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An illustration from the American magazine, Puck, which suggests that it was women’s demand for fashionable feathers, not the plume hunters, that led to the near extinction of snowy egrets.

When feathers flew – women’s fight for change and the birth of the RSPB

HOT’s Esme Needham reviews Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather by local author Tessa Boase.


Etta Lemon, the unsung founder of the RSPB

It happens quite often that I come across a subject which is absolutely fascinating, perhaps unbelievable, but has rarely been brought squarely into the public eye. It was in Tessa Boase’s latest book that I found one of these subjects: the simple fact that it was a group of passionate and committed women who founded the RSPB, and yet the vast majority of people do not know this. Even the RSPB themselves seem reluctant to commemorate these women. As the book points out when speaking of Etta Lemon, the founding member of the RSPB, there is “not a plaque, not a portrait at headquarters, not a mention in the canon of those women who have helped shape the twentieth century.”

The reason for such a campaign being started seems, at first, an unusual one, and it stems from an extremely iconic image connected with women from history: hats. Or, to be precise, feathered hats. Although fashions for hat adornment went in and out, the feather trade was one of the most lucrative industries there was in relation to clothing. Wealthy customers would pay impressive prices for the most beautiful feathers, which could then be passed down from mother to daughter like a piece of jewellery; a family heirloom, almost.

Emmeline Pankhurst (right) sporting half a bird on her hat.

Emmeline Pankhurst (right) sporting at least half a bird on her hat.

One of the most famous wearers of feathered hats was Emmeline Pankhurst. She encouraged her friends to wear fashionable clothing in order to show how elegant suffragettes could be. The book draws a direct line between Etta Lemon, fiercely dedicated to birds and equally fiercely against women’s suffrage, and Emmeline Pankhurst, who went to enormous lengths for the cause of women’s votes but didn’t appear to care tuppence about where her feathers came from. In the pictures section of the book, a page away from a photo of starving, orphaned egret chicks, there is a photo of her with what appears to be an entire bird attached to her hat.

There was an another problem – one which Emmeline Pankhurst, with her band of wealthy middle-class suffragettes, appeared to think nothing of. The beautiful feathers which she was so fond of wearing had not only been plucked from some rare creature, but had also gone through an incredibly exhaustive process which involved washing, dying, beating, trimming, willowing (lengthening the feather by tying ends onto each individual frond, some times done by children “as young as five, working from home for a penny a day”) and curling. In the prologue, the narrative follows Emmeline Pankhurst’s purple feather of the title – which she wore to storm Parliament in 1914 – along its journey through auctions and workhouses and finally the milliner’s shop.

But although the book centres around Etta Lemon and Emmeline Pankhurst- “two difficult, driven, heroic and compassionate women”- it is by no means all about them. Throughout history, it has always been the case that for every person who makes their name and fights for what they care about, there are hundreds of others who are buried in the shadows. Yet here are whole sections devoted to strange and interesting people, some of whose names, perhaps, have barely seen the light of day since their own time. From Alice Battershall – a young woman who was sentenced to three weeks’ hard labour for stealing two ostrich feathers from her employer – to The Countess Fabricotti, a penniless but glamorous American ‘with a past’ who catered to rich and fashionable women in her London hat shop, every person hidden within these pages glows with life.

The incredible thing is that this is a book that portrays both sides of a fascinating story – both the glamour and beauty of the lovingly described feathers and the people who wore them, and the unpleasantness of their origins and the fates of the people who worked them. It’s shocking, beautifully written and at times amusing. But more than anything else, it tells a story that needs to be told about people who, after reading this book, you will find it difficult to forget.

Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather by Tessa Boase is available in Printed Matter, 185 Queens Road – and – until Sunday 12 August – at the Light As A Feather show in Stade Hall. Aurum Press. Hardback, £20.

Posted 22:11 Tuesday, Aug 7, 2018 In: Literature

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