The Secret Feminist History Of The Census (And Why Statues Of Women Matter)

On the eve of the 1911 census, suffragette Emily Wilding Davison snuck into the Houses of Parliament and hid in a broom cupboard...

Emily Wilding Davidson Census

by Phoebe Frangoul |
Updated on

On the eve of the 1911 census, suffragette Emily Wilding Davison snuck into the Houses of Parliament and hid in a broom cupboard. Her goal: to be recorded on the census as resident at the House of Commons and mischievously mark herself as ‘head of the family’. She was found by a cleaner the next morning, arrested but released with no charge. The Clerk of Works wrote ‘found hiding in the crypt of Westminster Hall since Saturday’ on the census form. Before setting off on her mission she spoiled her census form at home (yes, she ended up being recorded twice), writing defiantly, “As I am a woman and women do not count in the State, I refuse to be counted.”

Emily’s was one of many subversive acts carried out by suffragettes that night, as Irene Cockroft, curator, author and lecturer specialising in the suffrage movement, explains. ‘In 1911, members of the women’s Tax Resistance League spurred suffragettes of the passive-resistance Women’s Freedom League and the militant Women’s Social and Political Union to boycott the census.’

Many wrote ‘No vote - No census’ or ‘No persons here - only women!’ on their forms. Others hid or held midnight parties so they would be in the wrong place when the census taker arrived. One group gathered for a picnic on Wimbledon Common and others spent the night singing in Trafalgar Square. Protests were held overnight in towns and cities from Bristol to Edinburgh while one Manchester house packed with census evaders was named “Census Lodge”.

Emily’s activism was fuelled by a burning passion for women’s rights. Imprisoned for heckling men-only meetings, setting fire to letterboxes and smashing windows, she went on hunger strike seven times and was force-fed 49 times. When she barricaded herself in her cell to avoid another force-feeding, the prison authorities trained a water cannon on her. After treating her for hypothermia, they force-fed her again. This brutal treatment, described by Emily as torture, led her to lose several teeth and suffer facial paralysis which is why she rarely smiled in photographs.

Growing up, I had no idea that the most infamous episode in suffragette history happened in my hometown, Epsom. In 1913 Emily Wilding Davison died after being struck by the King’s horse during the Epsom Derby. Dismissed as a ‘madwoman’ by the establishment and hailed as a heroine by the suffragettes, today many believe that rather than deliberately sacrificing herself, she was trying to petition the King in front of the news cameras. Five years after Emily’s death, property-owning women over 30 were finally given the vote and in 1928, women over 21 were included. It wasn’t until 1968 that all women over 18 could vote.

A couple of years ago I joined a community group campaigning to raise funds for a statue of Emily in Epsom. Last year we hit our target and artist Christine Charlesworth started work on the statue. This summer Emily will arrive in Epsom’s marketplace, holding a census form in her hand. Sarah Dewing founded the Emily Davison Project: ‘I felt she needed to be recognised for her courage, intelligence and the sacrifices she made’ she explains. ‘Christine and I were determined to use the statue to create a far more interesting story about her, not just what happened at the Derby.’

Christine had been planning on retiring when she was commissioned to make Emily’s statue, along with sculptures of two other female trailblazers: composer, feminist and suffragette Dame Ethel Smyth and Greta Thundberg. Poignantly, they came from the same clay, which Christine recycled into Ethel, then Greta after completing Emily. ‘These sculptures have been produced in splendid isolation during lockdown - just me in the company of three very special women.’

 Christine Charlesworth working on Emily Wilding Davison's statue
Christine Charlesworth working on Emily Wilding Davison's statue

There is no definitive database of statues in Britain, but it’s estimated that only around 3% are of named, non-royal women. The first statue of a black woman - Mary Seacole - was only unveiled in 2016. Clearly there is a long way to go. ‘Statues are incredibly important cultural symbols,’ says Sarah. ‘They reflect the dominant social and political influences at the time they are commissioned. They remind us of who we are. With issues of diversity and gender equality becoming more prominent in contemporary culture, it is important to redress the balance.’

As you fill in your census form this weekend, think about Emily and her sister suffragettes. A century after they took action, in some ways it feels like little has changed. But a new generation of Emilys is taking on issues such as institutional sexism and racism. That’s her legacy and why this statue honours her achievements, while hopefully inspiring future generations as a tangible symbol of battles fought and those yet to be won.

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