Tessa Boase: Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather

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Posted 4th September 2018

Etta Lemon – the 'dragon' of Redhill who saved the birds

Tessa Boase

On a hot June afternoon last year, I walked up Whitepost Hill towards Redhill Common with an address in my hand. For many months now, I'd been researching the story of Etta Lemon – a magnificent woman with a magnificent name; a name that once inspired terror and admiration not only in Redhill and Reigate, but nationwide. Etta Lemon was the prime mover behind the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, founded in 1889 to stamp out the fashion for feathers in hats.

For the first 50 years of its history, Britain's biggest conservation charity was run by the indomitable Mrs Lemon – a woman so trenchant in her views, so passionate on behalf of the birds, that a director of the Natural History Museum once hid down a stairwell rather than face her in lobbying mode. She was known, in her time, as 'Mother of the Birds'. She was also known as 'the dragon', and lived on in RSPB folklore long after she had been forcibly removed from her perch, aged 80, in 1939.

And yet, today, nobody has heard of her, or of her all-female campaign. For three decades, Etta and her local secretaries battled to quench the insatiable fashion for feathered and bird-bedecked hats – a fashion decimating birdlife around the world. She successfully lobbied Parliament for a plumage importation ban, a bill passed in 1921. She helped save the snowy egret from extinction, running a hard-hitting campaign that targeted feather wearers in the department store, in church and on the street with graphic images of avian slaughter. Her activism pre-dated Mrs Pankhurst's campaign by over a decade. Call her, if you like, an ornithological suffragette.

The bird protection campaign was waged from offices in Westminster, but it was masterminded from Redhill, Surrey. This was the long-term home of Etta and her barrister husband Frank Lemon, moving here from Blackheath as newlyweds in 1893. 'Hillcrest' is still standing, a detached Victorian house facing the glorious Common, with sweeping views to the North Downs. I walked up the hill on that hot afternoon to have a look. Perhaps I would even boldly knock at the door? I wasn't sure.

On the terrace stood an ornamental birdbath: a good omen. In the porch were an outrageous pair of gold sandals, and many small wellington boots. I knocked on the door. It was eventually flung open by a young woman with a preoccupied face, shrieks of children behind her. Hesitantly, I explained my mission.

Catherine Hutchison had never heard of Mrs Lemon – but she had, of course, heard of the RSPB, and so she let me in. The family hadn't lived here long and had just finished purging the house of its Victorian past. A series of gloomy rooms had been knocked through to bring in the light, as is the modern way. I stood in the open-plan kitchen and tried hard to channel the Lemons. It was here that local worthies once gathered for dinner around the mahogany dining table; dinners that got ever more elaborate when Frank Lemon was made Mayor of Reigate in 1911. Mrs Lemon would have made a formidable Lady Mayoress, a woman known as much for her national campaigning as for her tireless local good works.

Catherine remembered an envelope of old papers they had inherited with the house, and I tried to contain my excitement as she emptied the contents onto the kitchen counter. Inside was an extraordinary cache of Lemon family photographs and legal documents, left in the house at Etta's death in 1953.

One photograph intrigued me, taken outside the front porch. Frank Lemon stands with his foot on the bench, eyes on the camera, in a commanding pose. Etta sits in an entirely subservient position, dwarfed by her flower-topped hat, her long skirts spread wide. (No feathers for her – not even a humanely harvested ostrich plume, a feather permitted by the RSPB.) She looks stoically into the distance: the quintessential Victorian wife.

This article was originally published in Surrey Life. Read the full article here.

Mrs Pankhurst's Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women's Fight for Change by Tessa Boase (Aurum Press) is available as hardback (£20), e-book (£16) and Audible audio book (£18.99).

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