In an unmarked grave in Brompton Cemetery lies an indomitable Victorian woman you won’t have heard of before – but you will have heard of her legacy.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) owes its name to founder Emily Williamson. But it owes its subsequent mighty influence to the voice of Eliza Phillips, a woman who also cared passionately about animal cruelty. In 1891, when Emily's Society for the Protection of Birds merged with the all-female 'Fur, Fin and Feather Folk' of Croydon, Eliza Phillips stepped forward to become the campaign's voice. She was 68, a rector's widow with a vicious pen.
Appalled by the fashion for feathered hats, Eliza called out the global plumage trade and its cruelties. In a series of hard-hitting pamphlets, she blew the whistle on women’s narcissism and the milliners who served them.'It is women’s vanity that stimulates the greed of commerce,' she wrote in fury, 'and women’s money that tempts bird-slaughterers to continue their cruel work at home and abroad.'
Together with co-campaigners Etta Lemon and Emily Williamson, she coaxed the British public to fall in love with birds. We have images of Etta and Emily, but not of Eliza. This, in part, explains her absence from the conservation narrative. Artist Clare Abbatt, one of our shortlisted sculptors, has re-imagined Eliza Phillips here with the help of an anonymous Victorian photo album, and an image of the little egret – a bird almost exterminated for its plumes.
Author Tessa Boase has dug deep in the archives to resurrect the surprising women's story behind the RSPB. Join her on THURSDAY 25 MARCH at 6.30pm for an illustrated lecture bringing to life Eliza, Emily and Etta: The Women Who Saved the Birds.
Tickets £5, proceeds to charity.