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History of the RSPB

Protest against the plume trade, London 1911

Protestors against the plume trade

Image: The RSPB

The RSPB was formed to counter the barbarous trade in plumes for women's hats, a fashion responsible for the destruction of many thousands of egrets, birds of paradise and other species whose plumes had become fashionable in the late Victorian era.

There had already been concern earlier in the century about the wholesale destruction of such native birds as great crested grebes and kittiwakes for their plumage, leading to such early legislation as the Sea Birds Preservation Act of 1869 and the Wild Birds Protection Act of 1880, but the trigger which led to the foundation of the Society for the Protection of Birds in 1889 was the continued wearing of ever more exotic plumes.

In its earliest days the Society consisted entirely of women who were moved by the emotional appeal of the plight of young birds left to starve in the nest after their parents had been shot for their plumes. The rules of the Society were simple:

  • That Members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection 
  • That Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted.

Some of the Society's staunchest supporters were the very kind of people who might have been expected to wear the plumes – people such as the Duchess of Portland who became the Society's first President, and the Ranee of Sarawak.

A number of influential figures, including the leading ornithologist of the day, Professor Alfred Newton lent their support to the cause, which gained widespread publicity and popularity, leading to a rapid growth in the Society's membership and a widening of its aims.

Indeed the young Society was so successful that it was granted its Royal Charter in 1904, just 15 years after being founded.