Species around the world were being brought to the brink of extinction, with London as the world’s feather bourse. Plumage was shipped by the ton to the capital, unpacked and displayed in giant warehouses before monthly auctions.
On 21 March 1888, the biggest plumage sale yet recorded was held in the London Commercial Sales Rooms in Mincing Lane. The catalogue contained the following:
Once sold, the bundles of bird skins were unpacked, washed, dyed, trimmed and fashioned into millinery adornments in a series of fetid outhouses and backyards in the City of London. The feathered “novelties” then passed to a millinery warehouse, and hence to a milliner —whose young, workworn fingers would wrestle them onto a wire and cambric base and stitch them into place, pushing and pulling the needle in and out of the hat’s velvet bandeau.
This is a lost world: one in which the hats, their wearers and the women who made them have vanished. I have plundered the archives to bring this shadowy, feathery world back to life. From the Victorian feather washer imprisoned for stealing two ostrich feathers, to the Irish milliner masquerading as an Italian countess, I unveil the female labour propping up the plumage trade.
Who was buying the murderous millinery? Using old ledger books, diaries and newspaper gossip columns, I uncover the shopping weaknesses of titled ladies, suffragettes and brazen slum girls alike.
‘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?).