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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 Society for the Protection of Birds (SPB), founded by Emily Williamson at her home in Manchester in 1889.

The group quickly gained popularity and in 1891 it merged with the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk, to form a larger and stronger SPB, based in London.

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.

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