This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act. So, here’s ten things you need to know about this seminal piece of legislation.
This blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
Fur, Fin & Feather Folk
The story of Plumage & Parliament begins with the formation of the Society for the Protection of Birds in 1891. This was a North/South amalgamation combining Manchester’s Plumage League and Croydon’s wonderfully named Fur, Fin & Feather Folk. These groups consisted of a core feminine bedrock led by Emily Williamson and Eliza Phillips respectively. One of their imperative objectives was to obliterate the existing law allowing the importation of exotic bird feathers used primarily for ladies’ hats. They would start to make inroads legislatively when the 1908 Wild Birds Protection Act amended the landmark 1880 statute of the same name.
By Royal Charter
An early statement of intent was the society’s first pamphlet titled Destruction of Ornamental-Plumaged Birds. It piqued the interest of reformer Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck also known as the Duchess of Portland. Making connections with the Society for the Protection of Birds she was appointed their first President. The Duchess’s social standing proved influential in making the fledging organisation a growing concern. This was proven in 1904 when they were granted a Royal Charter decreed by King Edward VII. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was born triggering an unprecedented lobbying initiative that would attract luminaries from Westminster and beyond.
A Man for All Seasons
To initiate plumage importation reforms the RSPB firstly needed to find a Parliamentarian willing to champion their cause. John Lubbock, the 1st Baron Avebury was a Liberal Party stalwart and all-round polymath. Both a member of the House of Peers and the infamous X Club which was devoted to philosophical free thinking. He duly presented the original Plumage Bill to the Lord’s chamber in May 1908. In his speech he stated that proposals had to be considered on three grounds, ‘scientific, aesthetic and humanitarian’. Unfortunately, the Bill progressed no further as the Parliamentary session ended leaving it in legislative limbo.
Inside a Plume Auction
Despite the Bill’s failure to launch Lubbock’s address would go down in naturalist folklore. This was mainly due to his memorably descriptive assessment of London’s Plume Auctions that took place across the city. Taking notes from a secret RSPB investigation he exposed to the House the inhumane nature of the industry. Detailing sales of 19,742 skins of birds of paradise over a six-month period. Affecting species such as the Egret, White Heron and Kingfisher with even the quills of albatrosses being available for sale. Warning that continuation will lead to inevitable annihilation. For these breeds ‘their beauty is their ruin’.
Harry the Hatter
If you ever have the pleasure of visiting Luton Town FC’s Kenilworth Road ground on matchday you may find yourself acquainted with club mascot Harry the Hatter. An affectionate nod to Luton’s hat manufacturing heritage. Back in 1908 as Lubbock and the Duchess of Portland were spreading the good word this Bedfordshire town was united in opposition. They made their grievance official when the local Chamber of Commerce petitioned Parliament. The petition’s preface described a doomsday scenario of thousands of job losses in the area if the Bill was sanctioned. While also gifting trade and importation advantages to the continent.
Six years after Lubbock’s sterling efforts a new Plumage Prohibition Bill was going through Parliament. Backed by the likes of Labour leader, Ramsey McDonald it would reach the Committee stage in the House of Commons before the outbreak of World War One put proceedings on the backburner. This phase saw the prohibitionists ally themselves with the suffragette movement. Though the RSPB didn’t advocate civil disobedience tactics they were influenced by the innovative strategic planning of the suffrage protests. The term ‘Murderous Millinery’ started to take root after being popularised by the media who reported extensively on this newly reinvigorated campaign.
Woolf & Wells
Wartime restrictions led to the importing of exotic-bird feathers being temporarily ceased. When the status-quo resumed after hostilities ended respected ornithologist, Etta Lemon wrote a vehement letter to the President of the Board of Trade countersigned by amongst others H.G Wells. Even within the Bloomsbury Group opinions were divided. Henry Massingham editor of The Nation used his column to condemn fashion conscious women for their ambivalence towards the issue. Virginia Woolf responded in a piece for the Women’s Leader reiterating that bird-hunters were exclusively men and that large sections of Parliament’s still all-male membership were equally ignorant on this matter.
Astor Throws her Hat into the Ring
When entering Parliament as the first participatory female MP in November 1919, Nancy Astor gained a reputation as a tenacious public speaker. She put herself forward to take on the responsibility of steering the 1921 Plumage Prohibition Bill into the statute book. In the Second Reading debate she sought to single out any potential detractors in attendance with a line of questioning more suited to the Queen’s Counsel rather than the Palace of Westminster. Before the deciding vote, Colonel Archer-Shee was so inspired he quoted a Latin proverb, ‘In medio tutissimus ibis’ meaning ‘The ibis is a very important bird’.
(Read this debate in full – https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1921/apr/13/importation-of-plumage-prohibition-no-3)
Passed at Last
On the 1st July 1921 the Plumage Act was finally given Royal Assent. However, RSPB activists were disappointed that it only outlawed the importing of bird feathers for production yet didn’t eradicate the sale of the controversial headwear. As the decade ended the House of Lords once again took up the discussion as a lucrative black market had emerged to meet the continuing demand. But the government were loath to enforce additional regulatory red tape upon the customs authority. The post-war era saw the trend become outdated and the trade was banished to history by way of a statutory order.
A Century On
Beccy Speight, Chief Executive of the RSPB recently spoke to The Observer about the centenary celebrations. Commending the sacrifices of her forebears for avian life in this country and abroad. She stressed that the major lesson to be learned from the Plumage Act was that legislation matters. Adding, ‘when someone tells me they don’t think policy really counts for much. I’m quite emphatic in my response. Laws set the framework that allows change to happen and holds politicians to account for the promises they have made. For unless we have clear targets it will be just fine words and rhetoric’.
HL/PO/JO/10/10/709, 1921 House Bills, Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act
HC/CL/JO/6/894, Reports of the Committee on Public Petitions, Luton Chamber of Commerce, the Members of which compromising Manufacturers and Merchants employing a large number of hands wo will be affected by the passing of the bill – Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Bill: Against, November 4th, 1908.
STR/31/2/9, H I Massingham to Strachey, 3RD September 1920
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Vol 34 – John Lubbock biography written by Timothy L Alborn
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Vol 59 – Emily Williamson biography written by Robert G Greenhill
‘A Feather in their cap’ written by Robert McKie, The Observer, 27th June 2021