Updated: Apr 29, 2021
Victorian campaigner Emily Williamson was so incensed by the millinery trade’s use of plumage that she invited her friends to tea — and persuaded them to sign a pledge to wear no feathers. The all-female group called itself the Society for the Protection of Birds — “a very ambitious title,” noted The Times, under the headline “Birds and Bonnets.” The year was 1889, and the fashion for feathers was reaching a terrible crescendo.
The story of the RSPB’s unstoppable growth (its ‘R’ for Royal Charter granted in 1904) is, of course, is history.
Except that it isn’t. Because the writers of history then chose to ignore, or suppress, or even reinvent the remarkable fact that the British bird conservation movement had female founders. The ladies behind this society got none of the credit. Emily survives in the annals as a faceless name, and that is all.
Who was Emily Williamson?
When I started researching the RSPB’s surprising eco-feminist roots, it was very difficult to find out. The tea party anecdote cropped up in a handful of books, but with no flesh on its bones. There was no photograph, “and you won’t find one,” the RSPB’s librarian told me. “None exist.” A Blitz bomb had destroyed most of those early archives during the Second World War.
But Emily’s house is still standing, and so a pilgrimage to Didsbury, Manchester seemed like a good place to start.
The Croft is a substantial brick house sitting within the Botanical Gardens at Fletcher Moss Park — the alpine garden created by Emily and her solicitor husband Robert in the 1880s. The couple had no children. Nature, plant-gathering expeditions and horticulture fulfilled their lives. Today the garden is thriving once again, thanks to a team of dedicated volunteers. It’s a lush, surprising, otherworldly space, seemingly far from England’s north with its spiky palms and giant, fleshy plants. Bird feeders hang from every spare bough, with blue tits and robins darting back and forth.
The old brick house is now divided into flats. I’d heard that the RSPB had marked its centenary here in 1989, and so I walked around it slowly, looking in vain for a blue plaque. Where had Emily Williamson been remembered?
“Who, love?” asked a baffled park warden. “Never ‘eard of ‘er!”
Had I come to the wrong place? Confused, I rang the phone number on a “Friends of Fletcher Moss” noticeboard, and got chairman Alan Hill. “Ooh, it’s a bit of a scandal,” he said, pleased that I was asking. “Go and see for yourself.”
He directed me to a dank bit of wall near to the café entrance, where a square metal board bearing the RSPB’s logo was half hidden. “Action For Birds — 100 years,” it read. But the name on the plaque was not Emily Williamson’s.
“The unveiling was performed by the Society’s President MAGNUS MAGNUSSON on 17th February 1989 at The Croft, where the Society was founded one hundred years ago,” it read. Incredibly, it made no mention of the founder herself.
I saw what Alan meant. It was a bit of a scandal.
I caught the train back south and began to search in earnest for Emily Williamson. When The Manchester Evening News had sent a reporter to the unveiling of the centenary plaque, he’d described Emily Williamson as a “stout Victorian woman.” In 1889 she would have been 34.
I turned to Ancestry.com, which led me to a living relative: Emily’s great nephew, the animal ethologist Professor Patrick Bateson, Fellow of the Royal Society. I sent an email, and received a charming reply. “Good heavens. Did Great Aunt Emily really start the RSPB? It would be so good if that were true!”
It was true. Astonishingly, neither he nor any family members had any idea about this aspect of her life. How modest she must have been. This same deliberate anonymity was also true of her RSPB co-founders, Eliza Phillips and Etta Lemon, the Croydon women whose Fur, Fin and Feather Folk merged with Emily’s society in 1891. The magnificent Etta Lemon then took the bird protection movement robustly forward for the next half century.
I asked Patrick Bateson if there was, by chance, a photograph. And later that day, an email dropped into my inbox. Opening that file was a tremendously exciting moment. I couldn’t have guessed at the power this image would come to hold when it eventually went out into the world, on publication of my book Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather in 2018.
“Women are mostly timid in inaugurating anything,” she once wrote to a newspaper, “but they are very ready to give their help to a good cause when they are shown the way.”
It was a typically modest statement about her part in founding the RSPB. While others (19th-century male ornithologists) might have written “I showed them the way,” Emily studiously kept her ego out of the story.
But now that she has a face, Manchester’s eco heroine is being propelled, gently, into the spotlight. In 2019 the good people of Didsbury crowd-funded a fitting plaque for Emily Williamson.
A group gathered at The Croft on 1 June for the grand unveiling. Emily’s great, great niece, Professor Melissa Bateson, joined environmentalists, councillors, RSPB staff and garden volunteers as the guest of honour. Sadly, her father Patrick had died in 2017, and so she was picking up the baton.
Melissa is another ethologist, expert in the foraging patterns of starlings. Like her father, she’d had no idea that her ancestor was so intimately bound up with the birds. I wondered if her career path was coincidence or destiny.
When Melissa Bateson stood next to that ghostly image of her great, great aunt, it was an emotional moment for everyone. For me, it felt as if the story had come full circle. A new generation of talented, spirited and trenchant women are driving today’s conservation movement.
Great things are now planned for Fletcher Moss Park, in honour of Emily Williamson. A competition to create a bronze statue was launched in December 2020. The RSPB-backed campaign will be driven by me, Tessa Boase, together with Andrew Simcock, the man responsible for bringing a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst into the centre of Manchester. Fletcher Moss Park will become a place of pilgrimage for bird-lovers, conservationists and feminists alike.
Follow the campaign at https://www.emilywilliamsonstatue.com/
Read the surprising story behind the RSPB and its brave female founders – Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism, Women’s Fight for Change by Tessa Boase — or listen to it on Audible, read by the author.
Re-launched in paperback June 2021 as Etta Lemon: The Woman Who Saved the Birds.