Special honour for Lancaster woman who saved a million birds and founded RSPB

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A Lancaster woman who saved a million birds is to be honoured by her birth town.

Emily Williamson (née Bateson) who in 1889 founded the all-female Society for the Protection of Birds – later to become the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – is to be honoured with the unveiling of a green commemorative plaque at her Lancaster birthplace.

The plaque will be unveiled on Sunday April 16, the day before Emily’s birthday, at the Quernmore Road entrance to Williamson Park, opposite Emily’s actual birthplace. Her action 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.

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Between 1870 and 1920, bird skins were imported to Britain by the tonne 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 from Lancaster.Emily Williamson from Lancaster.
Emily Williamson from Lancaster.

Emily 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, they grew the fledgling Society for the Protection of Birds to become, eventually, the UK’s biggest nature conservation charity, the RSPB.

Campaigning remains central to what the RSPB does today, alongside its science and practical conservation work. But its determined female founder has not been widely celebrated by history.

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Now, she is to be recognised with a plaque in Lancaster where she was born on April 17 1855. There has been a movement in Lancaster recently to address the lack of plaques to notable women in the city and this plaque, paid for by the people of Lancaster through a crowdfunding scheme, will be unveiled by zoologist and bird scientist Prof Melissa Bateson, Emily’s great great niece.

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Professor Melissa Bateson. Picture: Mark WaughProfessor Melissa Bateson. Picture: Mark Waugh
Professor Melissa Bateson. Picture: Mark Waugh

The unveiling will be preceded by a talk at noon about Emily and her legacy, in the Ashton Memorial, where there will be displays about her life and how her work continues.

Beccy Speight, Chief Executive of the RSPB, said, “I am delighted that we will be able to honour Emily Williamson’s legacy in this way and that we are able to take a moment to reflect on the history of our incredible organisation and the inspirational women who started it all.

"We are all thrilled that the people of Lancaster are choosing to honour Emily in this way. I hope that as well as honouring Emily, this plaque inspires a new generation willing to protect nature and renew our natural world. Just one voice can make a difference.”

Dr Melissa Bateson, Emily Williamson’s great great niece, said, “It was an extraordinary coincidence for me to discover that I am the great great niece of the woman who founded the RSPB as I have loved birds since I was a small child.

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"As a woman involved in the scientific study of birds, I feel a very strong connection with Emily and am hugely proud of what she managed to achieve and the legacy she has left.”

There is also a campaign in liaison with the RSPB to erect a statue of Emily at her former home in Fletcher Moss Park, Manchester, where she lived when she founded the RSPB.