the Suffragettes’ most targeted sport, and 1913 was the year they really took aim. Ayr, Cardiff and Kelso racecourses were all attacked that year, with Kelso’s grandstand burnt to the ground by a firebomb. At Hurst Park racecourse, the Suffragettes’ arson attack left the grandstand “a fantastic medley of charred wood, twisted iron, broken and melted glass”. And just after Davison’s Epsom protest, a similar incident happened at the Gold Cup at Ascot, when a young man carrying a Suffragette flag ran onto the course and caused a collision. 

If the Suffragettes were aiming to win people over with their increasingly militant actions, it’s debatable whether they achieved their goal – though women did, of course, get the vote eventually. In 1918, women over the age of 30 who met certain property criteria were granted the right to vote, which added 8.4 million women to the electorate. In 1928, suffrage was extended to include all women over the age of 21, finally giving them the same voting rights as men. The battle was won.

The Magnolia Cup takes place on August 2, 2018.

This article is taken from the Goodwood magazine, Summer 2018 issue.

  • suffragettes

  • horse racing

  • Magnolia Cup

  • Aamilah photo.jpg

    Latest News

    Riding A Dream Academy Student, Aamilah Aswat, riding in Markel Magnolia Cup five years after Khadijah Mellah's historic win

  • qgf2023_jackbeasley-30.jpg

    Latest News

    Annabelle Hadden-Wight wins the 2023 Markel Magnolia Cup

  • the-markel-magnolia-cup-riders-1.jpg

    Latest News

    Markel Magnolia Cup 2022 Rider Line Up Announced