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Who was Etta Lemon? Author Tessa Boase on the 'other' RSPB heroine

Updated: Aug 3, 2021

What happened after Emily Williamson founded her Society for the Protection of Birds in Didsbury, 1889? How did this little bird protection campaign take it to the next level?

The answer, in two words, is Etta Lemon. Etta is the dynamo who built the RSPB we know today, driving it forward through its first half century. If Emily was the presiding angel, Etta was the dragon. This bullish, determined and frankly fearsome woman steered the fledgling RSPB from its all-female origins, in 1889, all the way up to her brutal ejection by men in 1939. She was known to the British public as ‘Mother of the Birds.’ And yet, as with Emily Williamson, her name has yet to take its place in the conservation narrative.

‘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 dismissed the RSPB’s female founders as elderly, unscientific do-gooders. These men of science then sacked Etta Lemon from the society she’d given her life to, purging her achievement from the records. Her oil portrait ended up at the back of a cupboard at The Lodge, Sandy.

I spent three years researching the story of the RSPB's forgotten female founders, determined to put them back on the map. I'm happy to report that since the publication of my book, Etta Lemon (originally titled Mrs Pankhurst's Purple Feather), in 2018, Etta's portrait has been exhumed, restored and rehung in pride of place at RSPB headquarters. Mrs Lemon is back on her perch.

Bringing her story to life has convinced me that every campaigning group needs an Etta as well as an Emily – and that characters like Etta will always earn themselves enemies. As a girl (see below), she 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’ of manner. The more I got to know Etta Lemon, the more I found myself wondering if she was perhaps neuro-diverse, like today's eco activists Greta Thunberg and Chris Packham. Etta simply didn’t care what people thought of her.

When lobbying for change, this is a great strength.


'THE WOMEN WHO SAVED THE BIRDS' lecture at RSPB Titchwell Marsh, Norfolk, SUN 8 AUGUST, 2pm. Book signing of Etta Lemon 11am-4pm. Ticketed event.

ALSO Book signing at RSPB Minsmere, Suffolk, MON 9 AUGUST .

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