History Reconsidered, Via Newsreel

Another modern methodology story:

It was 100 years ago this month that a suffragist named Emily Wilding Davison surged onto the track at Epsom at the Derby, throwing herself under the hooves of the King’s racehorse and sustaining fatal injuries in a suicidal bid to draw attention to the fight for women’s voting rights.

Or did she?

Many historians have argued that Davison was not suicidal — there was a return train ticket in her pocket, and she had made plans to go on holiday with her sister shortly after the Derby. In that case, what was she doing? Some have argued that Davison merely intended to dash across the track waving a suffragist banner, and she misjudged the timing. Others believed she intended to attach a flag to King George V’s horse, Anmer.

But that newfangled development, the newsreel, was very much in place at the 1913 Derby. As Guardian reporter Vanessa Thorpe writes, there were three newsreel cameras rolling. Today’s sophisticated imaging technology, plus fresh, cleaned-up images from the original nitrate stock, literally brought the event into clearer focus, strongly suggesting that Davison, while on a very risky mission, wasn’t intending to kill herself.

One of the wonderful things about new techniques like digital film analysis is the reminder that history can be a rather fluid thing. The new things we learn have the ability to firm up the outlines of established pictures, or shift them into new shapes.

Emily Davison (at left) and jockey Herbert Jones on the ground at the Derby in Epsom, 1913. Hulton Archive photo reproduced on www.guardian.co.uk.

Emily Davison (at left) and jockey Herbert Jones on the ground at the Derby in Epsom, 1913. Hulton Archive photo reproduced on http://www.guardian.co.uk.

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