The story of Etta Lemon and her contribution to the protection of birdlife

Mrs Frank Lemon, mayoress of Reigate 1911-1913 (Photo from Surrey History Society)

Mrs Frank Lemon, mayoress of Reigate 1911-1913 (Photo from Surrey History Society) - Credit: Archant

Meet Etta Lemon – the dragon of Redhill who founded the RSPB and did battle with the Suffragettes

Frank and Etta Lemon at home in Redhill (Photo: The Lemon Family archive)

Frank and Etta Lemon at home in Redhill (Photo: The Lemon Family archive) - Credit: Archant

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 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. 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. No feathers for her – not even a humanely harvested ostrich plume permitted by the RSPB.

When I started researching Etta Lemon and the early RSPB, I assumed that she would be in favour of women’s suffrage. This redoubtable personality, a woman not afraid to swim against the current, renowned for her public speaking and ‘masculine’ dominance of the field – how could she not get behind the ultimate battle for equality? But then I discovered an urgent clarion call in the Surrey Mirror. In a letter dated June 27, 1908, Etta called for ‘anti suffrages women in the neighbourhood’ to contact her, now that she sat on the Central Organising Committee of the National Anti-Women’s Suffrage Association. She vehemently believed that extending the franchise to women would ‘work irrevocable mischief to human progress, to the British Empire, and to women themselves.’

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Her staunchly anti-suffrage stance shocked me. Etta was not the pro-women heroine I’d imagined she was, despite her leading role in founding an all-female conservation society. Yet the more I researched the anti-suffrage movement – hugely significant at the time, but now a forgotten women’s campaign – the more I came to understand that, for a large majority of Edwardian women, being anti-suffrage did not necessarily mean anti-feminist. As Lady Mayoress, Mrs Lemon exemplified perfectly the ‘Forward Policy’ of the female ‘Antis’, as they were known. Local government was the perfect forum for the formidable talents of women like Etta, and here they already held significant power. Etta was known locally not just for her role within the RSPB, but as local secretary for the RSPCA, head of Reigate’s British Women’s Temperance Society and head of the local Red Cross. By simply embodying womanly capability with all possible dignity, Etta Lemon sent out a strong message to the local faction of the ‘shrieking sisterhood’.

Surrey was ‘rather a nest of suffragettes’, according to local accountant Edwin Waterhouse (founder of Price Waterhouse). Within a 20 mile radius of the Lemon’s Redhill home resided some of the most notorious names of the campaign for the vote. Militants fresh out of prison recuperated at the Woking home of the composer Ethel Smyth, who that year wrote The March of the Women for Mrs Pankhurst’s suffragettes; they were also hosted at the house of her treasurer Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence – a Dutch-style country idyll, The Mascot, in South Holmwood. Strange things happened at The Mascot, went the rumours; unnatural goings-on between women. The village of Peaslake fairly swarmed with suffragettes, including Marion Wallace Dunlop (no-nonsense in tweeds, the first imprisoned militant to go on hunger strike in 1908) and Hilda Brackenbury (a formidable general’s widow, whose daughters had each served six weeks in Holloway).

The well-heeled suffragists and suffragettes of Surrey were matched, like for like, by its Antis. The county heaved with them, with the most prominent Anti of all – Lord Curzon, former Viceroy of India – stirring up support from his rented country pile, Reigate Priory. The first suffragette novel was written that year, 10 miles to the Lemons’ north, in Sanderstead: No Surrender, by Constance Maud.

In supporting the Antis, Mrs Lemon was entirely representative of her class, her Christian beliefs and her conservative mindset. She was ruled, instinctively, by men. At the RSPB she deferred increasingly to the male ornithologists who supported her campaign. It wasn’t long before the men of influence began to outnumber the women who ran the society. Inevitably, the men took over. The women had done such a good job in growing and running the RSPB, that it became a rather smart and attractive cause. Lord Curzon, Lord Grey, Thomas Hardy, Bertrand Russell… all the great and good of Edwardian society queued up to put their names to saving the birds from ‘murderous millinery’.

Etta Lemon was ousted from her own charity by an internal coup in 1939, shortly after her husband Frank’s death. I discovered poignant letters in the RSPB archives. “I am quite bewildered, and do not know where I am,” wrote Etta, then aged 79, to one of her trusted male ‘Watchers’ at an RSPB reserve (the Watchers were her own invention; a nationwide system of eyes and ears for bird protection).

Mrs Lemon died in a Reigate nursing home in 1953, aged 92, and her granite headstone now leans lopsidedly to the right in St Mary’s cemetery. Her name is carved simply beneath her husband’s, and her extraordinary contribution to the protection of birdlife goes unmentioned. Today few know that Britain’s largest nature conservation charity was once inextricably linked to the towns of Redhill and Reigate. It’s just possible that the ghost of Mrs Lemon haunts her favourite bird-watching spots on the North Downs still, Porro Prism binoculars at the ready.

Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women’s Fight for Change by Tessa Boase is published by Aurum Press.


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