Competition launched to honour RSPB founder Emily Williamson with statue

Wednesday 9 December 2020

Emily Williamson, who in 1889 founded the all-female Society for the Protection of Birds (later the RSPB), is to be honoured with a statue at her former home in Fletcher Moss Park in Didsbury, Manchester.

Four short-listed maquettes will be unveiled in July 2021, marking the centenary of the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act – the triumph of Emily Williamson’s long campaign. 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.

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.

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.

Now, in partnership with the Emily Williamson Statue Campaign, the RSPB is inviting sculptors to submit designs to commemorate its inspirational founder. The bronze statue should bear a close likeness to the only known image of Emily, and will stand in Fletcher Moss Park, Didsbury, where the society was born in 1889 at her home.

The short-listed maquettes will be unveiled in July 2021, marking the centenary of the Plumage Act. The public will then have the opportunity to vote for their favourite design and sculptor, as the maquettes tour the country. The winning design will be unveiled in April 2023 – Emily’s 168th birthday – by the bird scientist Dr Melissa Bateson, Emily’s great, great niece.  

A statue will provide a focal point for celebrating women in conservation. It will also embody the truth that, when ordinary people band together, they can create something extraordinary. No one person is too small, or too disenfranchised, to make a difference.

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Beccy Speight, Chief Executive of the RSPB: “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. I hope that as well as honouring Emily, this statue inspires a new generation, willing to protect nature and revive our world.”

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

Tessa Boase, co-founder of the Emily Williamson Statue Campaign and author of Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women’s Fight for Change: “When I started researching the RSPB’s surprising eco-feminist roots it was very difficult to discover anything about Emily Williamson. Finding her photograph, via her great nephew Sir Patrick Bateson, was a revelation. When you have a face, you have a personality ⁠— and then you have a story. Without this image, there would be no statue campaign.

“It’s fascinating that Emily’s remarkable legacy was also a revelation to her descendants. This suggests an essential modesty – a trait shared by all three women who built the RSPB: Emily Williamson, Eliza Phillips and Etta Lemon. I hope this statue is just the first step in honouring these early eco-heroines.”

Andrew Simcock, Manchester City councillor: “I am delighted to be chairing this campaign for a statue of Emily Williamson. We will be building on the work done since 2014 to honour women of significance to Manchester. This led to the 2018 unveiling of the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in St Peter’s Square in central Manchester. One of the most successful elements of that campaign was the public engagement in choosing the design for Our Emmeline. With this new project we hope that thousands of members of the RSPB and other members of the public will give us their views on the designs.

“As a Didsbury Councillor I am also delighted that we intend to erect this statue in one of our best loved parks. Fletcher Moss Park in Didsbury is home to the Alpine Gardens created by Emily and her husband Robert Williamson.

“As part of the Our Emmeline campaign I really enjoyed visiting sculptors to see their designs as they worked on their ideas. I urge all figurative sculptors with an interest in this Emily Williamson statue to contact us!”

Last Updated: Wednesday 9 December 2020

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