Tracing Turbulent London in North East England 1: Morpeth

Morpeth is a picturesque market town in the South of Northumberland. Emily Wilding Davison is one of the most famous Morpethians.

Morpeth is a picturesque market town in the South of Northumberland. Emily Wilding Davison is one of the most famous Morpethians.

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 in buried in the Davison family plot in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin.

Emily Wilding Davison in buried in the Davison family plot in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin in Morpeth (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Davison House in the centre of Morpeth also honours Emily. It is painted purple, and includes a mural, a plaque, and pictures of Emily inside.

Davison House in the centre of Morpeth also honours Emily. It is painted purple, and includes a mural, a plaque, and pictures of Emily inside (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

Emily Wilding Davison is included as one of Morpeth's 'local heroes' on the walls of the Tourist Information Centre.

Emily Wilding Davison is included as one of Morpeth’s ‘local heroes’ on the walls of the Tourist Information Centre (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The artwork in Davison House, by  Jan Szymczuk.

The artwork in Davison House, by Jan Szymczuk (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Pictures of Emily Wilding Davison on the walls in the stairwell of Davison House.

Pictures of Emily Wilding Davison on the walls in the stairwell of Davison House (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

The text on Emily's headstone includes the suffragette's motto 'Deeds Not Words.'

The text on Emily’s headstone includes the suffragette’s motto ‘Deeds Not Words’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A message of thanks attached to the railings by a representative of  Trentham National(?) Women's

A message of thanks attached to the railings by a representative of Trentham National Women’s Register in 2013 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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A plaque added to the grave on the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison’s death in 2013. Emily is called ‘A True Daughter of Northumberland’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

One of the most recent unofficial messages left at the gravesite made a connection between Emily and the actions of a woman killed in the 2014 'Sydney Siege.'

One of the most recent unofficial messages left at the gravesite made a connection between Emily and the actions of a woman killed in the 2014 ‘Sydney Siege’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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

East London Suffragettes Festival

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‘The Awakening of Miss Appleby,’ a pro-suffrage play (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Between the 1st and the 10th of August 2014 was the East London Suffragettes Festival (http://eastlondonsuffragettes.tumblr.com), celebrating the centenary of the East London Federation of Suffragettes. Over the course of the 10-day period, a series of events were organised across East London, including a film night, talks, a book launch, a walking tour and, on Saturday the 9th, a full day of talks, events, and stalls at Toynbee Hall in Tower Hamlets. Organised solely by volunteers, I think it is safe to say that the festival was a huge success. I attended the book launch, the day at Toynbee Hall, and the walking tour, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself at all three.

 

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East London Suffragettes Walking Tour, led by David Rosenberg (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The East London Federation of Suffragettes were more radical and broad in their aims than more well-known groups campaigning for women’s suffrage. The group started out as a branch of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union), run by Sylvia Pankhurst. As the mainstream suffrage movement focussed on the emancipation of middle and upper class women, Sylvia worked with working class women in the East End of London.The East End women were asked to leave the WSPU when Sylvia disobeyed her mother’s (Emmeline Pankhurst) orders and spoke at a rally in support of Irish Home Rule. It was at this point that the East London Federation of Suffragettes came about. Whilst other suffrage groups suspended their campaigns during the First World War, Sylvia and her fellow activists kept campaigning, becoming increasingly anti-war as time progressed. As well as campaigning, the group set up a cost-price restaurant, a nursery, and a cooperative toy factory to help support the local community. 

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Poetry in Toynbee Hall (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

All of the above information I learnt during the course of the festival, I had no previous knowledge of the East London Federation of Suffragettes. So for me at least, the festival’s goal of revealing the ‘Hidden Histories’ (one of the panel discussions organised by the festival) of the women of the East End was a resounding success. Another of the festival’s goals was to look forward as well as back, connecting the work of the suffragettes with campaigns that are still going on today, in particular the issue of tackling domestic abuse in East London. This is an admirable goal, and it proves that the study of historical protest has a purpose beyond entertainment or commemoration. Activists and campaigners can learn from their past counterparts, and also take heart and inspiration. Sylvia Pankhurst and the women of the East End were brave, strong, and fiercely independent, embodying qualities that many modern women, campaigners or not, aspire to. We should remember them because they deserve to be celebrated, but also because their actions continue to inspire and empower.

Thank you and congratulations to everyone involved in the organising and running of the festival, you did a wonderful job.