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Did Emily Davison Nearly Die When Jailors Purposefully Flooded Her Prison Cell? - Women's History Month

Did Emily Davison nearly die when jailors purposefully flooded her prison cell?

Emily Wilding Davison wearing her Hunger Strike medals
Emily Wilding Davison pictured wearing the medals she earned from WSPU for going on hunger strike.

I heard a lady called Emily Davison nearly died in her prison cell when her jailors purposefully filled it with water! Is this true?

Yes! In 1909, when serving a prison sentence at Strangeways, prison officers flooded Emily’s cell with ice-cold water from a fire hose to try to get her to come out. Although it’s very unlikely the prison officers were actually trying to kill Emily, she did nearly die in the ordeal.


Wait, the officers were trying to get her out of the cell? Isn’t it normally the other way around? Was she stuck in there?

Emily wasn’t stuck inside the cell. She had barricaded herself in! After Emily went on a hunger strike, the prison officers had tried to force feed her by pinning her down and pouring liquid food down her throat through a tube. A pretty grizzly business. As you can imagine, Emily hadn’t much enjoyed this ordeal and wanted to avoid it happening again. So she trapped herself inside her own cell and refused to come out.


That’s very shocking! Why was Emily in prison in the first place?

Emily had been sentenced to one month’s hard labour at Strangeways because she had thrown rocks at a politician’s car.

votes for women suffragette emily davison

Oh! Why did she do that?

Emily Davison was a British Suffragette. And a very courageous one at that! At the time that Emily was alive, women in England weren’t allowed to vote. Emily and many other women wanted to change this, by any means possible. Emily joined the Women’s Social and Political Unit (WSPU), a group founded by Emmeline Pankhurst. Unlike other groups in the women’s suffrage movement, the WSPU preferred more aggressive and violent methods of protest and activism.


Right, so why did Emily go on hunger strike?

Hunger strikes were a non-violent form of protest that proved to be popular amongst suffragettes who found themselves in prison. At first, the prison officers weren’t sure what to do with suffragettes who went on hunger strike. There was a concern that the lack of food could kill them. Prisoners on hunger strike were often released early or released for a short while before being re-arrested again when they were back to full health. Emily Davison had tried going on hunger strike during prison sentences in the past and had succeeded in getting a few early releases.


Wait, Emily had been in prison before?

Emily was imprisoned many times for her activism and acts of protest for the women’s suffrage movement. She was arrested a total of nine times for things like breaking windows, throwing stones at politicians, and setting post boxes on fire. There were even occasions where she hid in the Houses of Parliament!

Force feeding suffragettes
A poster showing the torture of force feeding.

But the prison didn’t release her early this time?

Unfortunately not. During Emily’s prison sentence in October 1909, the prisons had a new approach to hunger strikes; force feeding. This was the first time Emily had to undergo the torture of being force fed and she claimed that the horror of it would haunt her for the rest of her life. No wonder she barricaded herself in her cell to avoid it happening again!


Did they try to force feed her again?

During her life, Emily went on hunger-strike seven times and was force-fed a sickening forty-nine times! Along with barricading herself in her cell, Emily even threw herself from a balcony to protest against being force-fed. Luckily, all of Emily’s brave actions for women’s rights, both in and out of prison, helped the cause. Her half-brother proudly described her as being “passionately devoted to the women’s movement”.


Daily Sketch Emily Davison suffragette martyr
The front page of the Daily Sketch newspaper after Emily Davison died.

Was Emily happy when women in Britain eventually got the right to vote?

In 1928, an act was passed that allowed all women over the age of 21 to vote. This gave women equal voting rights to men and was a huge achievement for the women’s suffrage movement. Sadly, Emily never got the chance to see the results of all her hard work. In 1913, she was badly injured when she ran out in front of King George V’s race horse, called Anmer, at the Epsom Derby races. It was clear that Emily had meant to run out onto the race course, but nobody knows why. Tragically, Emily died in hospital just four days after the accident.


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