When I first heard about the origins of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), I was incredulous. Women? Hats? Here were two equally astonishing facts: that this huge, muscular conservation charity was founded by Victorian women; and that it began life as an anti-feather, anti-fashion campaign.

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Little has been written about these women. But you may view the ‘bird hat’ in fashion archives all over the world, for this was an insatiable global craze that spanned half a century. When I visited London’s V&A Clothworkers’ Centre to inspect a dozen hats from the late 19th and early 20th century, I was shocked by what I saw. Here were birds – whole, halved, spliced and dyed – decorating millinery from the 1870s to the 1920s. This was fashion with blood on its hands: a voluptuous, savage, disturbing aesthetic that early photography does nothing to convey.

Here were birds – whole, halved, spliced and dyed – decorating millinery.

Coming under the hammer at monthly ‘fancy feather’ sales in London’s Commercial Sale Rooms were bales of bird skins measured by the thousand. A typical lot was “8,000 parrots”, as was “12,000 hummingbirds” or “5,000 tanagers”. All were destined for the millinery trade: for the female ‘feather hands’ who created the avian adornments out of raw material.

But what of those women who fought against the fashion? What evidence remains from the radical campaign against “murderous millinery”? The RSPB maintains that, due to a bomb falling on its London offices during the Blitz, there is a hole in the early archives. This is one of the reasons given by Britain’s biggest conservation charity as to why its early story has never properly been told. I thought it worth travelling to its current headquarters in Sandy, Bedfordshire, to find out what was left.

Etta Lemon's 1913 portrait. © Courtesy of Ian Dawson
Etta Lemon's 1913 portrait. © Courtesy of Ian Dawson

The Lodge is a rambling, mock-Tudor mansion set in gentle woodland, where chaffinches and tits dart and chirrup on a reserve of some 220ha. Here you will also spot keen birdwatchers – hungry-looking men in Gore-Tex, binoculars in hand, hoping for a sighting of hobby or hawfinch. In Britain, it seems to me, birds still belong to the boys. And when I pushed open the door of the entrance hall, this impression was reinforced. Large oil portraits of RSPB men loom down from the wood-panelled hall, with Edwardian nature writer WH Hudson in pride of place.

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How Victorian women started what was to become the RSPB

For two days I sifted through the archives, through papers stored in slim cardboard boxes, before coming across a handwritten version of the RSPB’s birth. This rough, much-corrected document on blue notepaper was written by one Mrs Lemon in 1943, looking back over half a century, when it might have seemed to her that the Society’s origins might fade from memory.

In Britain, it seems to me, birds still belong to the boys.

“The movement began in a small way,” she writes, “and for the first few months of its existence was confined to efforts to enlist the sympathy of women in support of protests against the wanton slaughter of birds for the sake of their plumage.” Mr Hudson, she continues, was an early “inspiration”; talking freely, showing the ladies “what was in his heart and in his mind”. But – “it was we women who had to work out the practical details”.

Who were these women?

The RSPB website cites Emily Williamson of Didsbury as their founder. This middle-class solicitor’s wife invited ladies to tea in 1889, and urged them to sign a pledge to wear no feathers. But I could not find her face in the archives, and she spoke only once at a subsequent meeting. “Women are mostly timid in inaugurating anything,” said Emily, “but they are very ready to give their help to a good cause when they are shown the way.”

Ostrich plume sorting © Chronicle/Alamy
Ostrich plume sorting © Chronicle/Alamy

There was also a Mrs Eliza Phillips, elderly founder of the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk of Croydon. The all-female Folk merged with Emily’s campaign in 1891 to create the SPB, keeping the name of the Didsbury group, while drawing on the Croydon women’s energy. As head of publications, Eliza’s trenchant voice rings out from every pamphlet. “This is above all a women’s question,” Eliza writes in 1891. “It is women’s vanity that stimulates the greed of commerce, and women’s money that tempts bird-slaughterers to continue their cruel work at home and abroad.” Eliza died in 1917; she, too, is faceless.

Winifred, Duchess of Portland – RSPB president from 1891 until her death in 1954 – was painted many times. But what was her role? Her patrician voice rings out from scrawled letters to those women in the office. “Literature on the subject might do her some good! Will you send her some – by my express desire!”

With four collaborators’ names already in my notebook, I began to understand why none had achieved posterity. Writers of history like to put a face to a movement – an Emmeline Pankhurst; a Florence Nightingale. It helps to have a charismatic hero when telling a battle’s story. Who, then, deserves credit for the SPB’s early triumph in the face of male bemusement and scorn? Who was the dynamo? Who should we celebrate?

The diffuse nature of the charity’s start seems to have confused and irritated historians over the decades. Credit “cannot be given to any single individual,” wrote the birder and author Stephen Moss in 2013. Rather, the campaign’s “most prominent figurehead was the popular nature writer WH Hudson.” Hence the oil painting in the entrance hall.

A catalogue of hats from 1908-9, including feathered ones. © The Millinery Record (private collection)
A catalogue of hats from 1908-9, including feathered ones. © The Millinery Record (private collection)

Yet to anyone combing through the archives at Sandy, like me, the answer seems obvious. All the anecdotes have stuck to Mrs Etta Lemon. She was gruffly modest about her role – “I was roped in and induced many hundreds to join.” But it was clear that here was the prime mover; a woman known both as “Mother of the Birds” and the “Dragon”.

As I untangled the individual stories of the four, Etta’s was the voice that leapt most off the page – hectoring, withering, crisply no-nonsense: “While these foreign birds are to be had at such ridiculous prices, that class of the community which rejoices in gaudy headgear is not likely to forego its passion.”

There was something else in her tone, too. Though she did not share their politics, Etta had more in common with the militant tactics of Mrs Pankhurst and her suffragettes than she was aware. They shared the language of action. “There is an urgent need for all who love birds to bestir themselves,” wrote Etta in an early report. “Combine for the protection of bird-life against the vanity and greed of a selfish minority!”

As I untangled the individual stories of the four, Etta’s was the voice that leapt most off the page – hectoring, withering, crisply no-nonsense

In her youth, Etta would note down wearers of every bird hat in church, sending each a stern letter by post. It is said that a director of the Natural History Museum once hid down a stairwell rather than be harangued by Mrs Lemon for some bird protection failure. She was “never much of an scientific ornithologist,” wrote James Fisher in the 1960s, “but a woman of tremendous drive and a humorous ruthlessness and courage.”

By then, Mrs Lemon had passed into folklore, a Victorian fanatic considered fair play for pot shots. She was unattractive, with “a mouth like a rat trap”, thought one old RSPB staffer of her portrait. In the official history of the RSPB published for its 1989 centenary, For Love of Birds (known in-house as FLOB), author Tony Samstag dubbed her the “Fulminator in Chief” – “one of those whose Christian name was… forever ‘Mrs’.”

An RSPB sandwich board campaign to save snowy egrets in 1911 (above), mimics the approach of the suffragettes (below). © rspb-images.com
An RSPB sandwich board campaign to save snowy egrets in 1911 (above), mimics the approach of the suffragettes (below). © rspb-images.com

I wondered when exactly the men of science had turned against the women, in a reflex that seemed to then become ingrained. This moment came about, as far as I could tell, between the wars. In 1926, the rigorously scientific young birdwatcher Max Nicholson attacked the RSPB’s core as “an elderly and passive group of amateurs” who “say too much and do too little,” in his book Birds in England. The female founders of the RSPB, with their early policy of women-only membership, had unfortunately had the effect (so he thought) of sharply dividing the growing bird protection movement from its “natural scientific base”.

Leading ornithologist Julian Huxley was next to criticise the Society in the early 1930s for its “blindness to the intellectual, as opposed to the emotional side of the bird-lovers’ activities”. Etta Lemon was well known for her suspicion of modern birding practices: the ringing of nestlings, census taking, the intrusion of long camera lenses into nests. She felt that these practices had human, rather than the birds’, interest at heart.

See caption above. © GL Archive/Alamy
See caption above. © GL Archive/Alamy

The extraction of the widowed Mrs Lemon from her own charity was painful to witness. I found highly personal letters in the archives telling the story – how first she was “relegated to a very inferior position in the Society’s office”, then “baited” at a committee meeting – “there’s no other word for it”. In May 1939, just after the RSPB’s 50th anniversary celebrations, she was informed, by post, that her services would no longer be required. She was 80 years old.

How callous – but also, perhaps, how necessary. Mrs Lemon was the Margaret Thatcher of the bird world – visionary, forthright, divisive and, in the end, out of touch. For her society to grow and evolve, Mrs Lemon had to let go.

But because of the unpleasant nature of her extraction, in the face of her stubborn possessiveness, Mrs Lemon has lingered in the collective memory like a bad smell, rather than getting the heroic Hudson treatment.

Mrs Lemon was the Margaret Thatcher of the bird world – visionary, forthright, divisive and, in the end, out of touch.

Mike Clarke, current chief executive of the RSPB, uses the phrase “founder syndrome” to describe Etta’s predicament. “When a society starts small, the individuals have a huge influence on the early culture,” he told me. “But the culture has to change with the times.” By 1939, the spat over feathered hats was long over. The Plumage Importation (Prohibition) Act had been passed in 1921, and there were more pressing nature conservation battles, including oil spills, egging and the persecution of birds of prey – none of them straightforward, some divisive. If tactics and personnel had not changed, the charity would have alienated its members.

I asked Clarke why he thought his charity’s early history has never been celebrated. As an “armchair historian”, he said that he’d always imagined devoting his retirement to investigating the stories of Emily, Eliza and Etta. “I haven’t really got the time now. But it pains me that we haven’t devoted more charity resources to celebrating our history. The time to write it should have been the 1989 centenary; this was when we could have invested a lot of effort pulling it together.”

But with so many pulls on the RSPB’s time and money, the organisation didn’t, and the moment passed. The ‘FLOB’ book has a chapter on ‘Those Formidable Women’ – who “in different times would have given suck to giants” – written in a breezily chauvinistic tone which no longer has traction.

When a plaque was erected on Emily Williamson’s house in Didsbury in 1989, it failed even to mention her by name. Clarke points out that “history is always written through the cultural lens that we have at the time.” Happily that lens is now coming to bear on the women; pulling them into focus. Since my book’s publication, the people of Didsbury have funded a handsome new plaque for Emily Williamson. Her image is now public property, too. I was sent an old family photograph by Emily’s ancestor, the ethologist Melissa Bateson. Manchester’s early animal rights heroine now has a face.

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And at the RSPB’s Sandy HQ, an old oil painting of Etta Lemon has been unearthed and is currently being restored. It is destined to hang opposite the portrait of WH Hudson: the man who gave the ladies the courage to go forward with their fight. Eighty years after she was purged from her own society, Mrs Lemon is coming home to roost.

Tessa Boase is author of The Woman Who Saved the Birds 
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