Caught by the River

Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather

28th November 2018

Fashion, fury, feminism, and the beginnings of avian conservation: Karen Lloyd reviews Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather by Tessa Boase, published by Aurum Press and out now.

Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather; Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women’s Fight for Change is a richly researched, meticulously detailed and compelling portrait of a small number of hugely influential Victorian women, all of whom made ground-breaking developments in their fields of campaign. It is curious then, to discover that whilst the name and achievements of one of the book’s subjects has been engraved on modern consciousness, those of her contemporaries – the visionary women whose endeavours to ban fur and feathers led not only to the birth of the modern conservation movement, but also to the founding of the UK’s largest conservation charity, the RSPB, have until now, been lost to us.

Made up of five sections – ‘Feathers,’ ‘Birds,’ ‘Hats,’ ‘Votes’ and ‘Power,’ each offers a thorough appraisal of the subject, though the writing is never less than compelling. Boase successfully marshals her subject matter; quotes, images, reportage and the debunking of commonly held myths with intellectual gravitas and empathy.  The particular object that provokes this writing journey is a purple feather in the Museum of London – once worn by suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst. It was this, together with the numerous photographs that illustrated the hats worn by Pankhurst and her fellow suffragists, that snagged the author’s gaze. Victorian hats were decorated not only with feathers, or ’plumes,’ but with whole birds that had been disjointed and re-assembled into grotesque bird-parodies – or ‘murderous millinery.’ The craze was rampant: no self-respecting woman would be seen without a hat, and the greater the amount of plumage involved, the better. No awareness was shown of the lives or habitats in which the birds had lived; all were reduced to an imagined ideal of the exotic. The partisan worlds of women’s suffrage and conservation were poles apart ideologically – secured on one side by the dictates of fashion and on the other by the Conservative, Christian and gifted speaker, Etta Lemon. Lemon became a leading campaigner against the use of birds and feathers in millinery and fashion and was ultimately the progenitor of the RSPB.

The trade in feathers and skins represented a staggering 2 million pounds a year of UK trade – valued at more than two hundred million today. When the catalogue for London-based plumage dealers Hale and Son was published in March 1888, it fell into the hands of an undercover reporter from The Auk, the newsletter of the newly established American Ornithologists’ Union. (US legislation against the trade in feathers from protected species was enacted some 8 years ahead of Britain’s, in 1912.) Amongst the contents listed were 8,000 parrots, 1,000 woodpeckers, 4,000 snipe and plover, 7,000 starlings and 12,000 hummingbirds; other species labelled as ‘penguins’ were actually little auks and the endangered great crested grebe. At its height, the demand resulted in the serial and sustained decimation of wild bird populations across the globe. From Nepal and India, Venezuela, the East and West Indies, Burma, China and North and South America, 61 bird species were placed under threat of extinction. Egrets were persecuted almost to the point of extinction in, amongst other places, the swamps of New South Wales. Shot for their white head feathers, this lucrative and annihilating trade left young birds to starve in the nest, as documented by campaigner and photographer Arthur Mattingly in a series of disturbing photographs.

Young girls, children and in some cases whole families were employed in the plumage trade; the small fingers of children were thought to more easily handle the fashioning of feathers into plumes, known as ‘willowing.’ The work was arduous – and miserably paid. A photograph of a few dozen factory girls dressed in their Sunday best, taken on a rare trip to the Sussex countryside hosted by Millicent Ludlow, is largely a visual record of poor health and even malnutrition.

Enter a group of women whose efforts formed the beginnings of modern conservation. Spurred on by the plight of the crested grebe, a milliners’ favourite, Emily Williamson from Didsbury, in Manchester, founded the Society for the Protection of Birds in Manchester in 1889. Together with Etta Lemon, Eliza Phillips was the fervently Christian founder of the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk of Croydon in Surrey, 1889, and hostess of tea parties to which the renowned ornithologist and nature writer WH Hudson was guest of honour and co-campaigner. (Phillips was also Head of Publications in the early life of the proto Society for the Protection of Birds, when the two societies merged in 1891.) Finally, and importantly, a voice from the aristocracy helped to challenge women to think again about the effects of fashion on the natural world; Winifred, Duchess of Portland, applied her name to number of good causes, from pit ponies, to girls’ education, to caged birds, and was later president of the RSPB for 60 years. Virginia Woolf waded in to the fracas too, with a graphically written magazine feature on the hunting of birds.

In the more recent past, under a wholly male management committee, Etta Lemon’s portrait was removed from display at the organisation’s headquarters in Bedfordshire. Lemon had stayed on at the RSPB into her 80’s, by when, as Boase says, she had become “the Margaret Thatcher of the bird world: visionary, forthright, divisive and, in the end, out of touch.” Before her portrait was originally removed from display, even into the much more recent past, Lemon was the subject of unfair misogynistic comments. More recently though, women are once again performing significant roles within the hierarchy; the Labour peer Barbara, now Baroness Young, ushered in a new era as Chief Executive from 1991-8. Miranda Krestovnikoff is the current president, a post previously held by Kate Humble, and Anne McCall is the new Chief Executive of RSPB Scotland. Since the publication of Mrs Pankhurst’s Feather, Etta Lemon’s portrait has been brought out for restoration, and will soon be resituated in its rightful place, alongside her contemporary, WH Hudson. (The book necessarily begs the question of how many other female conservationists have had their contributions buried too.)

We have indeed moved away from a less enlightened era of conservation misogyny, though occasionally, outmoded and anachronistic prejudices are allowed to surface.  In a letter published in the British Trust for Ornithology’s magazine, BTO News, in response to a recent feature by a woman on women in conservation, one particularly unenlightened male correspondent wrote that women, having made the sandwiches and prepared her man’s dinner, ‘has probably gone shopping. This is what happens in tribal communities – the man goes hunting and the woman looks after the home.’ And the letter was published…

Before proselytising about the horrors of Victorian fashion however, any reading of this book also demands that we interrogate our own appetites, and exactly how it is that we live now. Since Etta Lemon marched on parliament campaigning for the rights of birds, the rate and loss of species across the globe has continued exponentially; it is tethered irrefutably to the impacts of modern consumerism – not least to a global fashion industry that churns out clothes made almost entirely from fossil fuels. And just as Victorian ships brought tonnes of feathers and skins from across the world into the UK, container ships now carry a slew of products that are at their most basic, manufacture for landfill. Judge not therefore, those Victorian hunters and traders of skins and feathers; we are all still complicit. We would do well also to remember Wordsworth’s inquiry, (that Romantic incipient environmentalist,) who, on meeting a man on the road near Rydal asked him; ‘Tell me; what is it that you do; and how is it that you live?’

Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather plugs serious gaps in modern conservation narratives but is never preachy or polemical. To have handled this amount of information and to have successfully built from it a book that is continually compelling, is indeed, a major achievement.


Karen Lloyd is the author of’ The Gathering Tide: A Journey Around the Edgelands of Morecambe Bay and The Blackbird Diaries, and editor of Curlew Calling; An Anthology of Poetry, Nature Writing and Images in Celebration of Curlew. You can follow her on Twitter here.