On 2nd April 1911, the night of the census, Emily Wilding Davison spent the night hiding in the House of Commons inside a broom cupboard in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft in the Palace of Westminster.
Emily was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903 by mother and daughter suffragists Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.
The suffragettes had encouraged women to boycott the census on the grounds that if they didn’t count enough to have a vote, then ‘neither shall they be counted’. Some women refused to complete the census, and others decided to spoil their census forms by covering them in suffrage slogans.
While some suffragettes spent the night in large groups, Emily spent the night alone in the broom cupboard and was found by a cleaner the next day. She was arrested but not charged. On at least five occasions, Emily had hidden or demonstrated in the Houses of Parliament and had been banned by the Speaker.
As a result of her overnight stay, the Clerk of Works at the House of Commons completed a census form to include Emily in the returns, noting she had been ‘found hiding in the crypt of Westminster Hall’. Emily was included in the census twice, as her landlady also recorded her as being present at her lodgings.
Emily’s most infamous protest was yet to come. On 4 June 1913, she travelled to the Epsom Derby. In front of thousands of people, including King George V and Queen Mary, she rushed onto the course as the racehorses thundered around Tattenham Corner. She deliberately targeted the King’s horse, Amner, and it’s believed she had a suffragette flag in her hand.
The crowd watched in horror as the horse crashed into her. Emily died from her injuries four days later, surrounded by an honour guard of suffragettes in a room hung with green, white and purple bunting. Whether she intended to sacrifice herself or just to disrupt the race is uncertain.
The words “Deeds not words” are inscribed on her headstone.
In 1988, the Labour MP, Tony Benn sneaked into the cupboard in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft and put up a plaque marking Emily Wilding Davison’s overnight stay in Parliament on census night 1911.
In 2001, Tony Benn said in the House of Commons: “I have put up several plaques - quite illegally, without permission; I screwed them up myself. One was in the broom cupboard to commemorate Emily Wilding Davison, and another celebrated the people who fought for democracy and those who run the House. If one walks around this place, one sees statues of people, not one of whom believed in democracy, votes for women or anything else. We have to be sure that we are a workshop and not a museum.”
Emily Wilding Davison died for the cause but, the next generation still had to fight for equality. Read The Suffragette's Daughter - introducing a new sleuth for a new era.
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