News archive

February 2018

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

2018: The year of women = a Blog from RSPB's Martin Harper

2018: The year of women = a Blog from RSPB's Martin Harper

One hundred years ago today, women first won the right to vote in the UK. Today, we will be celebrating this milestone, as my colleague, Alison Enticknap, looks back at the RSPB's own female pioneers and their relationship with the suffrage movement.


The Representation of the People Act of 1918 enabled women to vote for the first time. It wasn't all women at first, but it was a start. The more militant "suffragettes" get most of the publicity but it is possible that the more moderate "suffragists", such as Millicent Garrett Fawcett (who this month will become the first woman to be commemorated with a statue in London's Parliament Square), had a greater influence on the outcome.


The RSPB's pioneers

Of course, the RSPB is one of many charities to have been founded by pioneering women. The Society for the Protection of Birds (SPB) was founded by Emily Williamson in Didsbury, Manchester in 1889. Mrs Williamson was active on a range of women's issues, also setting up the Gentlewomen's Employment Association in Manchester, and the Princess Christian Training College for Nurses. Her Loan Training Fund was also created to help support more women into further education.

The SPB later merged with the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk, formed in Croydon by Eliza Phillips and her neighbour, Margaretta "Etta" Smith. Etta Smith married the barrister Frank Lemon in 1892 and it was the formidable "Mrs Lemon" who was a driving force of the RSPB for more than 50 years. Mrs Lemon was a tireless campaigner and was deeply mistrustful of ornithologists, believing them to be hostile to the efforts of the RSPB to curb the activities of egg and skin collectors.


The RSPB and the suffrage

Do not assume, however, that philanthropic women like Mrs Williamson and Mrs Lemon, or that other leading light of the RSPB, the Duchess of Portland, were automatically supporters of women's suffrage. The truth is more complex and nuanced. Many well-meaning champions of women such as Mrs Williamson are better described as "maternalistic" and their support and patronage of women's issues stopped short of thinking that women should be granted the vote, as this was a radical point of view at that time.Mrs Lemon, for example, was quite outspokenly and actively anti-suffrage. In fact, she was the Chair of the East Surrey branch of the Anti-Suffrage League, feeling strongly that women should be recognised and celebrated on their own terms, not by becoming more like the men. Indeed, it was some of the RSPB's pioneering men, including the likes of sometime Foreign Secretary Lord Edward Grey, who were ultimately more prominent on the votes for women issue.

This was not unique to the RSPB. The National Trust's founder, Octavia Hill, was also implacably opposed to women's suffrage.

Another awkward truth is that the RSPB's primary cause - to end the use of threatened species' feathers as fashion accessories - occasionally pitted them directly against the suffragettes. Feathers, and especially feathers in hats, were part of the suffragettes' identity and "brand" (photographs of Emmeline Pankhurst frequently depict her sporting hats topped with an ostentatious plume). Mrs Lemon doubtless fired off an acerbic letter, as was her custom, to any suffrage campaigner seen wearing the wrong type of feather.



Celebrating diversity

What should we take from this? That we should be somehow ashamed of our founding women because they weren't on the frontline of the fight for the suffrage? Not at all. As with most campaigning issues, people don't divide neatly into camps. If two people take the same position on one issue, it doesn't necessarily mean they'll be in agreement on another. They may even agree on the issue but disagree on the ideal outcome, or how to achieve it.

So, in 2018, let's celebrate that great step towards equality that was made in 1918, thanks to the efforts of those brave and progressive women (and enlightened men) who made it happen. And celebrate the philanthropic pioneers, like Emily Williamson and Octavia Hill, who not only worked tirelessly to improve the education and living conditions of women, but also broke new ground on other issues and causes.

But don't assume they were all chaining themselves to railings or hurling themselves in front of horses. Some of the more influential ones were writing letters to newspapers and advocating change via quiet and rational debate on the "inside track". There's more than one way to skin a cat and it's important to recognise that the defining characteristic of effective social movements is an inherent diversity of people and approaches.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Local lad comes home to roost at the RSPB Dee Estuary

Local lad comes home to roost at the RSPB Dee Estuary

After the RSPB Dee Estuary reserve's long-serving site manager, Colin Wells retired in the autumn, the perfect candidate to succeed him has been found. Birkenhead-born Graham Jones was welcomed into the team in late December, and has taken up the reins at one of the RSPB's largest and most diverse nature reserves.
Graham's first experience of the area was through visiting Parkgate as a young teenager in the early 1980s, shortly after the RSPB had bought a vast part of the estuary to establish its Dee Estuary reserve. Travelling by bus or bicycle from his family home in Birkenhead, his love of nature was inspired by the Dee's vast marshes.
At the time, the RSPB's junior membership, known then as the Young Ornithologists Club (since renamed Wildlife Explorers), had a local group of which Graham was a keen member. As part of that group, in early 1984, Graham was introduced to the new warden of the RSPB's growing Dee Estuary reserve, a certain Colin Wells.
Through regular encounters around the reserve, Colin shared with Graham his great knowledge and passion for birds, wildlife and the estuary. Yet Graham did not initially head into a career in nature conservation.
Having only started a Field Biology and Habitat Management degree in his late-twenties, Graham then worked as a Biodiversity Manager for the Greater Manchester Ecology Unit in Manchester, stepping across into the charity sector with Lancashire Wildlife Trust and Butterfly Conservation before joining the RSPB in 2013 as North West Area Conservation Manager.
Graham said, "Getting this job is a dream come true for me. It's thanks to growing up exploring the Dee's wildernesses that I became fascinated by wildlife at a young age, and it's incredible just how much Colin and the RSPB has been able to achieve to give nature a home here.
"I've loved watching the reserve grow over the past 35 years and visited regularly, even when living up in Lancashire, so to come back here now as site manager and lead its future development, I feel incredibly fortunate - it's like coming home to roost!"
For more details on the RSPB Dee Estuary nature reserve, visit rspb.org.uk/burtonmerewetlands