Bempton Cliffs is now a Mecca for nature lovers who travel to the site to witness hundreds of thousands of seabirds gathering between March and October each year, but back in Victorian times visitors to the towering chalk cliffs tended to arrive with a very different objective.
In the 19th Century, the cliffs between Bempton and Flamborough were at the centre of the popular activity of slaughtering seabirds for sport and collecting their feathers for hat-making. The mass destruction was graphically described by Yorkshire conservationist Charles Waterton in 1838 as he lamented “parties of sportsmen from all quarters of the kingdom” who “spread sad devastation all around them”.
One of the people who helped turned the tide on the practice was Emily Williamson.
Lancaster-born Emily founded the all-women Society for the Protection of Birds in 1889 after becoming appalled at seeing her favourite species, the Great Crested Grebe, being hunted to extinction for the plumage trade.
Within a decade, the Society had 20,000 members and 152 branches with their impact leading furious milliners, society ladies and plumage merchants denounced them as ‘feather faddists’.
In 1904 the Society gained the Royal Assent, becoming the RSPB. By then it had plenty of men on its Council, but the core campaigners were women. The Plumage Importation (Prohibition) Act was passed in 1921, banning the import of exotic bird skins.
A new campaign is seeking to highlight Williamson’s often-overlooked achievements by raising £100,000 to create a statue of her that will be located in the grounds of the home from where her campaigning began; Didsbury’s Fletcher Moss Park in Manchester.
To help with the fundraising process, the campaign is touring RSPB reserves around the country - starting with Bempton Cliffs on Monday, August 9.
Four sculptors have each created a design of a statue for Emily and the maquettes, which are miniature statues, will be on display at Bempton Cliffs.
Visitors will be able to find out more about the project and vote for their favourite.
Chair of the Emily Williamson Statue Committee, Andrew Simcock, previously led a successful campaign for a statue of the suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, which now stands in Manchester and was recently voted the city’s favourite statue.
Simcock says: “The public have already helped us to shortlist to the final four sculptors and I want to encourage as many people as possible to now vote for their favourite design.
"We want Emily’s statue to be representative of the people that it seeks to inspire and our tour of RSPB reserves will be a wonderful way of reaching and engaging with people to share her incredible story.
“It’s also a poignant reminder of the legacy that Emily helped to create, with over 200 reserves now just a part of the work of the RSPB. I’m looking forward to visiting Bempton Cliffs, with its stunning coastline and the home that it provides for a vast population of seabirds.”
The Emily Williamson Statue Campaign’s tour of RSPB reserves will also include the RSPB’s headquarters in Bedfordshire, Loch Leven in Scotland and South Stacks in Wales.
Simcock will be at Bempton between 10am and 4pm on Monday, along with all the maquettes. Those that cannot make it to Bempton Cliffs can also vote online at www.emilywilliamsonstatue.com.
Voting will be open until the end of October, with the final selected design to be announced in early November.
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