“Birley could reconstruct history from a pair of used railway tickets” (Momigliano)
Readers of last month’s passage will recall that I spent an enjoyable weekend with my old Christ Church friend, Derek Taylor, and his wife, Maggie, in Stow. As we chatted, Derek explained to me the themes of a new book he is writing, one about the mythologies and distorted anecdotes of British history. He has visited several prominent places, and is weaving an account of the fables associated with such locations into a narrative that combines historical insights with witty observations about our own times. One of the historical figures he has been researching is the suffragette Emily Davison, who, a hundred years ago, threw herself in front of the King’s horse, Anmer, at Epsom Downs racecourse, and never regained consciousness after the collision. Derek had put together a strong case that this act of daring had not been originally intended as a suicidal exercise, but as an attempt merely to draw attention to the suffragette cause, and he referred to the fact (for example) that Miss Davison had purchased a return-ticket from Victoria to Epsom Downs on the day of the incident. Derek did nevertheless see self-destructive tendencies in her behaviour, and concluded, once he himself witnessed the fearful stampeding of the race around Tattenham Corner on Derby Day, that that she made a last-minute decision to kill herself. (The deed can be seen at http://www.britishpathe.com/video/emily-davison-throws-herself-under-the-kings-derby .) Derek wrote a piece for theGuardian, which, after some mangling, appeared in the paper this summer.
Now, in an argumentative moment, I might betray my conspiratorial and suspicious mind to suggest that the purchase of a return-ticket might have been made to throw investigators off the scent, but Derek made a good case, and I had echoed that viewpoint. (I have since read that only return tickets could be purchased, but that Miss Davison had kept the return stub in her handbag.) My contribution to the discussion, however, had a more bizarre aspect. I had been tracking the recognition of Miss Davison’s sacrifice in the pages of History Today, and, based on the casual collection of literary arcana that is one of my hobbies, had even written a letter to the Editor, which ran as follows: “Your articles recognizing Emily Davison’s sacrifice at Epsom Downs sensibly reflect the opinion that she was not intent on suicide, since she had bought a return railway ticket to Epsom. Further evidence for this case may be found in Victor Gollancz’s Dear Timothy, a book addressed to his grandson, where the author writes that the suffragette ‘was wearing, for disguise, your great-grandmother’s wig’. Did Davison believe that she might escape, unidentified, from the racecourse after her exploit with the flag? Or was she simply trying to elude security personnel before the event? In any case. the famed Pathé Newsreel does appear to show a wig-like object lying on the grass after her collision with the King’s horse.”
The Editor did not see fit to publish my letter. The correspondence there continued on more epic lines. So, after my return home, Derek and I continued our discussion by email. He believed that the item bowling along the sward was in fact Davison’s hat, not her wig. (He is probably right.) I wondered why Miss Davison had taken the train to Epsom Downs rather than Tattenham Corner (both destinations being reachable directly from Victoria), as the walk from Epsom Downs Station is considerably longer than that from Tattenham Corner, which was, after all, the specific point on the course where Miss Davison planned her protest. The Pathé newsreel shows carriages arriving at the racecourse, presumably having picked up their passengers at Epsom Downs Station. Did the more plebeian racegoers arrive at Tattenham Corner, where the walk would have been a lot shorter?
I had some familiarity with this geography, since, as a small boy, I had lived in Coulsdon, right next to the branch line that carried on from Smitham through the lovely Chipstead Valley to the ‘terminus’ at Tattenham Corner. On Derby Day, we would go across the road into the neighbours’ garden to wait for the Royal Train to chunter past, as it was then the custom for an ornately decked special locomotive, with similarly polished carriages, to take the royal party through the London suburbs. It was a major annual event in Coulsdon. We waved our Union Jacks in the vague belief, I suppose, that catching a glimpse of Her Majesty discussing the race-card with her equerry would bestow some special grace on us. (This was between 1953 and 1956, so allowances must be made). But why did the Queen ride to Tattenham Corner, not Epsom Downs? And was Miss Davison unaware of the choice? Was there truly a social distinction between arriving at Tattenham Corner and Epsom Downs? Or did Davison deliberately go to Epsom, suitably bewigged, to throw P. C. Plod off the scent? The newsreel shows that the police were clearly out in force, as they were expecting some kind of protest. And what was Victor Gollancz’s great-grandmother doing with all this? Why would he invent such a story if it were not true? It needed more astute social historians than Derek and me to resolve this one. The only time I went to Epsom Downs was on a school combined cadet force excursion, and I have never attended a race-meet in my life.
And then a truly serendipity event occurred. As part of my research into Sir Isaiah Berlin – trying to interpret a reference in the diaries of Ben-Gurion after the Zionist leader had an enigmatic meeting with the great man in New York in 1940 – I set about reading Kramnick’s and Sheerman’s monumental biography of the erratic but highly influential leftist thinker, Harold Laski. And there I learned the following facts: that in 1912 Laski spoke in favour of women’s suffrage at the Oxford Union; that his good friend Victor Gollancz vied with him in oratory at the Union (according to Isismagazine); and that Laski’s wife Frida (née Kerry) was an ardent suffragette, and had a close friendship with Sylvia Pankhurst, the younger daughter of the suffragette leader, Emmeline Pankhurst. The text then ran: “More significant for Frida’s close relationship with Sylvia was that they looked alike and it became clear that the resemblance could be put to tactical use. Police and detectives tried hard to arrest suffragette leaders at their rallies, marches and demonstrations. Sylvia was arrested six times between July 1913 and March 1914 alone. To the traditional strategy developed to foil such arrests, a tight ring of sympathizers surrounding the speaker, there was added in Sylvia’s case the use of Friday as a decoy to assist her in fast get-aways.” Frida was to march in the funeral procession for Emily Davison: she had earlier that year engaged in destructive acts such as inserting fireworks into letter-boxes.
So part of our mystery was solved. The Gollancz family was close to the Laskis, Frida was closely embedded in the suffragette organization, and the family wig (whether voluntarily or not, I cannot tell) had played its part in history. Disguise had been a critical contributor to the ability of the protesters to commit their deeds, and make their escape. The questions of Miss Davison’s motivations, and what went through her mind during those terrible last few moments, will remain unresolved. But Derek’s point was a broader one. Why was such a martyr for democracy not more publicly recognized, and why had some memorial to her not been established beforehand? (A plaque at the racecourse was unveiled in April of this year: it took the centenary for this to happen.) The survey that followed in the Guardian suggested that her actions were considered inappropriately destructive, even ‘terrorist’, which is presumably not the British way of doing things. My opinion would be that she trod (literally) on a piece of ground that united working men and the aristocracy: the Sport of Kings is also the enthusiasm of the common man, and she thus stepped on a taboo. At Davison’s funeral, plaintive shouts were made that “It was the King’s ‘Orse!” that she had obstructed – an offence against the Throne as well as all those who had placed bets on the steed of the Monarch. This shared experience was as much a part of British ‘heritage’ as the granting of votes to women
Attitudes and behaviour like that would have made political subversives despair: it is said that Lenin gave up the idea of revolution in Britain when he heard that a soccer match was being played between strikers and policemen. Trotsky did not suggest a game of footy between his grenadiers and the sailors at the Kronstadt fortress as a way of resolving some critical differences of opinion about the implementation of Communist social policy. Harold Laski might have had similar reactions, but his thinking was so muddled, it wouldn’t have lasted long. He described Davison’s martyrdom as ‘wonderfully, almost madly brave’, and had special reason to applaud it. Perhaps he was still sheltering in shock from his own variety of escapade, and flight from the Fuzz. Kramnick and Sheerman report that, not long before the 1913 Derby, on 3 April, Laski and a friend placed an explosive device in the men’s lavatory at Oxted Station, located on another picturesque branch-line in the Surrey Downs. The gunpowder fuse failed to ignite, and the damage was slight. The police were able to trace a felt hat found at the scene of the crime to a store in Manchester, and the paper used to wrap parts of the bomb to a ‘Frida Kerry’, whom they interviewed at her house in Battersea. She refused to cooperate with their inquiries, the police abandoned the investigation, and the crime still sits on the books unsolved. After the incident however, Frida had driven Harold to Dover, whence he escaped to Paris to lie low until the dust settled. Chronically inept at mechanical tasks, Laski did not make a good terrorist, and the wannabe suburban guerrilla performed his idiosyncratic subversive damage after that by preaching his nonsense in the spoken and written word. I thus have another anecdote to add to my ‘Reflections on the North Downs’, and a fresh player to expand the set of heroes and villains associated with the part of the world where I grew up. Meanwhile, the authorities are still awaiting the results of DNA tests before being able to refute the wicked rumour that the felt hat was in fact loaned for the occasion by Sidney Webb.
Postscript: Soon after I posted this piece, I read Sebastian Faulks’s highly competent but oddly bloodless homage to P. G. Wodehouse, ‘Jeeves and the Wedding Bells’. At the dinner at Melbury Hall, the night before the cricket-match, at which Wooster is waiting on a company that includes Jeeves [you will have to read it yourself] the cantankerous Sir Henry Hackwood expresses his dismay that the 1913 Derby had been awarded to Aboyeur, even though the favourite, Craganour, (on whom he had placed a considerable bet) had crossed the line first. After trashing Anmer (“Thoroughly second-rate colt. Disgrace to the King’s colours.”), Hackwood maintains that Craganour had had to change course after the suffragette incident, whereas Aboyeur was unaffected. “Without that wretched woman”, he continues, “Craganour would have won by a good two lengths”. While Faulks does not explain why the stewards disqualified Craganour (unless they believed that Aboyeur had been been more severely obstructed), it is clear that the incident firmly set Sir Henry against all forms of female emancipation. There would appear to be some license in Faulks’s narrative. Other accounts of the race declare that the leading horses were unaffected by Emily Davison’s protest, as it happened after they had passed Tattenham Corner, and that Craganour was penalized as it had unfairly ‘jostled’ Aboyeur in the final stretch. Aboyeur was sold later that summer to the Imperial Russian Racing Club of St. Petersburg, and probably did not survive the revolution. (January 1, 2014)