Emily Williamson Festival: celebrating the Manchester RSPB trailblazer

A pioneering eco activist from the city will be remembered at a weekend of conservation, campaigning, science and art.

Emily Williamson, who founded the organisation that would go on to become the RSPB

The extraordinary life and achievements of a pioneering Manchester wildlife conservationist will be celebrated in the city.

The Emily Williamson Festival will take place at Manchester Art Gallery between Friday 12 and Sunday 14 November in tribute to the Didsbury woman who founded what would become the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) more than 100 years ago.

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Campaigners will come together at the city centre venue for a weekend of sharing ideas and discussing environmental activism and protest in the 21st century.

Who was Emily Williamson?

She was born Emily Bateson in Lancaster in 1855 and married Robert Wood Williamson, a solicitor who was also the son of the curator of the Manchester Natural History Museum.

The couple created a beautiful green space at their Didsbury home which is now Fletcher Moss Park and, as in Emily’s lifetime, is a vital haven for birds and wildlife.

Emily was appalled by the Victorian slaughter of birds so that their feathers could be used in decorative hats.

An Edwardian satin hat adorned with bird feathers

Having begged existing wildlife bodies to speak out against the plumage trade, and having been completely ignored, she founded her own all-female organisation, the Society for the Protection of Birds, in 1889.

Within a decade the society had tens of thousands of members and it became the RSPB in 1904 when it gained Royal Assent.

Today the RSPB remains one of the biggest campaigning groups on wildlife issues in the country and has an enormous membership as well as owning dozens of crucial nature reserves across the UK.

Why is the Emily Williamson Festival taking place?

The festival is the brainchild of Tessa Boase, a journalist and writer of two books of popular social history, who uncovered Emily’s story and her significance as an early environmental activist.

The trail meant she ended up spending a good deal of time in Didsbury and now, in collaboration with local councillor, Andrew Simcock, is working on getting a statue of her put up in Fletcher Moss Park.

Tessa, who is from Sussex, has also teamed up with Tina Lindsay, who works with well-known conservationist and naturalist Chris Packham and previously booked speakers for Bird Fair, a huge meeting point for wildlife enthusiasts which Tessa described as “the Glastonbury of the bird world”.

Emily Williamson Festival co-founder Tina Lindsay

The idea behind the festival is to raise public awareness of who Emily was and why her legacy is still relevant more than a century on.

Tessa said: “We’re pulling together people doing really interesting things, especially in Manchester, to do with the fight for nature and campaigning.

“Emily’s story goes in so many different directions. She saved birds but she was also an ethical fashion campaigner.”

What is happening at the festival?

The Emily Williamson Festival will be opened on Friday night (12 November) with a debate focusing on how many key roles in British conservation are currently held by women.

Naturalist and TV presenter Megan McCubbin will host the discussion with RSPB CEO Beccy Speight, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) CEO Juliet Vickery, biologist and writer Amy-Jane Beer and scientist Melissa Bateson, who is also Emily Williamson’s great-great niece.

Bird scientist Melissa Bateson, who is Emily Williamson’s great-great niece, with a starling

Tessa said this seemed an apt conversation to have at an event celebrating the life of a female pioneer.

She said: “For the first time in history women are controlling major British bird institutions. We’re asking what they bring to this traditionally male arena and if it is changing our approach to conservation.

“All except one of our speakers are women. It wasn’t something I set out to do, and it’s not something we’re going to shout about, but as we’re celebrating the legacy of Emily Williamson it seemed good to honour her by giving the floor to as many women as possible.

“She went against the tide of her time and it was difficult for a disenfranchised Victorian woman running a campaign so unpopular that she couldn’t even book a room and had to start running it in her home.”

Emily Williamson Festival co-founder Tessa Boase

There will then be six events over the weekend, including Tessa giving a talk about her research into Emily’s life.

Other subjects at the panel discussions will include the relationship between feathers, science and nature, including looking at the Victorian feathered hat collection held in Manchester, and the contrasts between conservation in the city in Emily’s time and today.

Local campaign groups who have been invited to the weekend to participate include Climate Emergency Manchester and Save Ryebank Fields, while an activist will discuss working on the front line against the shooting of birds in Malta.

Save Ryebank Fields is one of the campaign groups attending the festival

Tessa said: “We’re getting a range of voices. It’s about getting people together in a room and then sparking a really interesting discussion.”

The event will end in the atrium on Sunday afternoon with the announcement of the winning design from a shortlist of four for the Emily Williamson statue.

Getting the next generation involved

Tessa said she is particularly keen to get as many students and young people involved as possible, having been inspired by the commitment to the natural world and green issues they have shown in recent years.

She said: “We want to inspire the next generation to take up the future of conservation and science and take action for nature.

“I think young people are really mindful of the mess they have inherited with the natural world. This is going to be about positive stories of resilience and determination.”

How do I find out more or book?

Tickets are available now, with weekend passes priced at £30 and £20.

Some of the weekend’s events are also priced individually.

For more information, visit the event’s website.