Plaque at Fletcher Moss Park, Manchester, commemorating the foundation of the RSPB
The origins of the RSPB lie with two groups of women, both formed in 1889. The Plumage League was founded by Emily Williamson at her house in Didsbury, Manchester, (now in Fletcher Moss Botanical Garden), as a protest group campaigning against the use of great crested grebe and kittiwake skins and feathers in fur clothing. The Fur, Fin and Feather Folk was founded in Croydon by Eliza Phillips, Etta Lemon, Catherine Hall and others. The groups gained in popularity and amalgamated in 1891 to form the Society for the Protection of Birds in London. The Society gained its Royal Charter in 1904.
The original members of the RSPB were all women who campaigned against the fashion of the time for women to wear exotic feathers in hats, and the consequent encouragement of "plume hunting". To this end the Society had two simple rules:
- 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.
At the time of founding, the trade in plumage for use in hats was very large: in the first quarter of 1884, almost 7,000 bird-of-paradise skins were being imported to Britain, along with 400,000 birds from West India and Brazil, and 360,000 birds from East India.
In 1890, the society published its first leaflet, entitled Destruction of Ornamental-Plumaged Birds, aimed at saving the egret population by informing wealthy women of the environmental damage wrought by the use of feathers in fashion. A later 1897 publication, Bird Food in Winter, aimed to address the use of berries as winter decoration and encouraged the use of synthetic berries to preserve the birds food source. By 1898 the RSPB had 20,000 members and in 1897 alone had distributed over 16,000 letters and 50,000 leaflets.
The Society attracted support from some women of high social standing who belonged to the social classes that popularised the wearing of feathered hats, including the Duchess of Portland (who became the Society's first President) and the Ranee of Sarawak. As the organisation began to attract the support of many other influential figures, both male and female, such as the ornithologist Professor Alfred Newton, it gained in popularity and attracted many new members. The society received a Royal Charter in 1904 from Edward VII, just 15 years after its founding, and was instrumental in petitioning the Parliament of the United Kingdom to introduce laws banning the use of plumage in clothing.
At the time that the Society was founded in Britain, similar societies were also founded in other European countries. In 1961, the society acquired The Lodge in Sandy, Bedfordshire as its new headquarters. The RSPB's logo depicts an Avocet. The first version was designed by Robert Gillmor.