Four short-listed statues depicting wildlife activist and RSPB founder, Emily Williamson (1855-1936), will be unveiled this Thursday at Fletcher Moss Park, Didsbury.
The event will mark the centenary of the 1921 Plumage Act which banned the import of bird feathers to the UK. Williamson was one of the key campaigners for the act, at a time when feathers were commonly used for fashion, including for plumed hats.
Following their unveiling, the bronze scale models, or maquettes, of the full-sized statue will be put forward for public vote* open until September, when a selection committee will make the final decision. The four shortlisted designs are by sculptors Clare Abbatt, Billie Bond, Laury Dizengremel and Sheffield-born Eve Shepherd. Each of the designs are full-body depictions of Williamson and all feature a bird.
Williamson’s great-great niece and professor of ethology Melissa Bateson, RSPB CEO Beccy Speight and Springwatch presenter Gillian Burke are among those who will cast the final vote. The statue has a provisional unveiling date of April 2023, dependent on funding.
CEO of RSPB Beccy Speight said: “Over 130 years ago, the RSPB was built on a foundation of campaigning to achieve change for the better and exactly one hundred years ago the Plumage Act was finally achieved. There has never been a more important time for us all to speak up for nature, as we push for a green recovery from the pandemic and legislation like the Environment Bill makes its way through Parliament.”
Lancaster-born Williamson moved to Didsbury following her marriage to Manchester solicitor and anthropologist Robert Wood Williamson in 1882. It was there in 1889, in her home in the Croft within Fletcher Moss’s then private gardens, she and other women vowed not to wear feathers and founded the Society for the Protection of Birds.
The all-female group was in part a reaction to the British Ornithologists’ Union’s (BOU) refusal to join her in taking a stand against ‘murderous millinery’. Her letters were ignored and her application to join the all-male society denied. Also marking the centenary of the Plumage Act, the BOU last week announced it was awarding a posthumous membership to Williamson.
Today the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is the UK’s largest nature conservation organisation.
Speight added: “This unveiling event provides a perfect opportunity to reflect on the vision of our founders, including the amazing Emily Williamson, and I’m delighted with the plan to honour her with a statue at her home where the Society for the Protection of Birds was founded. I hope this statue and her story will help inspire a new generation of people who simply want to protect nature from destruction for its own sake and for ours, as Emily, along with Eliza Phillips and Etta Lemon, did a century ago.”
The statue campaign was founded by historian Tessa Boase in November 2020, alongside Manchester City councillor Andrew Simcock, who had previously chaired the campaign for the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester city centre. The campaign will be seeking public donations and corporate sponsorships.
“We don’t just want to commission the full size bronze statue, we want the project to also have an educational branch to it,” said Boase. “The statue should not just be somewhere for pigeons to perch on, it’s got to keep telling the story, and make it relevant to today’s visitors.
“We want it to link that incredible Victorian eco-activism with ways that people can take action for nature today, whether we achieve that by enhancing the current visitor centre, producing educational panels, or seeing how we can use technology alongside the statue.”
Figures of debate
Boase is one of the key voices on the life and achievements of Williamson and her colleagues Eliza Phillips and Margaretta Lemon. Boase’s book Etta Lemon: The woman who saved the birds, focuses on the latter.
“These stories have always been important, and sharing them can enable young women to dream and to have access to a greater variety of role models. I hope these women even make it into the national curriculum.
“A statue can be a focal point where people can gather, for environmental debates for example. We are hoping that this becomes a national place of pilgrimage, for those not only interested in birds and nature, but conservation and activism as well.”
Much debate has surrounded public statues in recent years, notably since the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol last June. The Colston statue has since been placed in the M Shed museum, and is exhibited lying down along with surveys for visitors regarding what to do with the statue in the future.
In addition to many of them representing contentious figures, a 2018 survey recorded 828 statues in Britain, only 173 of which were female, and 66 of those were allegorical or fictional. Campaigns across the country are now seeking to redress that balance, but not without their own controversy.
The installation of a £143,000 community-funded statue of writer and women’s rights activist Mary Wollstonecraft in North London last year was criticised for representing her as a naked everywoman, rather than celebrating her character.
Boase does not believe controversy would be an issue with Emily Williamson’s statue, given that the aim is a lifelike depiction of her.
“There are enough men who have been contentious and yet had statues made for them that I don’t think we should only put squeaky clean angels on pedestals. However, with Emily, I don’t think that would be a problem – she’s a very deserving candidate and attractive in every way.”
Little is known about Williamson and her statue has only been made possible by a photograph recently uncovered by Boase.
“I think Emily’s modesty hasn’t served her well [but] the female founders of the RSPB is also a story which hasn’t had much limelight. In the 40s and 50s, the RSPB became much more scientific. Suddenly all the figures in the society were male and the Victorian women with their anti-fashion campaign belonged in the past.
“Some of the early archives were also hit by a bomb during the blitz, so perhaps if that hadn’t happened, there would be more known today.”
Until 2019, when Williamson was honoured with a plaque in Fletcher Moss park, an existing one marked the RSPB’s beginnings there but cited the name of the 1989 president Magnus Magnusson, and made no mention of the founders. Even Williamson’s relatives were unaware of her role with the RSPB.
Boase said: “For every Emily Williamson, there are hundreds of other equally extraordinary women in that amazing era for philanthropy who have gone unremembered. It’s exciting discovering them and telling their stories.”