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Emily Williamson (1855-1936) was a British Woman of Science, who is best known for founding the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Emily, nee Bateson was born at Highfield, Lancaster, on April 1855. She was the daughter of Frederick Septimus Bateson and Eliza Frost. On June the 8th, 1882, she married the solicitor Robert Wood Williamson. The couple settled in Didsbury, near Manchester. They had no children. Emily died on 12 January 1936 at her home, 55 Campden Hill Gate, Duchess of Bedford's Walk, Kensington. She was cremated at Golders Green on 15 January. Her husband had predeceased her. In an orbituary published by The Times, she was described as having "remarkable powers of organization", being known amon her contemporaries for "her quiet dignity, and her lovable disposition". In 1989, a plaque was placed at her old home in Didsbury to commemorate the centenary of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
The creation of the RSPB
In February 1889 Emily founded the embryonic Society for the Protection of Birds at her home in Didsbury. At its inception the group aimed only to discourage women from wearing feathers on their dresses and hats; participants objected not only the decimation of bird populations that resulted from demand for feathers, but also the cruelty involved in the trade.Interestingly, this Society was not the first to advocate the protection of birds. A plumage League had been founded in 1885, closely followed by the Selborne League: in 1886 these two groups merged as as the Selborne Society, a Society which however addressed a broader range of conservation issues than the young RSPB.
At its start, Emily's organization was informal: there was no constitution or committee, no subscription fee was required, nor were donations accepted; participating women simply sined a card pledging not to wear feathers from birds (some birds were excepted though, including the ostrich, whose tail feathers could be plucked painlessly, and birds used as food). The group was advertised by letters to, and favourable mentions in, the press: Punch gave it a particularly enthusiastic endorsement in october 1889. By 1891, Emily and her supporters realized that an organization concerned only with bird protection was certainly desired, but could be more effective with a wider range of tactics and a more formal structure. Accordingly, the Didsbury group amalgamated with Eliza Phillips's Croydon-based organization, and in May of that year, Emily relinquished her secretaryship to Hannah Poland, who lived in London, and the group's headquarters were moved there. In June, Winifred, the duchess of Portland, accepted the post of president, and two years later the first committee was elected. Men were then invited to join, and the group attracted the support of humanitarians and ornithologists (including William Henry Hudson). The membership quickly grew, from just over 1200 in 1891 to over 20,000 in 1899 (a joining fee was not required until 1904). The newly organized group published pamphlets and leaflets, and eventually began to press for new legislation to protect birds. Emily eventually accepted the offer of a vice-presidency in the organization and also worked as a local secretary for the group in Didsbury.
The Royal Society for the protection of Birds was incorporated by royal charter in 1904; Emily spoke at the group's annual meeting in London that year and recalled the early days of the Society, "when it was a very small fledging, and had no dreams of soaring to the heights which it had reached". Although this was the only time she spoke at an annual meeting, she remained committed to the group on the local level throughout her life: she retained her local secretaryship in Didsbury from 1891 until 1911, then moved to Brook, in Surrey, becoming a local secretary there in the following year. She held this position until 1931, after which she moved to London and once more acted as a local secretary for the society at least until 1934. In addition, she remained a vice-president of the national society until her death.
Emily's contribution post the RSPB
In 1891, she had founded the gentlewomen's Employment Association in Manchester, and she also initiated two influential programmes from within this group: the Princess Christian Training College for Nurses and, in 1898, the Loan Training Fund, which helped to subsidize the costs of further education for young women. Although no records of these organizations exist, the Loan Training Fund was said to have been the first of its kind in the country. Emily also became active in the Women's Institute while living in Surrey.
- Entry for Emily Williamson (1855-1936) (pp. 342-3) in the Oxford Dictionary Natioanl Biography, Vol. 59, by Molly Baer Kramer. Oxford University Press (2004).