1913 Suffragette Derby, Emily Davison, Emmeline Pankhurst, Suffragette arson and destruction, WSPU
|I was recently asked this question by a client. The simple answer is no. There were no deliberate attempts at killings though on one occasion, Suffragettes did make a foolhardy attack on a crowded theatre which could have resulted in many deaths, though fortunately the attack was foiled before any damage to property or people occurred. In July 1912 Prime Minister Asquith had gone to Ireland to speak on Home Rule. Suffragettes attacked the Theatre Royal, where he was due to speak the following day. It was crowded for a lunchtime matinee. Suffragettes spread flammable liquid around the cinematic projector’s booth to set it alight. This contained highly combustible film reels. It caught fire and there was a small explosion but fortunately the fire was quickly extinguished. A chair was also set alight on the balcony and then thrown down into the orchestra pit. This was clearly foolhardy as it could have led to panic, stampede and death. I have also read one contemporary newspaper report that claimed that they also poured petrol on curtains and carpets to try and burn the theatre down and also detonated several bombs filling the theatre with smoke, but this only appears in one newspaper so this may have been a bit of inventive journalism. But the power of the internet is such that this one claim now appears in numerous on-line reports of the incident, all copied from one another. Had this actually happened one would have thought the women would have been tried for attempted murder, but they were only tried for conspiring to do bodily harm and damage property. The two women who threw the chair and set the projector’s booth alight were each sentenced to 5 Years Penal Servitude, which shocked everyone and led to a petition against the draconian sentences. Had they really tried to burn the theatre down I don’t there would have been so much shock at the sentences. A third woman got only 7 months because although she was there she hadn’t actually been seen setting fire to anything. Again I think she would have got a much longer sentence just for being there had there been attempt at burning the theatre down. Both the women given 5 years went on hunger strike in prison. One was force fed for 58 days, the other 46 days, before both were released on health grounds.
During the arson and destruction campaign from 1912 Suffragettes attacked places that were large (and therefore their destruction was likely to get publicity), but empty of people because they didn’t want to harm anyone. For example, cricket pavilions, race course grandstands, churches and the refreshment room at Kew Gardens when they weren’t being used, wealthy people’s second homes when the owners weren’t there, and so on.
But the government certainly thought an attack on a prominent politician was a possibility. Mrs Pankhurst was the one women genuinely feared by the government because they were concerned what sort of retaliation there would be from Suffragettes if she died in prison a martyr, which they thought was a distinct possibility as she was weak from poor health in any case. Thus she was the one hunger striking Suffragette who was never force-fed in prison.
And of course the most famous act of protest by a Suffragette, at the 1913 Derby, ended in the protester, Emily Davison being killed herself. It was not her intention to collide with the horse or put the jockey at risk. She was attempting to put her WSPU scarf into the bridle of the king’s horse but she only had a moment to decide where to stand and misjudged it. The jockey got a slight concussion from his fall but otherwise escaped unharmed.