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.

The organisation started life as The Plumage League, founded by Emily Williamson at her home in Manchester in 1889. The group quickly gained popularity and in 1891, Williamson joined forces with Eliza Phillips – head of the Fur and Feather League in Croydon – to form the Society for the Protection of Birds.

In its earliest days, the society consisted entirely of women and membership cost twopence. The rules of the society were:

  • 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 – dignitaries 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 fledgling society was so successful that it was granted its Royal Charter in 1904, just 15 years after being founded. Then in 1921, the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act was passed, forbidding plumage from being imported to Britain.