The trade in eggs and bird-skins was not limited to ornithologists and museums. In the late Victorian times, there was a fashion amongst ladies for elaborate hats decorated with exotic feathers. Now, you might imagine this wouldn’t be such a problem, just a few feathers for society madams and that’s it, but this was big business. Hundreds of thousands of birds were slaughtered to satisfy the demands of what was called the ‘Plume Trade’.
Native species were the first to suffer, with grebe feathers in particular being desirable, but as the thirst for ever-more unusual feathers grew, colourful foreign species were imported in vast numbers. There was early opposition to this trade, most notably by the British Ornithologists’ Union, which was founded in 1858 by, amongst others, Alfred Newton. Newton was a leading British ornithologist; he had accompanied Wolley to Iceland to research the Great Auk, and his superb A Dictionary of British Birds (1893-6), along with William Yarrell’s masterpiece A History of British Birds (1843), had done much to popularise the study of birds in this country.
|Alfred Newton - A Dictionary of Birds - 1893-6|
He was Professor of Comparative Anatomy at Cambridge University for over forty years, an early supporter of Charles Darwin, and was instrumental in getting legislation passed through Parliament for the protection of wildlife. One of his greatest achievements in this field were the laws on the closed season, making it illegal to hunt certain species during their breeding periods.
|The Ibis - Vol 1 - 1859|
The British Ornithologists’ Union published a quarterly magazine called The Ibis from 1859 onwards (available online, subscription required), which highlighted the Plume Trade, as did Newton’s entry on ‘Extermination’ in his Dictionary. However, this was Victorian Britain, so entry to the BOU was strictly men only. In 1889, Emily Williamson founded a charity, initially for women only, from her home in Didsbury, Manchester called The Plumage League, which campaigned against the use of feathers and fur for decoration. The Plumage League merged with the Fur and Feather League of Croydon in 1891 to become the Society for the Protection of Birds, and became very popular, gaining support from the very society ladies who influenced fashion and might be expected to wear feathers, including Queen Alexandria and the Duchess of Portland (the first President of the Society). In just fifteen years (1904) they received the Royal Warrant from King Edward VII, to become the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
The original RSPB had two simple rules: -
1) That Members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection, and2) That Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted.
(That exception to ostriches was because ostriches can be farmed, and their moulted feathers collected and wings clipped).
|A Bird of Prey - Punch 1892|
Punch also took up the fight against the Plume Trade in the 1890s – Punch was a prominent advocate of social change at the time, and was nothing like the humorous magazine it would later become.
|Punch's Plea for the White-Plumed Heron - Punch 1896|
The RSPB published numerous pamphlets opposing the Plume Trade, many written by Professor Newton himself, which present the shocking facts and figures of the whole sordid business.
|Feathers and Facts - RSPB - 1911|
They expose the lies and injustices of the Plume Traders and hold up to scrutiny their ‘justifications’ for their trafficking – one such, for example, was their contention that egret feathers were farmed from sustainable sources, in the manner of ostriches, to which the ornithologists’ reply was,
“Those who argue thus overlook the fact that Herons and Egrets are not flightless birds which can be herded in paddocks to be clipped, but shy, winged species, which build in trees by lake and swamp, and for the rest of the year scatter themselves over wide expanses of country.”
|Bird Notes and News - Vol 2 - 1906-07|
In 1903, the society began to publish Bird Notes and News, in which the cause was spread further, a typical report reads,
“Birds-of-Paradise continue to be a leading feature of the Plume Sales in London, and will apparently continue to be so until the last of these exquisite birds has found its sepulchre in a Houndsditch warehouse; unless measures are taken for its absolute protection throughout New Guinea. At the sale on October 15th, over 7000 were offered, and nearly all "sold with good competition"; for that of December 17th 4667 were catalogued. The packages of "osprey" feathers numbered 548 and 200 respectively, a large proportion being advertised as "East Indian." Other features of the two sales were 100 Lyre-bird tails from Australia, 96 Impeyan Pheasants (presumably from India, whence their exportation is illegal), and a large number of Coronata Pigeons and of Albatross quill feathers.”
|Table of Plumes sold in London - from Feathers and Facts 1911|
The campaign was ultimately successful; an Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Bill was introduced to Parliament in 1908, and was eventually passed in 1921, coming into force on April 1st 1922. A parallel campaign was carried out in America by the Audobon Society, founded by George Bird Grinnell, editor of Forest and Stream magazine. The American Ornithologists’ Union estimated that in excess of five million birds per year were being killed to satisfy the demands of ladies’ fashion. By the 1920s, over a dozen states had legislation in place prohibiting the sale of plumes.
It is worth mentioning here the ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ Guy Bradley. Bradley had worked with the plume hunters in Florida in the 1890s, guiding them to the ‘rookeries’ of egrets. After the passing of the Lacey Act of 1900, which forbade the commercial transportation of game over state lines, Bradley changed sides and became one of the first professional game wardens in the US. By all accounts, he was an excellent fellow, “… clean-cut, reliable, courageous, energetic and conscientious", but in 1905 he confronted Walter Smith and his two sons who were in the swamps hunting egrets. Smith shot Bradley and left him to bleed to death. Bradley’s body was recovered later by his brother, having drifted ten miles downstream. Smith turned himself on the following day, and initially pleaded self-defence, claiming Bradley had shot first, but evidence was produced that Bradley’s weapon had not been fired, and it was added that Bradley was such a good shot that if he had fired first, he would not have missed. The jury decided there was insufficient evidence and declared Smith not guilty, sparking national outrage. Whilst Smith was in custody, his two brothers-in-law burned down Bradley’s house, and his homeless widow and two infant children were rehoused in Key West with money raised by public subscription. Bradley’s obituary in Bird Lore, August 1905, reads,
|Guy Bradley's obituary from Bird Lore 1905|
“A faithful and devoted warden, who was a young and sturdy man, cut off in a moment, for what? That a few more plume birds might be secured to adorn heartless women's bonnets. Heretofore the price has been the life of the birds, now is added human blood. Every great movement must have its martyrs, and Guy M. Bradley is the first martyr in bird protection.”