Etta, Emmeline, Emily, Eliza et al. – an untold story of plumes and suffrage

Published on 25 September 2018 in Editorials

By Conor Jameson

Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: fashion, fury and feminism – women’s fight for change, by Tessa Boase, was published by Aurum Press in May 2018. If they ever make a drama out of the (Royal) Society for the Protection of Birds’ origins, based on this book, it might open like this:

A teenager called Etta Smith sits in a crowded church. The hymn All Things Bright and Beautifulrings out around her, lustily rendered by organist and congregation. Etta is mouthing along to the words…

‘He made their glowing colours,

He made their tiny wings…’

As she sings, she scribbles names discretely in a notebook: names of the dead birds and parts of dead birds (and other fauna) dangling from the hats of those around her; names of the wearers…

Back at home, she sits down at the writing desk and starts to write letters.

‘Dear Mrs…’

She writes until she has a small pile of neatly folded envelopes in front of her. She sits back, breathes deeply, a determined glint in her eye.

Later, she sets off to post the envelopes, one by one, through the doors of the relevant local churchgoers. She passes a boutique with window dummies bedecked in millinery plumes. We are in Blackheath, Surrey, the year is 1887; Queen Victoria has been on the throne for 50 years and feathers in costume are all the rage.

We cut to the streets of New York City, February 1886. A young man is going against the hectic flow of chattering pedestrians on a crowded sidewalk. He too has a notebook and pencil. He ducks into a doorway and scribbles, his gaze following an extravagantly attired woman whose hat looks like ‘a keeper’s gibbet’.

We see his growing list… He has noted parts (and entire bodies) of woodpeckers, owls, thrushes, terns, warblers, chickadees. Where Etta Smith went home to write letters, Frank Chapman goes to a library to write a paper and publish a table. He has recorded 40 species in this macabre urban survey.

Four months later the state of New York adopts a bird protection act. The pace of change was not so rapid on this side of the Atlantic. Thirty-five years later, the Importation of Plumage Act (1921) reached the UK statute book. A lot, of course, happens in those decades – none of it very fast, obviously – and there is a cast of thousands, including 2,000 feather workers labouring in slum conditions, and a world war. Elements within the aristocracy, vital to getting traction in high places, are led throughout by the Duchess of Portland. Simultaneously, the struggle for (and against) votes for women rages, ebbs, and rages again. That story is more familiar.

‘Murderous millinery’: for one ounce of the exquisite, airy plumage known to milliners as the ‘osprey’, four Snowy Egrets Egretta thula had to die. By 1903 an ounce could fetch $32 – twice as much as an ounce of gold.

I have often wondered at the absence from written history of the RSPB’s founders. And I have long assumed that they must have been the sorts of people of who were not apt to, or able, to leave sufficient traces for the piecing together of a collective biography. I have understood that a succession of would-be authors of this story have come and gone, leaving empty-handed and frustrated at the paucity of records. I had heard that much of the archive was lost in the Blitz of the Second World War. What survives is packed away in boxes, difficult to access and unrewarding to pick over. Limits on time, space and resources, and higher priorities for a conservation charity, can be added to the mix.

I was introduced to author Tessa Boase in the RSPB library in early 2015. Tessa was making notes, books open in front of her, and the conversation has continued since as she has worked to bring the early bird protection society to life, inter-weaving this with accounts of the suffrage and anti-suffrage movements. This year, 2018, is the centenary year of married/propertied women over the age of 30 winning the right to vote in Britain.

I have before me now a review copy of the book. The cover describes the content as ‘an intimate portrait of two very different heroines: Mrs Pankhurst and Mrs Lemon – one lionised, the other forgotten – and their rival, overlapping campaigns.’ From the prologue: ‘If Mrs Pankhurst saw herself as the saviour of women (even if few women, back then, knew they wanted saving), Mrs Lemon was the avenging angel of the birds.’

Mrs Lemon was Etta Smith, the teenager in the church. She became the driving force of the Society’s long-running plumage campaign, as well as a philanthropist of apparently limitless energy and purpose. Less prominent in the long run but vital to the origins of the Society are Eliza Phillips, who set up the Croydon-based Fur, Fin and Feather Folk, and Emily Williamson, Manchester-based and founder of the original Society for the Protection of Birds. These two organisations were brought together in 1891 in a deal brokered by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Williamson had established her women-only organisation after being denied membership of the then exclusively male British Ornithologists’ Union.

Etta Lemon – illustration from Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather

Turning the pages eagerly, I greeted each revelation and the coming to life of these characters as I might a succession of long-lost, forgotten or never previously acknowledged relatives. It emerges that Emily Williamson is the great aunt of prominent contemporary academics in this field – and even they didn’t know.

Part of the challenge with telling this story is the volume of information to marshal, the cast of thousands (British Birdshas a walk-on part), the lack of dramatic action outside of meeting rooms and conference and political platforms. Having said that, we do learn that one RSPB member was jailed for throwing a brick through a window at Parliament, frustrated at a lack of progress on the Plumage Bill.

The author displays great panache and verve in weaving historical detail with insight, dramatic effect and narrative tension. The resulting tale is riveting, dextrously told, vividly imagined in places, shrewdly analysed. The insights on the social mores of Victorian and Edwardian class conventions and society are illuminating, even toe-curling in places. No-one escapes Tessa’s forensic torch and subtle yet pointed ironies. Society’s norms are ever intriguing, such as why some women fought so hard for the rights of birds while dismissing rights of their own that we now understand as self-evident.

It has been a pleasure to get to know these remarkable shapers of society at last, to have them – in a sense – freed from the attic. In places I found the tale poignant, and moving. The ‘drama documentary’ feel and approach of the book contributes to this impact. Emily Williamson, Eliza Phillips, Etta Lemon et al. gave almost everything to civic duty, and the birds. To them we owe the immensely influential conservation charity we know today, and Tessa Boase deserves great credit for championing their cause.

Conor Jameson