Last week, I wrote about the importance of networks for understanding protest in London. As a national and imperial centre London is, and has long been, a key node in a whole range of networks involving the circulation of ideas, people, and materials. This fact was brought home to me recently when I visited the North East of England. Even though I was about 300 miles away from London, I found multiple connections to Turbulent London.
Morpeth is the county town of Northumberland. Situated on a crossing point of the river Wansbeck, the town has a long history, but I am more interested in one of it’s most famous residents. The suffragette Emily Wilding Davison came from Morpeth, and is buried there. Her grave in St. Mary the Virgin Church is visited frequently, and Davison House in the town centre has been painted purple in her honour.
Emily Wilding Davison is arguably one of the most famous suffragettes. Born in 1872, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1906, and began working for them full time in 1909. She became increasingly militant, and was often arrested for causing a public disturbance. She was imprisoned nine times, during which she was force-fed; almost drowned when a guard filled her cell with water; and threw herself down a 10-metre iron staircase in protest at the practice of force-feeding. She also spent a night hidden in a cupboard in the House of Commons so she could list it as her place of residence in the 1911 census.
Despite all this, Emily is probably best known for the way she died. At the Epson Derby on the 4th of June 1913, she ran out in front of the King’s horse. She was trampled, and died in the 8th of June from her injuries. Controversy has raged ever since about whether or not she intended to commit suicide, but it seems most likely that she was just trying to attach a suffragette scarf to the horse’s reins. She became a martyr for the suffragette cause and was buried in Morpeth on the 15th of June.
Morpeth certainly is proud of Emily. As well as Davison House and her grave, she is mentioned in the Tourist Information Centre as a ‘local hero’. Davison House, in Sanderson shopping arcade, was only renamed and painted in March this year. A cynic might say this was an attempt to draw visitors into the town centre (St. Mary’s Church is on the outskirts). Whatever the reason, it was getting attention from passers-by when I visited, and anything that raises the profile of lesser-known historical activists is great as far as I’m concerned.
I found visiting Emily’s grave more moving than I expected it to be. She is buried in the Davison family plot, which is surrounded by a green railing; as well as the family headstone there are other, more recent memorials to Emily. The space clearly means a lot of people; messages and ribbons in the suffragette colours have been attached to the railings by previous visitors. In this way, the grave acts as a focus for both official and unofficial forms of remembrance and commemoration. Both the unofficial and unofficial are being constantly renewed- the grave was restored in 2008, a new plaque was added on the centenary of Emily’s funeral in 2013, and some ribbons and messages were more weathered than others.
One of the most recent messages was also one of the most touching. The message, dated the 19th of December 2014 memorialises Katrina Dawson, who was killed in the Sydney Siege a few days before. It explains that the Dawson family were close to Emily Wilding Davison’s descendants; Emily didn’t marry or have children, but one of her relatives must have emigrated to Australia. The message says that Emily would have approved of Katrina’s actions. This shows that, for many, Emily Wilding Davison is a a role model, someone to look up to and be inspired by. This is not something I had thought about before, but the shrine-like quality of the grave made it hard to miss.
Even now, a century after her death, Emily Wilding Davison is remembered with admiration and gratitude. Morpeth is proud of her, and not just because of power to draw in tourists. As ‘A True Daughter of Northumberland’ she embodies qualities which the county as whole want to be known for (Northumbrians are also very proud of Grace Darling, the daughter of a lighthouse keeper who conducted a daring rescue of shipwrecked sailors during a storm in 1838). Emily also forms a connection between Morpeth and London, 300 miles away, demonstrating just how far the networks of protest interlacing the capital reach.
Next week I will be writing about the memorials in Tyneside to the Jarrow Marchers, who marched from Tyneside to London in 1936.
Sources and Further Reading
Anon. ‘The Grave of Emily Wilding Davison’ More in Morpeth. No date, accessed 30th August 2015. http://www.moreinmorpeth.co.uk/visit/the-grave-of-emily-wilding-davison
Smith, Anna. ‘Emily Davison Tribute Planned in Morpeth.’ Morpeth Herald. Last modified 10th March 2015, accessed 30th August 2015. http://www.morpethherald.co.uk/news/emily-davison-tribute-planned-in-morpeth-1-7149312