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Lessons from eco pioneer Etta Lemon

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

Etta Lemon is the formidable woman who built the RSPB. Known by one and all as Mrs Lemon, her surname suited her. She was bitter in her opposition to the plumage trade; acid in her scorn for women’s vanity. Mrs Lemon’s attacks on ‘murderous millinery’ – the Victorian and Edwardian fashion for elaborately plumed hats – were astringent.

‘A more ridiculous picture could scarcely be transmitted to future generations than a portrait of some of the huge hats, bristling with wings and tails, and flopping plumes of preposterous length, beneath which some women have been seen this year,’ wrote Mrs Lemon in her 1907 annual report for the RSPB (see below, for 1907 fashions, influenced by Lily Elsie, star of The Merry Widow, wearing Raggiana bird-of-paradise, left).

‘These hats might as well be caricatures designed by bird protectors to bring the whole bird-wearing fashion into the contempt it so richly deserves,’ harrumphed Mrs Lemon.

Her RSPB colleagues called her ‘The Dragon’ – but to the public, she was simply ‘Mother of the Birds.’ This bullish, determined yet essentially modest woman steered the fledgling RSPB from its all-female origins, in 1889, all the way up to her brutal ejection by men in 1939. Her legacy is Britain’s biggest conservation charity. So why hasn’t the name Etta Lemon taken its place in the conservation narrative?

The reason, in part, is because she was a woman. Etta’s early eco activism earned her enemies – and not just in the plumage trade or fashion industry.

‘She was never much of a scientific ornithologist’ wrote the great birder James Fisher, looking back on her achievements. By the 1930s, women’s more emotional connection with nature was seen as embarrassing. The upcoming generation of male birders dismissed the RSPB’s female founders as elderly, unscientific do-gooders. These men of science then sacked Etta Lemon from the society she’d given her life to, purging her achievement from the records. Her oil portrait (see pic) ended up at the back of a cupboard at The Lodge, Sandy.

I'm happy to report that since the publication of my book, Etta Lemon (originally titled Mrs Pankhurst's Purple Feather), in 2018, her portrait has been exhumed, restored and rehung in pride of place at RSPB headquarters. Mrs Lemon is back on her perch.

Bringing her story to life has convinced me that every campaigning group needs an Etta, and that characters like Etta will always earn themselves enemies. Look at Greta Thunberg, the young climate change activist. Greta’s outspoken manner reminds me in so many ways of Etta Lemon. As a girl (pictured, below), Etta would publicly denounce any woman wearing plumage in her Blackheath family church. As a veteran campaigner, she was renowned for her single mindedness and ‘brusqueness’ of manner. The more I got to know Etta Lemon, the more I found myself wondering if she was perhaps neuro-diverse, like today's eco activists Greta Thunberg and Chris Packham (see images below). Etta simply didn’t care what people thought of her.

When lobbying for change, this is a great strength.

What can we learn from Etta Lemon?

Six tips on how to #BeMoreEtta

1. Speak 'like a man'

Etta scooped a silver medal for her speech (in fluent French) at the International Conference for Bird Protection, 1898. She then spoke so brilliantly at the International Congress of Women in Westminster, 1899 that a male journalist rated her ‘discriminating advocacy’ as far superior to ‘any amount of passionate and headlong declamation’. In other words, she spoke like a man. Forcefully, and to the point.

2. Network like a woman

As daughter of the Evangelization Society’s Hon. Sec,, Etta had a brilliant grasp of how to reach the unconverted. Posters, lectures, exhibitions, pamphlets, the press – all were put to good use. Women’s existing networks were tapped into and exploited: the Primrose League, the Temperance Association, the Suffragettes (who needed educating on bird hats, see pic)… Whatever it took.

3. Nurture the next generation

Etta understood that children were the future of bird protection. In 1903 she launched the annual Bird and Tree Challenge Shield for schools: a nature writing competition for all age groups, all schools. Etta and Frank Lemon had no children, but as Lady Mayoress of Redhill and Reigate, 1911-13, Etta became a nurturing figure to the poorer children of the parish.

4. Start in Your Back Yard

She hatched the novel idea of selling bird boxes and bird seed to the British – first imported from Germany, then produced in-house. Before this, feeding the birds had been the wayward hobby of elderly ladies. Soon, men, women and children of all classes began to feed the birds, watch the birds – and (crucially) care for them.

5. Know no shame

When Etta set her mind to something, she wouldn’t give up.

She pestered the RSPB’s aristocratic president Winifred, Duchess of Portland (left), to persuade Queen Alexandra (right) to denounce the fashionable egret feather (the Great and Snowy Egret was by now on the brink of extinction). Etta made such a nuisance of herself that the Queen capitulated, putting her name to the RSPB cause. This was PR gold.

6. Nourish your footsoldiers

Etta set up a team of 22 ‘Watchers’ – the eyes and ears of bird protection in the RSPB’s first nature reserves. Every year she visited them, from Hascosay in the Shetlands to Breydon Water on the Norfolk Broads, listening to their concerns. One isolated Watcher was given a wireless, another a rowing boat. They were her ‘boys’ – and they were incensed by her expulsion from the charity in 1939. ‘Ever remembering your many kindnesses,’ wrote one. ‘No one has done quite as much for the RSPB as you have, no one could do more, dear friend.’

Etta Lemon – The Woman Who Saved the Birds by Tessa Boase (Aurum £9.99)

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I’ll go with ‘the great strength‘ of neurodiversity in lobbying and beyond. Just takes a while to settle down and a bit of nurturing.

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