As regular CFZ-watchers will know, for some time Corinna has been doing a column for Animals & Men and a regular segment on On The Track... particularly about out-of-place birds and rare vagrants. There seem to be more and more bird stories from all over the world hitting the news these days so, to make room for them all - and to give them all equal and worthy coverage - she has set up this new blog to cover all things feathery and Fortean.

Friday, 2 August 2019

‘It was wholesale slaughter’: The forgotten history of the plumage trade and the women who brought it down

Years before the feather hat-adorned suffragettes arrived, a group of Victorian women changed the face of conservation at a time when women’s voices were rarely heard. So why have they been all but wiped from history? Ashley Coates revisits the RSPB’s founding females

Few people are aware that the RSPB, Europe’s largest conservation organisation by membership, was founded by Victorian women working to end the cruelty of the feather trade.

Established in a house in Manchester 130 years ago this year, the Society for the Protection of Birds was initiated by Emily Williamson, the wife of a middle-class solicitor. An organisation with the same aims, known as Fur, Fin and Feather Folk, was set up in London by Eliza Phillips and merged with the SPB in 1891.

Active years before the suffragette movement, Emily Williamson, Eliza Phillips and the fastidious campaigner Etta Lemon, were far-sighted activists who utilised all the tools of communication available at the time, successfully capturing society’s hearts and minds and helping to bring about a change in consumer behaviour as well as some of the first laws to protect wildlife.

Their lives, and their contribution to conservation and to feminism, have been largely overlooked by historians and forgotten by the environmental movement. It was a story almost lost entirely to history prior to the publication of Tessa Boase’s revelatory book Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather, released last year.

“These women (unlike Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst) didn’t covet publicity, fame or glory for themselves, and their hard-working anonymity has not served them well over time,” Tessa Boase suggests. “Not one of them put herself forward as a saviour of the birds.”

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