Swift City is part of tribute to celebrate Lancaster-born Emily Williamson as RSPB founder

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is the largest conservation organisation in Europe, managing over 200 nature reserves and supporting projects around the world, but it has a very local connection.

By Michelle Blade
Thursday, 6th May 2021, 3:45 pm

Emily Williamson who founded the RSPB in 1889, was born in Lancaster in 1855 and baptised in the Priory.

She started the organisation to protest against the cruel trade in feathers that were used in Victorian women’s hats. This fashion left several species close to extinction. (And looked pretty ridiculous!) This year is the centenary of the Plumage Act that banned the trade, one of the first pieces of conservation legislation.

The Act was critical in saving thousands of bird species around the world from being hunted to extinction for the millinery trade, including the Great and Little Egret and the Great Crested Grebe.

Founder of the RSPB Emily Williamson, who was born in Lancaster in 1889. There are plans to unveil a plaque to Emily later this year.

Between 1870 and 1920, bird skins were imported to Britain by the ton for the plumage trade. At its Edwardian peak, the trade was worth some £20 million a year (around £200 million in today’s money).

Emily Williamson bravely called out the insatiable slaughter of birds for millinery. She pushed back against the relentless tide of fashion.

Together with Eliza Phillips and Etta Lemon, she grew her fledgling Society for the Protection of Birds to become, eventually, the UK’s biggest conservation charity: the RSPB.

From the founding of the society in 1889 it took over30 years before this trade was finally outlawed.


This year marks the centenary of that legislation, the Plumage Act of 1921. Campaigning remains central to what the RSPB does today, but its female founder has not been celebrated by history. Emily Williamson’s significant contribution to nature has all but been left out of the conservation narrative. To mark the anniversary of the centenary of the Plumage Act of 1921, there are plans to unveil a plaque to Emily later this year.

In the meantime, RSPB Lancaster local group and other community organisations are working on a living memorial by creating Lancaster Swift City.

Swifts arrive here in May after migrating thousands of miles from Africa. You can see these amazing birds hurtling along our summer streets in ‘screaming parties’, a phrase that brings to mind toddlers’ jelly-fuelled birthday celebrations.

Well, swifts can be nearly that loud - and even more energetic. They are the fastest bird in level flight, hitting nearly 70mph. When they are not nesting, they spend all their time on the wing, eating and even sleeping in the air. Sometimes they don’t land for months, or even years!

They are remarkable birds, but they are in trouble. The population has fallen by over 50% in fifteen years.

One of the main reasons is that their traditional nesting sites in the eaves of houses have been blocked off by new fascias and soffits.

With nowhere to nest, their numbers are dropping alarmingly. This is a real shame as they make very good tenants.

They are quiet, make little mess and often people don’t even know they are there.

The Lancaster Swift City project aims to help them by monitoring their population, protecting their existing nest sites and putting up nest boxes for them.

The project is currently recruiting surveyors to help count them. Training is provided and if you would like to help with this, or get involved in any other way, we’d love to hear from you. See Facebook.com/Lancaster.Swifts or contact [email protected]