I also relish the process of research. There’s no more exhilarating way to spend the day than at the London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell, faced with a green baize tray full of tightly folded documents covered in spidery Victorian ink. This mining of the past is addictive — for where does a history writer stop? Every detail seems to add to the picture; details that are then all too often cut in the book’s editing process. But at least you know.
I know, for example, that the police officer who arrested feather washer Alice Battershall for stealing two ostrich plumes in 1885, was a 27-year-old ex-butcher. I also know that P.C. Wackett was subsequently found swearing, idling with a woman and drunk while on duty, and that his pay was docked several times before being struck off, on 9 May 1901, with “chronic rheumatism and bad feet.”
Was all this relevant to young Alice’s arrest? Perhaps not, but it made it feel all the more real, rather than just a line in a Guildhall ledger. This process of peeling back the onion skin layers is one of the great joys of archival research. Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather involved many such moments.
I’m often asked how I came across the obscure story of the RSPB’s origins. The answer lies in an old family photograph of a beach scene in Cornwall, taken on a chilly English summer’s day in 1913 (see above). My great grandfather-in-law, Captain Harold Glass, presides over a painfully uptight gathering of women and children — with one exception.
Standing at his side is a confident woman who looks as if she has flown in from another era. She wears on her head a hat topped with a pair of white wings. Every time I looked at this old photo, I was drawn to the hat. Who wore hats like this? What did the wings signify? Who had shot the bird, prepared the wings, fastened them to the hat? Were women wearing hats like this in other countries, or was it a peculiarly British thing?
In investigating the winged hat, I tumbled into a vanished world. The hat led me backwards, via old photographs, museum archives and fashion editorials, to the vexed question of animal rights, and to the conservation activists of the day. The “Feather Fight” was a burning women’s issue, every bit as emotive as the campaign for the vote. Here was a great, untold story.
Tessa is an experienced speaker, appearing at literary festivals from Rye to Harrogate, lecturing for the V&A, the National Trust and English Heritage among others, and enjoys unusual one-off venues and events. She’s an accredited Arts Society lecturer, and has toured the USA as a Royal Oak Foundation lecturer. If you would like to book her as a speaker, contact her here.
‘Fabulous talk last night at RSPB Macclesfield. Compelling, untold stories of a group of Victorian female activists, forgotten by history and seemingly everyone else.’
— Tina Hanak, Youth Liaison Officer, Macclesfield Local RSPB Group
‘Tessa was a confident and engaging speaker, enlightening us all on these spirited Victorian women who have been lost from history. To see the remarkable collections of bird and feathered hats, from the V&A’s fashion archives, alongside the social, political and moral narrative of the time was a true delight.’
—Simon Dodi, V&A Lunchtime Lectures
“Rye so enjoyed your event on The Housekeeper’s Tale. It was certainly one of the best attended and I keep being asked what your next book will be. Altogether a fascinating and thought provoking subject.”
— Catherine Bingham, Rye Festival
‘Tessa lifted a true story from the pages of her book, bringing it to life in the places where it really happened. Magical and evocative — we can’t wait to have her back.’
— Graeme Clarke, National Trust House and Collections Manager, Erddig
‘Not only was she incredibly knowledgable about the subject but she kept the audience at Wrest Park thoroughly engaged and entertained throughout. A very successful event!’
— Elizabeth Jarlett, Assistant Events Manager, English Heritage
Secrets of the National Trust (C5) / New series (June 2018) opens at beautiful Erddig in North Wales, where the Yorke family were famously kind to their servants. Or were they? I tell Alan Titchmarsh the story of ‘thief cook’ Ellen Penketh, jailed in 1907 for allegedly stealing £500 from her insecure mistress Louisa Yorke. Watch the episode (8m clip)…
Radio Gorgeous / You will never look at a feathered hat in the same way again. 50m discussion with women’s radio pioneer Josephine Pembroke on Victorian and Edwardian hats, ethical fashion, ‘murderous millinery’, the RSPB’s female founders — and Mrs Pankhurst’s guilty penchant for feathers. Listen to the episode…
‘Mary Wollstonecraft’ by Maggi Hambling. ‘It’s a sculpture about now, in her
Victorian campaigner Emily Williamson was so incensed by the millinery trade’s use
Uneasy mingling: the Servants’ Ball at ITV’s Downton Abbey, where Lady Grantham
Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4
Hear all about Etta Lemon, the ‘Margaret Thatcher’ of the birding world. How did this remarkable character hone her campaigning skills, and why was she stabbed in the back by the men who took over the RSPB?
Secrets of the National Trust with Alan Titchmarsh (Channel 5)
Erddig Hall in North Wales was once home to the Yorkes — a family famously kind to their servants. Or were they? I uncovered the story of ‘thief cook’ Ellen Penketh, jailed in 1907 for allegedly stealing £500 from her insecure mistress Louisa Yorke.
Radio Gorgeous interview with Josephine Pembroke, talking twitchers (why are hardcore birders almost always men?), the mysterious workings of the RSPB (why wouldn’t they let me revisit their archives?) and Mrs Pankhurst’s penchant for fashion (why so many feathered hats?).