Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather

Author and journalist Tessa Boase sheds an original – and surprising – light on the lives of Manchester’s heroic, campaigning women.

In a glass cabinet, deep inside the Museum of London, is a luxurious purple feather once worn on the hat of Emmeline Pankhurst. The suffragette leader wore it to ‘rush’ the House of Commons in 1909. Her militant supporters did likewise, fixing plumes, wings – even whole birds – on their hats in the political colours of purple, white and green.

Such audacious millinery was a cry for eye-to-eye attention – but it was also the height of fashion. Mrs Pankhurst had strong opinions on the subject of dress: suffragettes were required at all times to be the most elegant ladies in the social sphere. Whatever the cost to the birds (and here was a troubling irony, for a woman fighting oppression), the feathered hat was an essential part of her brand.

But there is another, equally intriguing story behind those defiant, pre-war plumes. Twelve years before the suffragette movement was born at Nelson Street, Manchester, a very different women’s campaign captured the public imagination.

Just four miles away, in Didsbury, Emily Williamson started a crusade to stamp out the cruel fashion for feathers in hats. Her small movement was to grow into the mighty RSPB.

Yet, while Mrs Pankhurst is widely worshipped, Emily Williamson and her RSPB co-founders, Eliza Phillips and Etta Lemon, have not been remembered. These women campaigned for three decades against ‘murderous millinery’; an insatiable fashion that was decimating birdlife around the world. They lobbied Parliament for a plumage importation ban. They saved the snowy egret and the crested grebe from extinction. They gave their lives to the cause. But where, today, are they celebrated?

Two years ago, I travelled to Fletcher Moss Gardens in Didsbury in search of Emily’s footprints. I knew that the RSPB had chosen her former home, The Croft, as the spot to mark its centenary in 1989, but where was the blue heritage plaque? A park warden making tea had never heard of Emily Williamson, nor knew what I was looking for. Finally, I found a small, metal board hidden on a shady wall next to the cafe entrance: ‘Action For Birds – 100 years.’ Yet the name on it was not Emily’s. ‘The unveiling was performed by the Society’s President MAGNUS MAGNUSSON on 17th February 1989 at The Croft where the Society was founded one hundred years ago.’

TheManchester Evening News had covered the unveiling of this plaque, referring to Emily as a ‘stout Victorian woman’. In 1889 she would have been 34. The RSPB’s archivists had assured me there were no surviving photographs of its founders, the charity’s London headquarters having been bombed during the Blitz. Could this really be possible? I wondered if anybody had tried to find out.

Online census research led me to Emily’s great nephew, the eminent Cambridge zoology professor Sir Patrick Bateson – who was delighted to discover that his maternal great aunt was co-founder of the RSPB. I asked if there was perhaps a family photograph…

Researching this book about forgotten heroines, lost fashions, and the invisible female workforce propping up the plumage industry, brought me many surprises along the way – not least the revelation that the RSPB was a hotbed of anti-suffragists. This was, I discovered, not at all unusual among highly conservative women – women who wanted to conserve, not destroy. But perhaps the most satisfying discovery was that picture of Emily Williamson. Here was no ‘stout Victorian woman’ – rather, a beautiful brunette with intelligent eyes and compassionate face. It’s time for Mrs Pankhurst to make room for another local heroine. Step forward Mrs Williamson, saviour of the birds.

Tessa’s book, Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women’s Fight for Change is published by Aurum Press.