Ever since 1988, when the Women’s Library@LSE (or, as it was then, the Fawcett Library) was given, by descendants of Rose Lamartine Yates, items that had belonged to Emily Wilding Davison, the fact that amongst these was her return ticket, issued on 4 June for travel between Victoria Station and Epsom Race Course, has been considered important in assessing whether or not she intended to act in such a way as to harm herself. Click here to view an image of the ticket, an item in a digital exhibition launched to mark the 100th anniversary of Emily Davison’s death.
The argument was, in essence, that if Emily Davison had a return ticket she intended to return. However, no contemporary report, either at the inquest, in newspapers or in the memoirs of her friends, made such a deduction. The first occasion on which this theory was put forward, as far as I can discover, was in a 1988 Guardian article celebrating the gift to the Fawcett Library.
Some while ago I decided that this lack of contemporary comment required further investigation and that in order to determine what message the ticket carried it was necessary to look more closely at the workings of pre-First World War rail routes between London and Epsom, in particular the arrangements that were in place on 4 June 1913. Experience has taught me that a lack of awareness of just such quotidian details can often lead historians astray. Thus, before attempting to interpret Emily Davison’s motive on Derby Day, it is necessary to understand the detail that shaped her day.
I quickly realised that, as Derby Day has dwindled in importance – no longer the epitome of a wonderful day out for Londoners – so has an appreciation of the logistics that 100 years ago brought hundreds of thousands of Londoners, of all social classes, by carriage, car and, most importantly, by train to Epsom. For Derby Day in 1913 was still the Derby Day of William Powell Frith’s painting and of the wonderfully descriptive scenes depicted by George Moore in Esther Waters, almost a national holiday, racing augmented by funfairs and sideshows. For instance, on 4 June 1913 many London theatres cancelled their matinees, knowing that their audiences would be elsewhere.
First I researched the route that Emily Davison had taken. From newspaper advertisements placed by the train companies in the Manchester Guardian and the Times I saw that on Derby Day virtually all the usual train services were suspended and special trains ran to the three Epsom stations – Epsom Town, Epsom Downs and Tattenham Corner.
Each of these stations was linked to a different rail company. Emily Davison’s ticket was issued from Victoria Station. I discovered that the only company that ran trains from Victoria was the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, the rather circuitous route taken by the line ending at Epsom Downs station.
Each of the rail companies advertised the virtues of its Epsom station – so, while the Charing Cross/London Bridge line trumpeted Tattenham Corner as the only station on the race course (and, indeed, at this time trains only travelled to that station on race days), the L B & S C Railway claimed Epsom Downs as the station nearest the Grandstand – and described it as the ‘Racecourse Station’. The return ticket gives the route for return as ‘Epsom Race Course to Victoria’.
On Derby Day 1913 all the companies put on special excursion trains. The L B & S C ran ‘cheap trains’ from Victoria up until 9.38 am and after that – between 10.15 am and 1.38 pm – put on 17 ‘fast trains’. The cost of Emily Davison’s ticket – 8s 6d ‘with no particular class of carriage guaranteed’ – does not seem cheap. In 1913 the WSPU paid its organizers £2 10s a week – and Emily did not even have the luxury of such employment; the 2013 equivalent of the ticket price is over £40.The advertisements do not give much detail about prices. No ‘8/6 ticket’ is mentioned, but the ‘ Pullman Limited’ Non-Stop train that left Victoria at 12.15 cost 12/6 (return) and another Derby Day ‘Special Through Train’ from Willesden cost 6/6 so I would conclude that Emily Davison caught one of the ‘fast trains’ from Victoria to Epsom Downs.
The advertised arrangements for Derby Day stress, as I have mentioned, that certain ordinary services to Epsom were suspended and others were altered. A reading of the advertisement would strongly suggest that it was not possible, on Derby Day, to buy any ticket from Victoria to Epsom Downs other than one that included a return element. The L B & S C Railway concentrated on running only ‘excursion’ trains on Derby Day, intent on transporting the hordes looking forward to this highlight in the holiday calendar, and that these tickets were, of necessity, ‘return’.
My feeling is that the explanation for no contemporary comment being made of the fact that Emily Davison had bought a return ticket – quite an expensive ticket – was that her contemporaries would have recognised that Derby Day excursion tickets were by their very nature ‘return’. On that day railway companies operating between London and Epsom had a captive market and made the most of it.
Moreover, even if Emily Davison had not expected to be injured at Epsom, she could hardly have been certain of returning to London that day. If, when she bought her ticket, she was then intending to step onto the race course and cause disruption to the Derby she would surely have known that, at the very least, she would to be arrested. I would suggest that the fact that she had notepaper, envelopes and stamps in her pockets (she does not appear to have been carrying any kind of bag) might indicate that she had thought it would be likely that she would need to write a letter or two that day, possibly from a police cell.
I would suggest that it does not seem likely that, impoverished as she was, Emily Davison, with the expectation of, at the least, detention, would have spent so much on a return ticket if she had not been compelled to do so.
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#1 by annaputsover on February 15, 2021 - 9:07 am
Thank you so much for this! I’m currently writing Suffragette historical fiction, and this post has saved my life. I was just wondering about that return ticket. I’m personally of the opinion that Davison knew she had a strong likelihood of not surviving if she stepped onto that racecourse. I wonder what makes so many people, and historians, believe that she didn’t think she was going to die. Maybe it would still ‘taint’ her story somehow?
#2 by womanandhersphere on February 15, 2021 - 11:32 am
I’m glad you found the post useful.I must say I particularly enjoy this type of research – that is, trying to understand the realities of life as lived by a protagonist, rather than jumping to conclusions based on our contemporary experience. And as for your last sentence…it certainly would not have fitted the WSPU narrative for EWD to have been presented by them as anything other than rational – ie not intending to commit suicide. To have suggested anything else then would have detracted from the ‘heroism’ [‘heroine-ism’] of her action. Perhaps, with our greater understanding of the mind and its afflictions, we should be more willing to embrace this possibility. Anyway, I don’t think the Return Ticket can be prayed in aid one way or the other!
Good luck with the book…
#3 by annaputsover on February 15, 2021 - 2:53 pm
This is my draft of the episode if you want to take a look! Thank you for your enlightening response. I do think it’s hard for us to see someone committing suicide as heroic, although the concept exists in some cultures, it’s always a very difficult topic. It’ has definitely been easier for historians since to paint it as a tragic accident, but I err to the side of intentional. As with all history though, it’s very subjective.
#4 by womanandhersphere on February 17, 2021 - 4:00 pm
Many thanks for you message. I enjoyed reading your post – very dramatic. NB spelling of horse in Anmer (I’m afraid I have a copy-editing eye!)
Good luck, Elizabeth
#5 by annaputsover on February 17, 2021 - 4:40 pm
thanks for the heads up there! I would never have noticed