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Birds of a feather: The female founders of the RSPB


Today, the RSPB is the UK’s largest nature conservation charity and the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe. But what many people do not know is that it started life over 125 years ago thanks to the courage and determination of two Victorian women – Emily Williamson and Eliza Phillips.

Humble beginnings

When visiting the Alpine Tea Room at Fletcher Moss Botanical Gardens in Didsbury, Manchester, it can be easy to miss the modest grey plaque by the door which reveals the building’s historic association with the RSPB. The large detached house on the land behind Didsbury Parsonage, known as ‘The Croft’, was formerly home to solicitor and botanist Robert Wood Williamson and his wife, Emily. In 1889, in protest of the cruel trade in feathers for women’s hats, Emily established The Plumage League which she ran from The Croft, which quickly gained in popularity. The rules were simple:

1. ‘That members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection.’

2. ‘That Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for the purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted.’ (Ostriches were the exception on account of it not being necessary to kill them for their feathers)

At the same time another campaigner, Eliza Phillips, was running a group with similar aims from her home in Croydon, the Fur and Feather League, holding ‘Fur, Fin and Feather’ meetings. Coming from different backgrounds, Emily, 36, and Eliza, 69, were brought together by their shared interests in animal welfare and wildlife conservation and in 1891 the two groups joined forces to form the Society for the Protection of Birds.

Feathers as fashion

Both women were battling against alarming declines in bird populations prompted by the booming trend in using feathers in fashion. In the late Victorian era feathers were regarded as the height of sophistication. By the 1880s the UK was importing exotic plumes from all over the globe, including from species as diverse as birds of paradise, hummingbirds, storks, vultures, ibises, toucans and parrots to name but a few. To give you an idea of the scale of the issue, during this period a single order of feathers placed by a London dealer included 6,000 bird of paradise feathers, 40,000 hummingbird feathers and 360,000 feathers from various East Indian species. Not only were huge numbers of feathers and skins being imported, but our own native birds were under threat too – species such as herons, gulls, kingfishers, egrets, owls and great crested grebes were being ‘harvested’ for the fashion industry. Worth £2 million annually, trade centred in London. While demand was so high, hunting showed little sign of slowing down and consequently, many desirable species rapidly approached extinction in the wild. For example, by 1860 the trend for using soft grebe feathers as a fur substitute had caused the great crested grebe to come close to extinction in Britain and Ireland.

Furthermore, methods of harvesting plumes were cruel and barbarous; sometimes the wings of gulls were pulled off while still alive and young kittiwakes (a small species of ocean-going gull whose attractive markings were especially admired) often suffered a similar fate. Fledglings were also regularly left to fend for themselves after their parents were killed for their feathers.

Fledgling society

Initially the embryonic society, whose original members were all women, was mocked by men; cartoons even appeared in the popular satirical magazine Punch, undermining the seriousness of the society’s cause. Nevertheless, undeterred, membership of the Society for the Protection of Bird rose from 1,200 to 20,000 between 1891 and 1899 and more than 15,000 letters and 50,000 leaflets were distributed annually. In the early years Eliza, as vice-president and publications editor, released the first official leaflet entitled Destruction of Ornamental-Plumaged Birds. The pamphlet aimed to inform women of the damage wrought on egret populations as result of plume hunting for ladies’s fashion and implored them not to buy hats adorned with feathers.

Some of the Society’s staunchest supporters were the kinds of high-ranking ladies who would have been expected to wear fashionable feathers. These included dignitaries such as the Duchess of Portland, who became the Society’s first president and remained so until her death in 1954, and the Ranee of Sarawak. Other influential Victorians lent their support to the Society’s cause, such as leading ornithologist Professor Alfred Newton, generating widespread publicity and prompting a widening of the organisation’s aims.

In 1897 the Society acquired its first office with paid members of staff at 326 High Holborn, London and in 1899, as a result of the organisation’s growing influence, Queen Victoria decreed that certain military regiments should discontinue wearing osprey feathers as part of their uniforms. In 1904, just 13 years after it was founded, the Society received a Royal Charter from Edward VII, making it the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), as it is still known today. The society’s initial aims were met in 1921 when the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act was passed, forbidding plumage from any bird being imported to Britain.

Hats off to Emily and Eliza

In Victorian England, women in Britain could not vote or own property, but this did not stop Emily Williamson and Eliza Phillips from challenging the status quo or standing up for a cause they believed in. These passionate individuals showed courage and determination in standing up to the fashions and trends of the wealthy at a time when animal welfare and wildlife conservation were considerably lower priorities and when women’s voices were rarely heard.

It is thanks to these female pioneers that the RSPB has developed into a conservation charity of not only national, but global significance. Today the RSPB helps protect wildlife and its habitats worldwide – from the UK’s garden birds to tigers in Sumatra. It has successfully pulled species such as red kite, osprey and albatross back from the brink of extinction and manages over 200 nature reserves in the UK. 

To learn more about how you can give a nature a home where you live, just like Emily did when she started The Plumage League from her own home all those years ago, please visit

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