RSPB Festival announced

A new festival will celebrate the legacy of Emily Williamson, the woman who founded the RSPB.

by Mark Cureton |
Published on

Taking place at Manchester Art Gallery, Friday 12 to Sunday 14 November, it will explore the links between conservation, campaigning, science and art.

Following immediately after the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, it will showcase local stories of resistance, resilience and hope in the world of conservation today. Of the 24 speakers, 23 are women.

Emily Williamson (1855-1936), founded what would become the RSPB from her home in Didsbury’s Fletcher Moss Park in 1889 by inviting her friends to tea and asking them to sign a pledge to ‘Wear No Feathers’. That one pledge ricocheted through the next century, spawning campaigns and movements that changed the face of UK conservation.

The Festival will to shine a spotlight on an inspiring range of Manchester individuals making a difference in their own backyards, as well as some key female players in the conservation world – including RSPB CEO Beccy Speight, the British Ornithologists' Union President Juliet Vickery, campaigner and Springwatch presenter Megan McCubbin, and Emily Williamson's descendent, bird scientist Professor Melissa Bateson.

The link between Emily’s history and her eco-campaigning legacy will be explored in a range of panel debates, including:

• Victorian Manchester’s greenness, and the city’s changing relationship with the natural world today.

• Campaigning tactics across the centuries, from the RSPB’s foundation to today.

• The fashion industry vs environmentalists, then and now, with treasures from the city’s Victorian past put under the lens (bird skins from Manchester Museum; feathered hats from Manchester Art Gallery).

• The link between nature and mental health.

Festival founder, social historian and author Tessa Boase, said: “Emily Williamson understood the value, magnificence and significance of nature, especially birds. She stood firm and fought against the powerful worldwide 'murderous millinery' trade – and she won. This festival celebrates her achievement and remarkable legacy, showcasing some exceptional women fighting for nature here in Manchester today."

The festival will culminate in the announcement of the winning design of a statue for Emily, which members of the public have been voting for in their thousands. The maquettes (miniature statues) of the four shortlisted designs will be on display at Manchester Art Gallery from Saturday 30 October until Sunday 14 November, with voting open until 12pm on Sunday 14 November.

Tessa Boase continued: “The first thing that struck me when I visited RSPB headquarters at The Lodge, Sandy, was the male portraits looming down all round the entrance hall. Where were the female founders?”

Manchester Art Gallery is open Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm.

For further information on the Emily Williamson Festival and the Emily Williamson Statue Campaign visit:

Emily Williamson Festival Programme

Friday 12 November, 6-8pm

The Emily Williamson Debate

For the first time in British history, women are the key players in a traditional male arena: our birding institutions. How has this change come about? Why now? And what difference is it making to our approach to conservation?

HOST: Megan McCubbin zoologist, naturalist, campaigner, Springwatch presenter.

PANEL: Beccy Speight, RSPB CEO; Professor Juliet Vickery, British Trust for Ornithology CEO, British Ornithologist’s Union President; Dr Amy-Jane Beer, biologist, nature writer and campaigner; Professor Melissa Bateson, bird scientist and Emily Williamson’s great, great niece.

Tickets are priced £10/£8.

Saturday 13 November, 11am-12pm

Author Talk: The Women Who Saved the Birds

When social historian Tessa Boase asked the RSPB about their Victorian founder, they pleaded a gaping hole in the archives. To a former investigative journalist, this was an irresistible challenge.

This is the thrilling, forgotten story of the brave eco feminists who called out the fashion for 'murderous millinery,' and fought back on behalf of the birds. Moving from a polite tea party in Didsbury to an egret hunt in a Florida swamp, from a metropolitan suffragette rally to a milliner’s dusty workshop, you’ll be taken back in time to a world where every woman, of every class, wore a hat.

Book signing of Etta Lemon: The Woman Who Saved the Birds follows the talk.

Tickets are priced £8/£6.

Saturday 13 November, 1pm

Feathers, Fashion + Ethics

Shining a spotlight on the vexed, historical relationship between fashion, science and nature. The basements of Manchester Museum and Art Gallery contain thousands of exotic bird skins, and many hundred Victorian and Edwardian feathered hats. What can we learn from this legacy? How do we justify 'specimen hunting'? What is meant by ethical fashion today, and how can we influence it?

HOST Lindsey Chapman, environmentalist, TV presenter.

Tessa Boase brings human tales from the archives on the historic plumage trade, its invisible female labour and the trade in ‘fake’ egret feathers. See rare images from Manchester’s ‘murderous millinery’ collection (100 feathered hats stored in Manchester Art Gallery alone).

Rachel Petts, natural history curator at Manchester Museum, on the other uses of Victorian birdskins. Can science justify ‘specimen’ hunting – and how are those stuffed birds used today?

Dr Patsy Perry, reader in Fashion Marketing at MMU on how consumers are still tempted with un-ethical products, and the push-back against fashion’s troubling environmental footprint.

Bukky Baldwin, Manchester designer, on what ethical fashion looks like in practice –and why she’s trying to do things differently.

Tickets are priced £8/£6.

Saturday 13 November, 3pm

Nature, Art & Mind

Exploring the links between art, and nature, and us.

How can a fusion between art and nature improve our wellbeing? How are artists and communities responding to new challenges?

HOST: Dr Jenna Ashwood, artist, curator and heritage studies lecturer.

PANEL: Francine Hayfron, the Whitworth’s ‘cultural park keeper’ on wellbeing and community engagement – Victorian, and 21st century.

Hazel Reeves, sculptor and soundscape artist, on the Knepp birdsong project.

Sarah Yates, aka ‘Faunagraphic’, painter of the famous Manchester Bluetit, on the benefits of bringing nature into unloved urban spaces via street art.

Eve Shepherd on rendering nature in bronze, and why we need to rethink public sculpture.

Tickets are priced £8/£6.

Sunday 14 November, 12pm

Conservation: Emily's Manchester, Then and Now

How green was Victorian Manchester? Emily Williamson lived in leafy Didsbury, but did the urban poor have access to nature? We look at the city's green spaces, then and now. What more can we do?

Professor Stuart Marsden, avid birder, on the history of Pomona Island, urban birding, brownfield sites and too-tidy cities.

Hilary Wood, first female warden at RSPB Leighton Moss, compares the dark days of 1980s conservation to the less macho 21st-century.

City of Trees on the link between wellbeing and nature. Is tree planting the latest trendy directive – or is it here to stay? How does it benefit the birds?

Dr Anna Gilchrist on the future-proofing and rewilding of Manchester’s urban spaces.

Tickets are priced £8/£6.

Sunday 14 November, 2pm

Campaigning Across the Centuries: How Can We Make a Difference?

How did the RSPB’s Victorian female founders campaign? What tools did they have at their disposal? And how can individuals push for change today, when the challenges feel so much more overwhelming?

HOST– Philippa Bilton, broadcaster, campaigner and descendant of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison.

Dr Jenna Ashton on the history of environmental campaigning and the demand for green spaces, from Manchester’s industrial revolution to today.

Chloe Jeffries, of Climate Emergency Manchester, walks us through her campaigning toolbox, sharing practical tips for the non-militant, backyard activist.

Save Ryebank Fields campaigners on how to accentuate the positive. Tactically.

Georgia Locock, student campaigner, biologist and bird-lover, reports from the feisty front-line of international eco activism.

Tickets are priced £8/£6.

Sunday 14 November, 4pm

Winning sculptor announced for the Emily Williamson Statue Campaign!

Free event, Manchester Art Gallery Atrium. Emily Williamson started her Society for the Protection of Birds over teacups at her home The Croft in Didsbury. Stay for tea and cake at the Gallery and raise a cup to salute her.

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