The People, Places, Events, Customs and More from the Victorian Era. Please Scroll Down to Explore Links to Other Sites of Historical Interest:

Friday 16 September 2011

“Members Shall Discourage the Wanton Destruction of Birds, and Interest Themselves Generally in their Protection” Or: In the Name of Fashion: Feathers, Carnage and Protest in Victorian England: - a Guest post by Jayne Shrimpton

In June I wrote about Victorian attitudes to animal rights, including vegetarianism and the birth of the NAVS (National Anti Vivisection Society) and the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals)
Following this, I spoke with Jayne and was thrilled when she agreed to write a guest post for me on the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and how it came about.

I knew Jayne had an extensive set of historical photographs, and I was thrilled when she decided to include some of them to accompany her article. The photos’ included in this post are probably the best on this blog anywhere.

Quite enough chatter from me, here is Jayne’s guest post:

Many dress history enthusiasts would agree that sumptuous feathers and plumes have helped to create some of the most visually stunning millinery, accessories and trimmings over the centuries. But beneath the glamorous paintings, fashion plates and photographs and carefully-preserved hats and costumes lurk cruelty and devastation – disturbing facts that reveal the dark side of fashion.
An obsession with feathers
Since the Middle Ages birds’ plumage has played a significant role in western dress. As early as the 12th century feathers were used to embellish Venetian masks and by the 15th century feathered trimmings were an established element of aristocratic dress, expressing wealth and status. Ostrich feathers were worn with jewels as hat decorations during the Tudor era and single ostrich feathers or plumes (clusters of feathers) remained fashionable over hundreds of years. Other feathers in vogue during the 17th and 18th centuries included osprey, heron, peacock and even vulture feathers, worn with a flourish in vast hats or ornamenting the exaggerated ‘macaroni’ wigs of the 1770s - described by the artist and writer, Mrs Delany, as ‘waving plumes, preposterous Babylonian heads towering to the sky’. By the later 18th century, the fashion for feathers had extended lower down the social scale, leading to the near-extinction of wild ostriches. 

In the 1820s and 1830s, ‘Romantic’ extravagance influenced fashion and as garments, headwear and other dress ornaments grew ever more exuberant and inventive, fur and feather accessories were much admired, from swansdown boas (‘tippets’) and enormous fur or feather muffs, to wide-brimmed hats trimmed with ostrich or marabout stork feathers. Ostrich plume headdresses were also a requisite of Court dress – a tradition that prevailed through the 18th to 20th centuries.
1820 Fashion plate from La Belle Assemblee showing Court dress and ostrich plumes.

Victorian novelties
As material wealth increased for the rising Victorian middle classes, so the pace of fashion accelerated and the desire for display and novelty became more pronounced. At the same time colonial expansion across the globe and the exploration of distant lands introduced new and ever more exotic commodities and natural specimens to European markets: these included previously unknown varieties of birds, fuelling the fashionable demand for feathers, wings and even entire birds to decorate hats and other articles of dress. To the plumage of numerous native British birds such as grebes, gulls, egrets, herons, finches, jays and pheasants – to name but a few - were now added a rich and vibrant assortment of feathers and body parts of exquisite and, in many cases, rare species of bird including the humming bird, lyrebird, bird of paradise, quetzal and scarlet tanager.

Fashion’s favourite
Early in the Victorian period feathers were used mainly for millinery: for example in the late 1830s and early 1840s the precious male bird of paradise plume was much admired for bonnet trimmings. By the late 1850s hats were returning to fashion - headwear that provided a solid base for decoration and heralded the era now recognised as the most destructive for the world’s bird population – the years broadly spanning 1860 until 1921. Neat hats of the 1860s were often trimmed with the tip of an ostrich feather or a bird’s wing, or were circled with feathers. Then during the 1870s, as fashions grew more elaborate again, there was a marked increase in the use of feathers (and fur) to decorate hats and other items of women’s dress. Feathers were incorporated into day and evening headdresses and hair ornaments and by mid-decade whole stuffed birds were appearing on headwear, mounted on wires and springs to convey an impression of ‘natural’ movement. 

Carte de Visite, 1865
By this time feathers might also be incorporated into items of jewellery such as earrings and corsage (bodice) ornaments, while stylish muffs were often made entirely of feathers or stuffed with eiderdown. Fans also became ultra-fashionable during the 1870s and 1880s, trimmed with a light feather edging of marabout or formed entirely of natural or dyed feathers of different varieties, including cock, pheasant and pigeon feathers. Screen-type fans were also popular in the last quarter of the century: often these were adorned with a small stuffed bird such as a tiny iridescent humming bird.
Late Victorian feather fans

The most bizarre and - some would say – repulsive trends in late-Victorian millinery occurred in the 1880s. During the latter half of the decade hat crowns grew tall, offering a generous display area for not only entire birds, perched upright or posed with wings outstretched, but, in the most extreme examples, an extraordinary array of animal and organic matter, from stuffed mice and reptiles to leaves, twigs and grass – a contrived habitat in miniature on the head.

As ladies’ hats grew wider and increasingly plate-like during the 1890s, crowns and brims were literally heaped with complex arrangements of bows, flowers and plumage – so much so that it is difficult to find an image of a fashionable late-Victorian hat that doesn’t feature feathers, wings or a whole bird.

Hunting, shooting and taxidermy
The Victorian passion for birds and feathers and apparent lack of concern about wearing dead creatures on the person went hand in hand with the popular pastimes of hunting and shooting. Many birds whose plumage, heads and bodies ended up as fashionable women’s dress ornaments were unashamedly pursued by sportsmen, who thought nothing of targeting whole colonies of birds. The art of taxidermy had also been progressing since the mid-19th century, reaching its commercial heyday in the 1880s and 1890s – a pursuit that not only complemented hunting and shooting, but was even recommended in contemporary publications as a genteel pastime for women. 
 Chapter Illustration for 'Taxidermy' by Urbino & Day, 1884

Slaughter and carnage
Feathers and birds for use in the fashion industry, especially for millinery, fetched high prices and hunters operated all over the world. Both Paris and London were important auction centres but London was the world’s principal feather mart, one London auction record alone listing more than one million heron and egret skins sold between 1897 and 1911. Ostriches were farmed commercially from the late-1880s in South Africa, marking the beginning of a lucrative world-wide industry and introducing more humane methods of obtaining the desirable feathers, although wild ostriches (which can’t fly) were still hunted in some countries, being pursued on horseback until they dropped from exhaustion, then shot or clubbed to death. Many other birds were the victims of shockingly inhumane actions and almost unbelievable cruelty: for example, the wings of living gulls were sometimes pulled off, leaving them to die in slow agony in the sea, while young kittiwakes (a small species of ocean-going gull), whose attractive markings were especially admired, suffered a similar fate - their wings hacked off while they were still in the nest. Other fledglings were left to fend for themselves after the parent birds were thoughtlessly killed. 
Protest and early legislation
In some enlightened mid-Victorian circles there was growing concern about the wholesale destruction of native British birds for their skins and plumage, although motivation was primarily conservationist, rather than emotional, reflecting genuine fears for the future survival of certain species. Particularly worrying was the trade in ‘grebe fur’ - the skin and soft under-pelt of the breast feathers of the great crested grebe - commonly used as a fur substitute in ladies' clothing. Once the fashion for ‘grebe fur’ caught on, the superb head frill feathers of the adult grebes' breeding plumage also became highly desirable in the millinery trade. The feathers could only be taken by killing the birds and as a result the numbers of great crested grebes fell rapidly to the point where they became almost extinct in Britain and Ireland, by 1860.

A leading protestor was eminent ornithologist, Professor Alfred Newton, who campaigned especially for the protection of birds of prey and seabirds during the breeding season and was instrumental in seeing the first legislation passed in 1869 - the Sea Birds Preservation Act. This was designed to reduce the effects of shooting and egg collection during the breeding season and gave limited protection to many species including the auk, diver, eider duck, gannet, grebe, guillemot, gull, kittiwake, loon, oyster catcher, petrel, razorbill and tern. Other legislation followed, notably the Wild Birds Protection Act of 1880, but the disturbing trends continued, especially the wearing of ever more exotic feathers in ladies’ hats, which was alone responsible for the extermination of millions of egrets, birds of paradise and other rare species.

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)
In 1889 the embryonic Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was formed as a pressure group campaigning against the use of bird skins and feathers in the millinery industry. First called The Plumage League, the organisation was founded by Emily Williamson (wife of the explorer and writer, Robert Wood Williamson) at her house in Didsbury, Manchester. The rules of the newly-formed Society were straightforward:

‘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.’ (1889)

In 1891 the Didsbury group joined forces with Mrs Phillips and the ladies of the Fur and Feather League in Croydon to found the Society for the Protection of Birds. The new organisation began as it meant to continue, producing its first publications in the same year - two pamphlets and three leaflets, including W H Hudson’s ‘The Osprey, or Egrets and Aigrettes. Leaflet no 1: 
Destruction of Ornamental Plumaged Birds’.

In its earliest days the Society consisted mainly of women and, ironically, some of its staunchest supporters were exactly the kinds of high-ranking society ladies who might have been expected to wear fashionable feathers, including the Duchess of Portland, who became the Society's first President, and the Ranee of Sarawak. A number of other influential Victorians, including Professor Newton, also lent their support to the cause of the SPB, which gained widespread publicity, leading to a rapid growth in membership and a widening of its aims. 

In 1897 the Society acquired its first London offices at 326 High Holborn, with paid members of staff, and in 1898 moved to 3, Hanover Square, renting offices from the London Zoological Society. The growing influence of the SPB led Queen Victoria to confirm an Order in 1899 that certain military regiments should discontinue wearing osprey plumes. Finally, just 15 years after its foundation, the Society received a Royal Charter in 1904 from Edward VII, becoming the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Hat, c. 1909 - 1912

The final ban
Despite the early success of the RSPB, the international trade in plumage continued to prosper. By 1898 the export of egret feathers from Venezuela had resulted in the killing of up to two and a half million birds, while over 41,000 humming bird skins from Central and South America were sold in London during 1911 alone. The Edwardian era produced some of the most lavish and decadent displays of feathers in dramatic hats and sinuous trailing boas, a fashionable trend that ensured the continuing endangerment of many bird species worldwide. In 1908 the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Bill was first introduced to Parliament: this prohibited the importation of the plumage of any bird (including skin or body of a bird with the plumage) into the United Kingdom, with the exception of the plumage of African ostriches and eider ducks. However the bill was not passed for another thirteen years, until 1921, and didn’t come into force until April 1922. By then the world had changed, fashion had moved on and ornate feathered hats and accessories were no longer in vogue.  

Many thanks to Jayne for agreeing to do this, and for the amazing pictures she sent over to accompany her article. 
If you like, you can catch Jayne every year at ‘Who Do You Think You Are, Live’ and you can visit her website at


  1. Fantastic photos and very interesting article. Thank God for modern materials. Looking at some of these hats, though, I couldn't help thinking of Carmen Miranda.

  2. Carmen Miranda and Margherita Pracatan would love those hats, I'm sure!
    I've been looking at the photos all day, I think they're excellent, thanks for the comment!

  3. Great article indeed.

    Here in New Zealand our very own native bird the Huia was hunted to extinction in the name of fashion after The Duke and Duchess of York, later King George V and Queen Mary, visited New Zealand in 1901. Huia beaks were also made in to brooches. We have some of these at Auckland Museum where i work.

    In another museum i have worked at i came across a grouse claw brooch. It was truly horrendous!


  4. That's quite a beak the female has there! Still, it looks far better on her than on a human's lapel, I suspect.

    Victorian animal rights defenders must have felt certain that robbing animals of their wares for clothing and trinkets for our own use would surely not still be happening in 2011, but, sadly, they would be wrong.

    Thanks for your comment, a super contribution.

  5. Really neat article!

    It reminds me of this wonderful kids' book, "She's wearing a dead bird on her head" by Kathryn Laskey, which tells the story of the creation of the Audubon Society in the US.

  6. helikonios, that looks like a book that school children would benefit from reading in class.

  7. Thanks for this fascinating post. It was interesting to read the instructions for stuffing a bird for display. I wonder how many taxidermists died of arsenic poisoning? Not near as many as the poor creatures that were killed for fashion or home decoration.

  8. I have recently found a bird picture from the Victorian era, part watercolour & part feathers, & just wondered if anyone would be able to tell me if its a picture of a real or fictitious bird? I can forward a photograph for you to look at! Thanks Jilly

  9. Jilly,

    Apologies for the lengthy response time! Please send the picture - I'm intrigued to see it! I possibly wont be able to identify it myself, but I'm sure someone will be able to!


  10. I think that thanks for the valuabe information and insights you have so provided here.
    Beach Bunny Flamenca

  11. You’ve made some good points there. It’s a good idea! Please visit

  12. Terrific post. Why were ostriches specifically excluded from the endeavours of the early RSPB,

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Sorry I'm really bad at spelling and
    My grandad came from Liverpool England before immigrating to the America's when I was a young kid growing up I liked playing with all the heirloom jewellery that my gran and grandad had which was a lot and I remember very vividly the day when I found a Grouse claw brooch with a jewel on it I was told that it was from one of my great Gran's family's I also remember telling my grandad that it was really creepy to wear a birds foot and that made him laugh I don't know if my Gran still has it but I can find out and I'll see if I can get a picture of it if she does it still really creeps me out though but it's nice to know the history behind it now

  16. Is it okay to post part of this on my website basically post a hyperlink to this webpage?

  17. Can you give me the source of the photo of the woman leaning on pedestal holding the fan (belted dress)? I would like to license for print. Thanks,

  18. It is an excellent article, Thanks for sharing the marvelous info.

    Roll Up Banners
    business card printing

  19. I came across your blog post, "Members Shall Discourage Wanton Boasting," and I must say it's a fascinating dive into the historical etiquette of the Victorian era. It's incredible how societal norms and values have evolved over time.

  20. I came across your blog post while exploring Victorian literature and social norms, and I must say, it's a fascinating read. The Victorian era was indeed a time of strict societal rules and values.

  21. "I've learned so much from your blog about sustainable living. Your commitment to a greener planet is truly inspiring. Thank you for making a difference!"

  22. "Your dedication to environmental conservation in your blog is inspiring. Your ideas for reducing our ecological footprint and protecting our planet are crucial for a sustainable future. Thank you for raising awareness!"

  23. Engaging in the discourse on discouraging wanton behavior among members, this blog promotes a sense of responsibility and community. Just as shared values bind a group, so does the camaraderie found in exclusive discounts using the 'jewson discount.'