From the royal box, the bearded King George V ranged his binoculars over a scene of color, bustle and noise: vociferous bookmakers shouting the odds, costers in pearly jackets crying their wares, buskers grinding hurdy-gurdies, gypsies and tipsters offering glimpses of the future. From high in the stands, the view was of one great bobbing sea of silk toppers, straw boaters, cloth caps and fancy creations of velvet and lace adorned with flowers and plumage.
It was Derby Day, June 4, 1913, and in this third year of George's reign a record crowd had converged on Epsom Downs to see the race that was the blue riband of the English turf, the premier classic for 3-year-olds. Spectators came on foot, bicycles and donkey carts, by automobile, train and a newfangled transport called the motor omnibus; they filled the stands and packed the rails along the horseshoe-shaped racecourse of 1½ miles. Singly or in groups, they came together as strangers, and in the evening, still strangers, they would disperse and go their separate ways. Well, not quite all.
On this particular afternoon, two totally disparate people—a man and a woman—traveled individually to Epsom Downs, each unaware of the other's, existence and yet destined to meet in circumstances that would have dramatic consequences for both. Together, they would make this Derby the most sensational and disastrous ever run.
The woman was an altogether improbable racegoer: Emily Wilding Davison, a tall, thin, red-haired spinster, plainly dressed in light overcoat with matching gray hat. Her interests were essentially intellectual, befitting a self-made blue-stocking who had emerged from London University with a first-class honors degree in English. Horse racing meant precisely nothing to her, yet, on this day, she bought a railway ticket from London to Epsom, and on arrival she positioned herself at the rails near the sharp bend in the track called Tattenham Corner.
August 27, 1972
The man was familiar to all regular racegoers: Herbert (Bert) Jones, 32 years old, a quiet, unassuming fellow. Despite his rough, country stock and minimal education, he journeyed to Epsom in style, by chauffeur-driven limousine. On arrival he changed into the royal racing colors of purple, gold braid, scarlet sleeves and black velvet cap with gold tassel. As the King's jockey, he was to ride the gray colt Anmer, a 50-to-1 long shot.
Although divergent in outlook, interests and tastes, Emily and Bert did share one distinctive characteristic: a kind of stubborn courage. It had taken Emily far from the remote Northumberland town of Morpeth, where her widowed mother kept a tiny sweetshop, and it had enabled her, in open defiance of firm-rooted prejudice against career women, to work her way through college and win recognition as a brilliant scholar and gifted orator. The same kind of courage had enabled Bert to advance almost overnight from humble stableboy to celebrated jockey, largely on the strength of his handling of Diamond Jubilee, the most vicious and wayward horse in the royal stables, which he rode to victory in the Two Thousand Guineas, the Derby and the St. Leger in 1900. Single-handed, he made Prince Eddy, the future King Edward VII, winning owner of the year. Other classic triumphs had followed, including a second Derby win, on King Edward's Minoru in 1909.
Now, in 1913, Jones was riding for a second monarch and seeking his third Derby success. But he didn't rate his chances very high on Anmer. His private fancy for the race was the 6-to-4 favorite, Craganour, a spirited bay colt owned by Mr. C. Bower Ismay, the shipping magnate.
Far away from the stands, just beyond Tattenham Corner, Emily Davison looked at her watch. It was almost time for the Derby. She had watched the previous races idly, ticking off three winners on her scorecard, but her interest remained purely academic. She did not even have a bet on the Derby. She had matters of far greater moment on her mind.
Meanwhile, 15 runners were milling at the start. Bert Jones, all coolness and experience, sat patiently on a blinkered mount. Craganour, fierce of eye and kicking out to left and right, was the cause of some delay. Then, suddenly, they were off. Under leaden skies and on firm going, the field descended briefly, then faced a testing climb before veering left at five furlongs out and descending to the final sharp lefthander at Tattenham Corner.
At the mile post, with two-thirds of the race run, the leader was Mr. Alan Cunliffe's Aboyeur, a 100-to-1 shot. It meant nothing. As the crowd knew, the classic tactic in this supreme test of speed and stamina is to take the lead around Tattenham Corner as the horses enter the long final straight. And Craganour's rider, American Jockey Johnny Reiff, needed no reminder; he was already a double Derby winner and the younger brother of onetime Derby victor Lester Reiff.
As he had done the previous year, Reiff made his challenge at the bend, and into the straight the favorite and the outsider were running neck and neck. At that moment, the unbelievable happened. Just beyond the bend, with five leading horses gone by, Emily Davison ducked under the rails, eluded a policeman and ran onto the course—directly into the path of the oncoming horses.
Walter Earl on Agadir skillfully avoided her by a whisker. Jones aboard Anmer also saw her in time and reacted quickly. Oddly enough, he had faced similar situations on three recent occasions, when women had vaulted onto the track and tried to cross over during a race. But this time was different. This woman was deliberately heading toward him.
"Surely she was mad." he later recalled. "I reined Anmer cruelly. And then with a great rush she seized Anmer's bridle and leaped at his neck with the movement of a matador. An awful scream. The crowd yelled. Women fainted. In an instant we were all three in a struggling heap on the grass."
When Emily somehow managed to grab the King's horse she was bowled over and kicked in the head. Almost simultaneously, Anmer turned a somersault and fell upon his rider. As the horse struggled to his feet, Jones was torturously dragged over the ground with one leg caught in the stirrup, and when he finally fell free he was left unconscious in the center of the track. A few yards away, now hatless and lying half on her back with arms outstretched and knees doubled up, was Emily Davison. She, too, was motionless.
After its initial shock, the nearby crowd fell silent and immobile. Then, after the remaining runners had scrambled safely through, spectators began to surge onto the course. Mounted police galloped up to draw a cordon round the bodies, and soon stretcher-bearers were carrying away the famous jockey and the unknown woman. Away from the disaster, attention still focused on the outcome of the race.
The leading riders were oblivious to the chaos behind them as Craganour and Aboyeur were in a bruising, hell-for-leather duel over the final straight. Almost inseparable to the eye, they seemed to be running too close for comfort. Aboyeur gave his rival a hefty bump. Reiff replied. In the finishing scrimmage they were still shoulder to shoulder, with Louvois, Great Sport, Day Comet and Shogun only a few paces behind.
"Craganour by a nose!" someone shouted, and the cry reverberated round the downs. A smiling Mr. Ismay led in his heavily backed horse. Johnny Reiff glowed with the distinction of his third Derby triumph. Bookies gloomily accepted appalling losses and began to pay out as the "all right" flag was hoisted.
But it was not all right. Two minutes later came the second stunning blow of that mad afternoon on Epsom Downs. The red "objection" Flag was being run up—a sight seen only once before in the 133 years of the Derby. The stewards were questioning whether Craganour had interfered with other runners.
For 30 minutes, the result hung on the findings of a court of inquiry. The judges' decision hit like a thunderbolt. Craganour was disqualified because "by not keeping a straight course, he had at one point of the race seriously interfered with Shogun, Day Comet and Aboyeur, and had afterwards bumped and bored the latter so as to prevent his winning." Aboyeur, the hopeless 100-to-1 shot, was declared the winner.
That result was to be debated by the racing fraternity for years to come, but the incident involving Miss Davison and the King's jockey soon became a national cause cél√®bre. Who was she? Why had she done it? Curiously, her motive was established before her identity: when a policeman turned over her body he found, tied around her waist, three ribbons of purple, green and white—the infamous colors of the militant suffragette group, the Women's Social and Political Union. Their catalog of crimes had outraged most of male Britain and had recently escalated from window smashing to planting bombs, firing railway stations and (most despicable of all in the eyes of sporting gentry) burning their slogans into putting greens with acid.
The Derby atrocity was sure to stir new bitterness. Press reports roundly condemned Miss Davison's "senseless act." But King George V gave at least a show of impartiality by sending an attendant to inquire about the condition of both his jockey and the lady. He was told that Jones had a concussion, extensive cuts to the face and bruised ribs, but he would soon recover. The woman had a severe fracture of the skull, but she was also expected to pull through. That night, Queen Mary wrote in her diary: "...poor Jones, who was much knocked about," adding "...the horrid woman was injured but not seriously." The Queen was misinformed. Emily Davison never recovered consciousness. At Epsom Cottage Hospital an operation was performed, but the brain damage was beyond repair. Four days later on Sunday, June 8, Emily died.
Miss Davison's record as a militant demonstrator immediately gave rise to the conclusion that she had deliberately sacrificed her life. She was, after all, the most belligerent and daring rebel in the suffragette movement; the first to practice arson, the first to talk openly of laying down one's life for the cause. Once, in Holloway prison, this desperate and confused woman had thrown herself from the landing outside the cells; only wire netting saved her from death. She had been imprisoned repeatedly; each time she had tried a hunger strike and had to be forcibly fed. Once she barricaded herself in her cell for live days, refusing to open up even after she had been drenched with cold water from a fire hose. Finally, when they could not rouse her, the door had to be removed from its hinges. They found Emily half-dead, lying in six inches of water.
Contrary to popular belief, she did not set out on Derby Day with suicidal intent. Her original plan, as confided to a friend, was to wave the suffragette colors at Tattenham Corner and, hopefully, distract the horses and disorganize the race. But after watching the early races she probably realized the ineffectiveness of such action. On impulse, she must have resolved on a bolder, more positive move.
Nevertheless, she was hailed a genuine martyr by her sisterhood. In life, she had been a lone extremist viewed with a certain amount of disfavor by the leaders of suffragism. No more. In death, she united the entire movement. They bore her across London in a funeral procession made up of thousands of women grouped in sections according to their suffragette colors: women in black carrying purple irises, women in purple clutching peonies, women in white with madonna lilies. Each section, marching four abreast, had its own brass band and standard-bearers. Four black horses drew the cortege. And heading the great cavalcade was a lone woman bearing a cross.
It was a death march of a scale and majesty to rival the funerals of kings and queens, yet in the end it counted for little. Its propaganda value was lessened only five days later when a madman, brandishing a revolver in one hand and a suffragette flag in the other, ran onto the course of the Ascot Gold Cup and brought down the leading horse and his rider. Sympathy for the injured maniac evaporated when they found on his person a Bible upon the flyleaf of which had been written the words, "Oh the weariness of these races and the crowds they attract."
One year later Britain was plunged into World War I, and at one stroke the suffragette campaign and Emily's martyrdom paled into comparative insignificance. Yet those directly involved in the events of that amazing Derby would never forget. In 1951 the body of Herbert Jones was discovered in a gas-filled room. He was 70 years old, suffering from tuberculosis, and had died by his own hand. The coroner concluded that he had taken his life "while the balance of his mind was disturbed." It had been disturbed, said some, ever since the day of that fateful meeting with Emily Wilding Davison.