Who was Emily Williamson?
When I started researching the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ (RSPB) surprising eco-feminist roots five years ago, it was difficult to find out. There was no photograph. “And you won’t find one,” the RSPB’s archivist told me. “None exist.” A Blitz bomb had destroyed most of those early archives during World War Two.
The only story I could unearth about the founder of Britain’s biggest conservation charity concerned a tea party held in Didsbury in 1889. Williamson was appalled by the growing fashion for feathers, and aghast to learn that the Great Crested Grebe was on the edge of extinction. Determined to halt the cruel plumage trade, she invited her friends to tea at The Croft. By the afternoon’s end, everyone there had signed a pledge to Wear No Feathers.
And so, the Society for the Protection of Birds was born. All of its original members were women.
Williamson’s campaign snowballed. It triumphed with the Plumage Act of 1921, banning the import of exotic feathers. Countless bird species were saved from extinction, and the RSPB evolved into the powerful lobbying force it is today. But when I started asking questions five years ago, no one had heard of its founder.
I am a writer with a passion for uncovering the lives of ‘invisible’ women, and it bothered me that the Emily Williamson story had been erased from the conservation narrative. I set out to pull this remarkable woman, along with her co-campaigner, the magnificent Etta Lemon, out of the shadows.
My first stop was Williamson’s former home, The Croft, which today sits in Fletcher Moss Park, Didsbury. Williamson and her solicitor husband Robert created a beautiful Alpine garden here in the 1880s, which still thrives thanks to a team of volunteers. Bird feeders hang from every spare bough, and tame robins hop between café tables.
Her old brick house is now divided into flats, and I walked around it slowly, looking in vain for a blue plaque. Where had Williamson been remembered?
“Who, love?” replied a park warden to my question. “Never heard of her.”
Had I come to the wrong place? Finally I found a square, metal plaque, on a dank bit of wall near the café entrance, with the RSPB’s logo. ‘Action For Birds – 100 years’, it read. But the name on the plaque was not Williamson’s.
‘The unveiling was performed by the society’s president Magnus Magnusson on February 17, 1989 at The Croft where the society was founded one hundred years ago,’ it read.
I began to search in earnest for Williamson. The website Ancestry.com led me to a living relative: Williamson’s great nephew, the animal ethologist Patrick Bateson. I sent an email and received a reply. “Good heavens. Did Great Aunt Emily really start the RSPB? It would be so good if that were true.”
It was true. The Bateson family tree is full of scientists, all male, all celebrated. But nothing was known about Great Aunt Emily’s achievements. How modest she must have been. I asked if there was a photograph and, later that day, I opened an email. 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 in 2018.
Manchester’s eco-heroine is now being propelled into the spotlight. First came a crowdfunded plaque for Williamson, unveiled at The Croft by her great-great niece, Melissa Bateson, on June 1, 2019. Bateson is a bird scientist. Like her father, she’d had no idea that Great-Great Aunt Emily was so intimately bound up with the birds.
But why stop at a plaque? Why not a statue? This ambitious idea hatched in my mind at that unveiling in Fletcher Moss Park, inspired by the growing public interest in Williamson. Could we raise enough enthusiasm for a statue? The answer is, I think, a resounding yes. Now is the right time to celebrate this pioneering eco-feminist and her legacy.
A statue of the RSPB founder needs to be a catalyst for change. It should remind people that, despite the huge environmental challenges we face, you’re never too small, too young or too disenfranchised to make a difference. Williamson turned her outrage into activism. She was ‘just’ a Victorian woman, barred from even booking a meeting hall. But she hatched her radical idea over tea and cake.
We need inspiring people like Williamson today, more than ever before. One voice can make a difference.
By Tessa Boase, author of Etta Lemon – The Woman Who Saved the Birds
Main image: Emily Williamson. Credit: Aurum publishers.
Vote for your favourite statue: Four shortlisted sculptors, all women, unveiled bronze ‘maquettes’ of Emily Williamson on July 1, 2021, the centenary of the Plumage Act (the RSPB’s first campaigning triumph). But the campaign needs your help. Which one would you like to see turned into a full-size statue at Fletcher Moss Park? Click here and cast your vote. And you can donate to the crowdfunding campaign here, which is helping to make this statue a reality.
Etta Lemon – The Woman Who Saved the Birds is available to buy now (Aurum, £9.99)