A TALE OF TRAGEDY & GLORY
Clare Balding explores the story of the Epsom Derby, including the fateful race in which the suffragette Emily Davison made the ultimate sacrifice
ince it was first run in 1780, the Derby has been the most important event in the flat-racing calendar. By the 19th century, Parliament was suspended on Derby Day and thousands of workers were given time off so they could attend Epsom for a day out on the Downs. By the early 20th century, the race was one of the biggest sporting occasions of the year, but on 4 June 1913, it made front-page headlines around the world – not for the performance of the winner, but for what happened at Tattenham Corner as the horses turned for home.
The fight for women’s votes was in full swing and the suffragettes led the most vociferous and daring protests as they argued to be allowed to elect Members of Parliament. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst, and three years later, a young woman called Emily Wilding Davison joined the party and soon became an organiser of marches. She was a bold and militant activist who was arrested on nine occasions and went on hunger strike at least seven times as she tried to draw attention to the cause.
She had decided to attend the Derby on her own and positioned herself at Tattenham Corner. I have watched the footage of what happened in slow motion, analysing her actions frame by frame, and I am still astounded by it. As the runners came round the famous bend, galloping at about 30 miles an hour downhill as they quickened for home, Davison ducked under the rail into the middle of the field. The first few horses avoided her but then there was a gap and towards the back of the pack, slightly detached from the other runners, was King George V’s horse Anmer. Davison is clearly seen raising her arms towards the horse’s bridle.
In one way, it was pure luck that Davison managed to target the King’s horse (they were galloping so fast, that it would be almost impossible to pick out any one runner, even for someone who knew racing inside out) but, of course, it was desperately unlucky that the horse in question tried to avoid her by raising his front feet to jump over her. Watching the footage closely, it is clear that Anmer unwittingly strikes Emily in the chest and flips her over, causing her to somersault and land so heavily that she would die a few days later from her injuries.
For many years, it was assumed that Davison was attempting to pull down the King’s horse, but the pictures show her carrying something that may have been a suffragette scarf or flag. I suspect she was trying to throw it over Anmer’s neck in the hope that the King’s horse would gallop past the packed stands with the signature standard of the WSPU flying from him. The symbolism of supposed royal approval would have suited Davison’s aims perfectly.
As it was, her death turned her into a martyr for the cause and more than 5,000 women marched with her coffin as it was taken to London and put on a train to Newcastle. She was buried in her family’s plot in Morpeth and on her tomb the inscription of ‘Deeds not Words’ pays tribute to the fact that she was prepared to die for her beliefs.
World War I caused a hiatus in the campaign for women’s suffrage but in 1918, women over the age of 30 who had certain property rights were granted the vote. One hundred years on, it seems remarkable and disappointing that we are still fighting for equality, but I believe that things are changing for the better, and I am particularly encouraged that women in sport are gaining respect and a higher profile.
Meanwhile, the Investec Derby is still a major sporting event, welcoming people of all ages and backgrounds. You can dress up to the nines and drink champagne, or turn up in shorts and a T-shirt and enjoy the fun of the fairground in the middle of the course. The devoted presence of Her Majesty the Queen proves that the seal of royal approval adds lustre and dignity.
The Derby has always meant a huge amount to me and my family, because my father trained Mill Reef to win the race in 1971, the year I was born. If anyone asks my father, ‘What happened in 1971?’ he will say: ‘Mill Reef won the Derby.’ I know my position in the pecking order of his priorities! My great hope is that one day soon, a female jockey will ride the winner of the Investec Derby, thereby paying homage to Emily Davison’s sacrifice.
Above all, we should celebrate the work of women who have come before us and I salute the accomplishments of those who have dedicated themselves to a cause. Words are important, but deeds are even better. The Investec Derby Festival (www.epsom derby.co.uk) runs on 1 and 2 June.
Charles Ernest Cundall’s ‘Derby Day’
Above: Mill Reef, the 1971 Derby winner trained by Clare Balding’s father, Ian
Right: Emily Davison. Below: John Lavery’s ‘The Derby’