Plaque for RSPB founder Emily Williamson

Emily Williamson (née Bateson), who in 1889 founded the all-female Society for the Protection of Birds (later the RSPB), was honoured with the unveiling of a plaque at her birthplace here in Lancaster on Sunday April 16 2023, the day before Emily’s birthday.

Her action 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 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 largest 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, she has been recognised with a plaque in her home town ofLancaster, where she was born on April 17 1855.  The plaque was unveiled by zoologist and bird scientist Prof Melissa Bateson, Emily’s great, great niece. 

Beccy Speight, Chief Executive of the RSPB said, “I am delighted that we can 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 plaque inspires a new generation, willing to protect nature and revive our world.”

Professor Melissa Bateson, Emily Williamson’s great, great niece said: “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.”