Books

Etta Lemon: the Mother of the Birds

Nicknamed the 'Dragon,' Etta Lemon was one of three female founders of the RSPB. She was an eco-activist who successfully campaigned against the use of feathers in the fashion industry, but her gender has meant that history books have left her behind.

Etta Lemon is the aptly named woman who built the RSPB. 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,” she wrote in her 1907 annual report for the RSPB.

Her 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 in 1939. Her impressive legacy is Europe’s biggest conservation charity. So why hasn’t her name 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 and 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 impatiently dismissed the RSPB’s female founders as elderly, unscientific, Christian do-gooders. These men of science then sacked Etta from the society she’d given her life to, purging her achievement from the records. Her oil portrait was moved to the RSPB canteen, then to the back of a cupboard.

Bringing her story to life has convinced me that every campaigning group needs an Etta, and that characters like her will always earn themselves enemies. Look at Greta Thunberg, the young climate change activist whose unflinching focus has inspired a love-hate following. Greta’s outspoken manner channels the spirit of Etta, who (as a girl) 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. The more I got to know Etta, the more I found myself wondering if she was perhaps neuro-diverse, like eco campaigners Greta and Chris Packham. Etta simply didn’t care what people thought of her. When lobbying for change, that is a great strength.

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

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