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How Etta saved the birds from the ‘murderous millinery’ trend sweeping London throughout 1891



by Tessa Boase (Aurum £9.99, 320 pp)

Sitting in a London church in 1887, a young woman gazed over the congregation and the sea of elegant ladies’ hats.

In her notebook, she jotted down the names of the birds whose feathers decorated those hats — swallows, robins, blue tits, chaffinches, hummingbirds and even eagles and herons. Just as she did every week, she would write to each of the hat wearers, calmly describing the slaughter of the birds who had ended up as their fashion accessories.

Today, her name is almost entirely forgotten. Yet, as this beguiling book shows, Etta Lemon is one of the great heroines of British nature conservation. Her long and doughty campaign against ‘murderous millinery’ led to the founding of the Royal Society For The Protection Of Birds (RSPB) and saved millions of birds.

Tessa Boase has penned a book about Etta Lemon (pictured), who was one of the great heroines of British nature conservation

Born Etta Smith in 1860, she grew up on the Kent coast and developed a passion for birds at an early age. For many of her contemporaries, though, birds were nothing more than a source of brightly coloured feathers for their hats. Hats were big business — in 1891, central London alone had 548 milliners — and feathers were an essential adornment. Women who couldn’t afford their own exotic feather would club together to buy one, taking it in turns to wear it on their best hat.

By the time Etta reached her 20s, there was a ghastly new trend for hats decorated with the corpses of birds: ‘whole owls’ heads with staring glass eyes were all the rage … along with the breasts and wings of brightly coloured parrots,’ Tessa Boase writes. Tiny songbirds were used to trim bodices and decorate capes, or arranged to look as if they were flying out of collars. In 1891, Emily Williamson from Manchester launched the all-female Society For The Protection Of Birds to campaign against the killing of birds for ‘avian adornment’.

The following year Etta, now married to lawyer Frank Lemon, became its Honorary Secretary, bringing organisational skill and boundless energy to the cause.

Within two years, membership had reached 10,000 and the women were tireless in their efforts to persuade others to ‘take the pledge’ to eschew feathers. Their sympathisers included Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII and, in 1904 the society was given a Royal Charter and became the RSPB.

Tessa Boase draws many parallels between Etta’s championing of birds and Emmeline Pankhurst’s long fight for women’s votes; the Women’s Social And Political Union, set up to campaign for female suffrage, was founded in 1903. You might expect the two organisations to have had plenty in common but they viewed each other with deep suspicion.

Etta's campaign against the use of bird corpse on hats, led to the founding of the Royal Society For The Protection Of Birds (RSPB)

Etta’s campaign against the use of bird corpse on hats, led to the founding of the Royal Society For The Protection Of Birds (RSPB)

Mrs Pankhurst believed suffragettes needed to be well dressed to convince the public they were ‘womanly’ rather than screaming viragos, and extravagantly large hats, often trimmed with feathers, were an important part of their image.

In short, she had little time for bird enthusiasts. Etta, for her part, opposed the campaign for women’s votes. When the rules of the Royal Charter stipulated that a woman couldn’t be the RSPB’s honorary secretary, she cheerfully handed over the role to her husband.

For all Etta’s energy and campaigning skills, there was little public enthusiasm for outlawing the killing of birds for fashion and they were still being slaughtered on an industrial scale for the British market.

ETTA LEMON by Tessa Boase (Aurum £9.99, 320 pp)

ETTA LEMON by Tessa Boase (Aurum £9.99, 320 pp)

In just one month in 1907, one London wholesaler sold 20,000 kingfisher carcasses. Etta may have disliked the suffragettes, but she could see their shock tactics were effective. In 1911, the RSPB hired ten men to walk through central London wearing sandwich boards depicting an egret’s story, showing the egret chicks starving to death after their parents were killed for their feathers. Posters of the picture went up all around London.

The stunt worked and the tide of public opinion began to turn, though it wasn’t until 1921 that the Plumage Act, banning the import of exotic feathers, finally became law.

There’s no doubt that Britain was shamefully slow to act — in America a similar law had been passed nine years earlier and women arriving from England on liners often had their hats confiscated at the New York docks.

Etta worked tirelessly for the RSPB for another 18 years, until she was unceremoniously forced into retirement.

After that, she was more or less airbrushed from its history.

When the first edition of this book was published three years ago, the RSPB website carried little information on Etta Lemon and her picture wasn’t even on display in its headquarters. Now, Tessa Boase reports, that has been put right and Etta’s enormous contribution to nature conservation is acknowledged.

Boase writes warmly and sympathetically about the redoubtable Mrs Lemon, even while admitting she is ‘a hard woman to love’: blunt and so relentless that people would hide rather than risk being harangued by her. Well, thank goodness for Etta and women like her. Britain, and our wildlife, would be much poorer without them.

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