Baroness Thatcher and the Suffragette

Why Emily Davison hid in the chapel of St Mary Undercroft

Much debate this week as to whether or not Baroness Thatcher helped the cause of feminism. What's certain is that her body is to spend its last night in the same Westminster chapel where the Suffragette Emily Davison once hid overnight.

Baroness Thatcher and the Suffragette

The chapel of St Mary Undercroft, which lies beneath St Stephen's Hall, is where Baroness Thatcher's body will be moved to on Tuesday night, in readiness for its journey to St Paul's Cathedral the next morning. The chapel contains a tiny room, no bigger than a cupboard. These days it just holds switchboards, but on the night of 2nd April 1911 it held Emily Davison.

The suffragette, who two years later would die after throwing herself in front of the King's horse during the Derby, chose this date because it was the night before the census. She was therefore able to record her place of residence as the House of Commons. This despite the fact that as a woman she couldn't stand for Parliament - or even vote.

There's now a brass plaque on the cupboard door recording the event, and Davison's role in gaining women the right to become an MP. In 1959 Margaret Thatcher did just that. It seems fitting that her final night is to be spent just feet from that cupboard.


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Big Ben

On a visit to Big Ben, I was told that if you stand at the bottom of the tower with a portable radio and listen to the chimes on Radio 4 (they still transmit them live), you hear them on the radio before you hear them ‘for real’. I couldn’t believe it – but was intrigued enough to try it for myself. And you know what? It’s absolutely true. The bongs come out of the radio a fraction of a second before they reach your ears from the top of the tower. It’s something so silly, so counter-intuitive, that you have to tell people. (Well, I did.) Researching the explanation, I found that it’s because radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) rather than the 700 or so miles per hour at which sound waves travel. The signal travelling down the wire from the microphone to the BBC goes at the speed of light too. Hence the radio version overtaking the real one.

I realised that this would be the perfect way to teach the principle in school physics lessons. Instead of a boring teacher droning on that ‘radio waves travel at the speed of light’, illustrate it with this beautiful and quirky little fact. The kids will remember it then. I certainly would have done if my physics teacher had taken this approach. As it was I had to wait until I heard a piece of so-called ‘trivia’ in my thirties.