In old flat cap, short trousers and modern-day trainers, the little lad carried the Ballot Box with his mate to the cheers of a large crowd spilling over from Carlisle Park. Women in long white gowns sporting purple and green sashes, in fancy bonnets on bikes, in their Sunday best or simply dressed for a summer’s day, marched past with pride and good humour. Men and children strode alongside, sharing in this very special rally to commemorate the life and sudden death of a passionate and controversial woman who died 100 years earlier.
I was in the attractive Northumberland market town of Morpeth where they had taken the Women’s Social and Political Union slogan Deeds Not Words to heart in a series of varied events and activities entitled Emily Inspires to pay tribute to feisty suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison. Even if you’ve not heard her name, you’ve probably read about her tragic death, under the hooves of King George V horse, Anmer, on June 4th at the Epsom Derby. Though born in London, her father was from Morpeth and she often stayed here. And it was here that her body was buried when she died, four days after that fatal accident.
On Friday 14th June I attended the premiere of To Freedom’s Cause in Morpeth’s Riverside Leisure Centre, a powerful and moving play written by and starring Kate Willoughby. It tells Emily’s story in a series of vignettes featuring key figures from her life, including fellow suffragettes, her closest friend, the jockey who rode the King’s horse and most significantly, her mother. Kate said, “While she was supportive of her daughter, Margaret became increasingly concerned by the detrimental and physical impact of Emily’s prolonged ill-treatment by the authorities.”
Emily was remembered locally as a “…bright Northumbrian sunbeam with a boundless love of life and a lively sense of humour.” That sense of humour was reflected in Morpeth shop windows bedecked with all kinds of Emily-related objects. Buildings were festooned with bunting and even the rubbish bins were decorated. The town’s shopping mall, Sanderson Arcade, had giant purple, green and white cups and umbrellas and cups and saucers hanging from the ceiling.
The weather was kind; the sun shone on groups of women in Edwardian dress shouting their political slogans and toting political banners. In the Market Square the Band of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers played rousing tunes to stir the spirit and a group of suffragettes laughed and joked with intrigued passers-by. They held up posters reading, Give me Liberty, Fight On and of course, Deeds Not Words.
After I’d listened to the band I wandered over to the Town Hall (and what a very impressive building that is!) where I’d heard there was a very important object on show. There were a couple of information stands and cabinets holding treasured momentos from Emily’s life including her christening gown and postcards she’d sent to friends. There was a big curtain draped over something hidden beneath …
The lady guarding it said in a conspiratorial voice,
“Would you like to have a look?”
“What is it?”
“The scarf that Emily tried to throw across the horse’s neck at the Derby. It’s very fragile so it can’t be exposed to light.”
She drew back the curtain to reveal a long faded cream strip of material with the slogan Votes for Women still visible. It had been found near her body by the racecourse clerk. (You can read about it here) Normally on display in the House of Commons, its owner, Barabara Gorna, was giving a talk in the Town Hall. I caught the end of her impassioned plea for people to keep on fighting for Women’s Rights and Equality. She had a VERY responsive audience!
After that I met up with Helen, Alexis and Annie from Visit Northumberland, who invited me to lunch so they could tell me more about the town and the surrounding area. We went to The Shambles, a very friendly bar opposite The Chantry Tourist Information Centre and Bagpipe Museum.
Overlooked by the head of a huge mountain goat, stuffed and wall-mounted I hasten to add, I had a tasty feta and olive pitta pocket and a cone of really good chips. Perfect. At the bar three guys were discussing darts – their lovely local accents reminded me of a favourite TV series from years back, Our Friends from the North.
An hour later we were at Carlisle Park, near the pretty River Wansbeck, where holiday-makers and locals were picnicking and enjoying the steel band belting out an eclectic mix of tunes. Then, under the railway arch, came the Band of the Royal Fusiliers leading over 100 participants in the Suffragette Rally. There was a great sense of fun but also plenty of emotion and passion. Emily Wilding Davison was being remembered in style.
From here the procession wound through the park and up to St Mary’s Church where a memorial service was relayed to the many people outside who couldn’t get into the packed church. We wandered over to her grave. Bunches of flowers were placed all around. Most poignant and appropriate of all was a posy of tiny purple and yellow pansies – the viola tricolour, also known as heartease. Carved into the marble flower holder are the words,
EMILY WILDING DAVISON
DIED JUNE 8, 1913
VALIANT IN COURAGE AND FAITH
If Emily was watching, I think she would have felt her courage and faith had been very suitably celebrated by the loyal townsfolk of Morpeth.
I stayed in charming Seahouses in the popular Bamburgh Castle Inn, overlooking the bustling fishing harbour on the stunning Northumberland Heritage Coast. Many thanks to my hosts Visit Northumberland – it was a fascinating trip and I look forward to seeing more of this beautiful county, including lovely Bamburgh Castle.