Our history

Discover how a campaign against feathers in fashion sparked a global force to save nature with more than a million members.

RSPB founders, Emily Williamson and Etta Lemon
On this page

Highlights and key moments

In 1889, Emily Williamson created the Society for the Protection of Birds with one core aim – to fight a fashion for feathers and exotic plumes that were driving birds including little egrets, great crested grebes and birds of paradise towards extinction. Her all-women movement was born out of frustration that the male-only British Ornithologists Union was not acting on the issue. 

Saving wildlife

Emily’s efforts soon gathered pace and after joining forces with Etta Lemon and Eliza Phillps, the movement grew in popularity and influence. So much so, that in 1904 the society was awarded a Royal Charter, making it the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Eventually, the 1921 Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act was passed, marking the RSPB’s first successful campaign for nature. 

Protecting places for nature

Conservation has always been central to the RSPB and in 1930 the society bought its first nature reserve. In 1947, Minsmere was made a reserve and avocets – once extinct in the UK – bred at both Minsmere and the nearby Havergate Island. More reserves followed, and the RSPB now manages over 200 nature reserves across the UK.

People power

In 1965, the RSPB launched the Young Ornithologists Club (now known as the Wildlife Explorers) for young people, and in 1979, with a special slot on kid’s TV show Blue Peter, launched the Big Garden Birdwatch. This annual event to count garden birds is now the world’s largest citizen science project and provides a valuable snapshot to our birdlife is faring.   

A global force to save nature

The early 90s saw the RSPB consolidate its international efforts and in 1993, the society became a Partner of BirdLife International, the global partnership formed to join bird and conservation organisations worldwide. By 1997 RSPB membership passed over one million members and we are now the largest nature conservation charity in Europe.  

Together with our members and supporters, the RSPB continues to work with the same determination and passion to save nature as that of our founders over 100 years ago. 

Our Timeline

1889 - 1899

1889 February: formation of the embryonic Society in Didsbury. Emily Williamson Hon Secretary until May 1891.

1891 The Didsbury group and ladies attending Eliza Phillips' Fur and Feather meetings at her house in Croydon amalgamate to become the Society for the Protection of Birds. 

June: Duchess of Portland accepts the office of president and remains so until her death in 1954. 

October: First report of the society. Society's first publications - two pamphlets and three leaflets, including one by W H Hudson entitled The Osprey, or Egrets and Aigrettes. Leaflet no 1 = Destruction of Ornamental Plumaged Birds

1892 Constitution adopted. Margaretta Lemon (universally known as Mrs Lemon, married to Frank Lemon) appointed Hon Secretary. 

1894 W H Hudson elected Chairman of Committee (i.e. council).

1895 Montagu Sharpe (later Sir Montagu) elected Chairman of Committee and remains so until 1942. 

1897 First office established in London, at 326 High Holborn in the offices of Witherby & Sons, publishers - the Hon Sec and a paid assistant secretary work from here. 

1898 June: Office moves to 3 Hanover Square, rented from the London Zoological Society. 

First Society Christmas cards produced - some 4,500 cards are sold. 

1899 September: Queen Victoria confirms an order which certain regiments should discontinue wearing 'osprey' plumes. 

1900 - 1904

1900 First legacy received - £25. 

1901 Society gives prizes for essays suggesting the best way of establishing Bird and Tree Day (ie the start of the schools educational programme). 

First watcher appointed, to protect breeding pintails at Loch Leven, Scotland. 

1902 Bird and Tree Scheme initiated - continues until 1964. Watchers' Fund started. 

1903 April First issue of Bird Notes and News, the first regular publication for members. 

Society's first postcards appear featuring various species of bird. 

1904 3 November Incorporated by Royal Charter - now The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. 

Frank Lemon appointed Hon Secretary. 

Membership subscription set at one guinea for fellows, five shillings for members. 

1905 - 1929

1905 Watchers' Committee established. 

1906 RSPB sells its first nestboxes. 

1908 Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Bill introduced to Parliament (but not passed until 1921). 

Inspector appointed by RSPB to investigate caged bird trade. 

1909 Office moves to 23 Queen Anne's Gate. 

1913 Perches on lighthouses installed. 

1922 Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act, passed in 1921, comes into force on 1 April, the culmination of the RSPB's original raison d'être. 

W H Hudson dies on 18 August, naming the society as a high residuary legatee. 

1923 April Offices move to 82 Victoria Street. 

1930 - 1939

1930 The purchase of Cheyne Court, Romney Marsh, announced, the RSPB's first nature reserve. The first land bought was an 18-acre meadow in 1928. The whole reserve was sold in 1950, because drainage of surrounding land had caused it to lose its original attraction for birds.

1931 RSPB prosecutes an oil company for allowing oil to escape from their vessel near Skokholm off the Welsh coast - fined £25. 

Wild Birds Protection Legislation (N Ireland) 

1932 Dungeness and East Wood reserves announced (though land obtained at both in 1930) - the RSPB's oldest extant nature reserves. 

1933 Protection of Birds Act passed, concerning trade in and taking of wild birds for aviculture. Came into force 17 May 1934. 

1936 R Preston Donaldson appointed secretary. 

1940 - 1949

1943 Junior Bird Recorder's Club (JBRC) founded. 

1947 Minsmere becomes reserve. 

Avocets breed at Havergate and Minsmere. 

Membership sub increases to ten shillings, the first rise since 1904. 

Fellow's sub remains at one guinea. 

Bird Notes and News title changes to Bird Notes. 

First JBRC Conference. 

1948 Rewards Scheme adopted by RSPB (from British Ornithologists' Club). Rewards were given to people who could verify young had flown from the nests of the following rare species: golden eagle, hen harrier, marsh harrier, avocet, spoonbill, black tern, red kite, white-tailed eagle, honey buzzard, osprey, golden oriole and hoopoe. 

Grassholm becomes the first reserve in Wales.

1949 Havergate becomes a reserve. 

1950 - 1959

1950 Colour film of Minsmere and Havergate reserves made for the society. 

1952 Philip Brown appointed secretary. 

Film Unit formed. Black-tailed godwits breed again at Ouse Washes. 

1953 March Offices move to 25 Eccleston Square. 

First Bird Notes cover by C F Tunnicliffe 

1954 Protection of Birds Act. 

First Scottish representative, George Waterston, appointed, though not employed until 1959. 

Duchess of Portland dies (President since 1891). 

1955 Avocet approved by October meeting of council as a symbol on the RSPB's new tie - the first use of this symbol. 

1957 Fellow's sub increases to two guineas, member's to one guinea. 

1959 Osprey hide at Loch Garten opens to public - 14,000 visitors in six to seven weeks.

1960 - 1969

1960 Membership breaks 10,000 barrier. 

Joint Committee of the BTO and the RSPB on Toxic Chemicals formed in August. 

Duke of Edinburgh visits Havergate Island.

1961 Offices move to The Lodge, Sandy. 

Duke of Edinburgh visits Minsmere and Havergate Island (again).

1962 Education Officer appointed. 

1963 Peter Conder appointed secretary. 

1964 Title of Secretary changed to Director. 

Reserves Manager and the first Research Biologist appointed. 

Bird and Tree competition terminated. 

1965 Young Ornithologists' Club (YOC) launched (formerly the JBRC), together with its magazine Bird Life

1966 Adult membership magazine title changes to Birds

Fellow's sub increases to three guineas, member's to one-and-a-half guineas. 

Beached Bird Survey starts. 

1967 Launch of a £100,000 appeal to raise money for the purchase of Vane Farm, Gwenffrwd and Ynys-hir reserves. 

Torrey Canyon oil spill.

1968 Following the establishment of the Charities Commission, RSPB becomes a registered charity on 29 March. 

1969 Appeal reaches target. 

Membership breaks 50,000 barrier. 

First RSPB members' group established - Epping Forest 

1970 - 1979

1970 New RSPB logo, incorporating the avocet. 

1971 Wales regional office established. 

1972 Membership breaks 100,000 barrier in October. 

1975/76 Membership breaks 200,000 barrier. 

1975/77 £1 million Save a Place for Birds Appeal. 

1976 Ian Prestt appointed as director. 

1979 RSPB receives the Diploma of the Council of Europe for Minsmere reserve. 

First Big Garden Birdwatch takes place. 

1979/80 Membership breaks 300,000 barrier. 

1980 - 1989

1980 YOC membership reaches 100,000 in February. 

1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act passed. 

1982/85 Woodland Bird Survival Campaign, a £1 million appeal. 

1984 100th reserve acquired at Wood of Cree. 

1985 March: The Eric Morecambe Memorial Appeal launched. 

Old Hall Marshes purchased, the RSPB's single costliest purchase so far at £780,000. 

1986 Membership breaks 400,000 barrier. 

1988 Abernethy bought for £1.8 million. Largest ever land purchase in Europe by a voluntary conservation organisation. 

1989 RSPB celebrates its centenary. 

Membership breaks 500,000 barrier. 

Red kite re-introduction project starts in England and Scotland. 

1990 - 1999

1991 Barbara Young appointed as Chief Executive. 

1992 Ramsey Island purchased. 

Million Image Appeal as part of the Campaign for the Countryside. 

Ban the Wild Bird Trade Campaign continues. 

Countryside Campaign launched to combat wild bird decline through agricultural changes. 

1993 RSPB becomes a Partner of BirdLife International, the global partnership formed to join bird and conservation organisations worldwide. 

1994 Membership reaches 860,000. 

Marine Life Campaign launched. 

Julian Pettifer appointed RSPB President. 

1995 Launch of RSPB Phoenix for teenage members of the RSPB. 

Forsinard reserve purchased in the Highlands of Scotland, protecting 7,127 ha (17,600 acres) of flow country. 

1996 Membership reaches 925,000. 

Launch of the Million Member Campaign to try to reach a membership of 1,000,000. 

Sir David Attenborough appointed as one of the RSPB's Vice Presidents. 

Lakenheath reserve purchased to return an area of carrot fields into important reedbeds. Area = 2.5 square kilometres. 

1997 RSPB Phoenix reaches 38,000 teenage members. 

Corrimony reserve purchased in Scotland with aim to regenerate a large area of Caledonian pinewood. Area = 15 square kilometres. 

Otmoor reserve purchased to turn a square kilometre of Oxfordshire fields into a mixture of wet grassland and reedbed. 

Barbara Young was made a Baroness and appointed as a working life peer. 

RSPB reaches 1 million members in early September. 

1998 Barbara Young resigns to head English Nature. 

Graham Wynne appointed as chief executive. 

Launch of Land for Life campaign calling for better legal protection for wildlife. 

RSPB launches web site 

1999 Legislation protecting important wildlife sites is included in the Queen's Speech. 

RSPB and others successfully influence the content of the national curriculum in England and Wales. 

Seabird 2000 begins. 

Webcams are set up at Loch Garten and South Stack reserves. 

Lead shot ban in England. 

2000 - 2009

2000 Rainham Marshes purchase - 3.5 square kilometres of grazing marsh on the Greater London/Essex border. 

Purchase of Hope Farm. 

YOC renamed Wildlife Explorers. 

Petition to secure European bird protection laws became the largest conservation petition ever presented to EU Commission. It contained more than 2 million signatures, of which 521,000 were collected by the RSPB. 

2001 Big Garden Birdwatch became the biggest bird survey ever undertaken in the UK with more than 29,000 contributors. 

Ospreys breed in England for the first time in 150 years - nests in Cumbria and Rutland. 

All RSPB reserves were closed, for the first time in the history of the Society, as a response to the foot & mouth epidemic. 

Brading Marsh becomes the first RSPB reserve on the Isle of Wight. 

Jonathan Dimbleby appointed president of RSPB. 

First custodial sentence for wildlife offences under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. 

2002 Mull of Oa (18 square kilometres) and Revack Forest (8 square kilometres) reserves purchased. 

Bee-eaters breed in the UK, in County Durham, for the first time since 1955. 

Choughs breed in England for the first time in 50 years - nesting in Cornwall. 

Historic public enquiry at Holton Heath. 

A proposal to put an airport at Cliffe in north Kent threatens to obliterate an internationally important area for birds and seven RSPB reserves, including Northward Hill. RSPB embarks on the largest habitat protection campaign it has undertaken. 

Habitat recreation projects at Freiston Shore and Tilford. 

RSPB garden at Chelsea Flower Show receives a Silver Gilt medal.

2003 60 years of RSPB junior membership. 

Campaign against an airport at Cliffe is won.  

Graham Wynne receives a CBE and Stuart Housden (Director of RSPB Scotland) receives an OBE.

2004 RSPB Scotland celebrates its centenary. 

50th anniversary of return of ospreys to Loch Garten. Ospreys breed in Wales for the first time. 

25 years of Big Garden Birdwatch -  the biggest Birdwatch in the world with 420,000 participants. 

More than 1,000 red kites fledged from nests across Britain. 

25 years of EU Birds Directive, on which our wildlife laws are based. 

Launch of Marine Campaign for improved legal protection for seas around the British Isles. 

Corncrakes breed for the first time at Nene Washes in England following re-introduction. 

Julian Pettifer appointed president of RSPB.

2005 RSPB garden at Chelsea Flower Show receives a silver medal. 

RSPB's Aren't Birds Brilliant! scheme is visited by nearly half a million people at 40 different locations. 

Save the Albatross campaign is adopted by the Volvo Ocean Race - the first tie up between an international conservation effort and a global sporting event. 

RSPB's volunteer numbers reach 9,000.

2006 Highest ever participation in BGBW at 480,000. 

First Albatross Task Force members recruited and start work showing fishermen how to fish in seabird-friendly ways in the Southern Ocean.

2007 Sutton Fen became the 200th RSPB reserve. 

RSPB and BirdLife campaign successfully to ban imports of wild birds into the UK – something the RSPB has campaigned for since the 1980s. Ban extends to all 27 EU countries. 

The use of diclofenac to treat cattle in India was banned. RSPB research showed that this veterinary drug brought about the collapse of the vulture population in India, which had many ecological and human knock-on effects. 

The RSPB and our BirdLife partner in Indonesia acquired the logging rights to Harapan rainforest in Sumatra. This will protect an important piece of rainforest and its biodiversity. 

Wildlife Explorers membership reaches 170,000. 

Cranes nest at Lakenheath.

2008 A turnaround for the bittern’s fortunes. 76 male bitterns held territories in 10 English counties. It was their best breeding season since 1954 and compares with a low of 11 males in four counties in 1997, when it seemed we might lose them.

30th Anniversary of the Big Garden Birdwatch! Number of participants breaks 500,000.

Newport Wetlands Centre and Rathlin Island Seabird centre open. 

Red kite re-introduction programme starts.

2009 UK Marine and Coastal Access Act came into force after years of campaigning. 

Two pairs of common cranes nested at Lakenheath Fen - one chick fledged, the first to do so in the Fens for 400 years.

We bought two nature reserves – Wallasea Island and Crook of Baldoon, taking the total number to 209.

We launched our online community, where supporters can chat with each other online, upload photos, ask questions and share their favourite moments with nature

After years of campaigning by the RSPB, the Northern Ireland Government introduced a ban on lead shot over wetlands.

2010 - 2019

2010 The RSPB’s landscape-scale conservation programme ‘Futurescapes’ launched in London

RSPB Vice-President Sir John Lawton publishes the seminal Making Space for Nature which he describes as a ‘repair-manual to re-build nature’.

Red kites bred successfully in Northern Ireland for the first time in 200 years following a successful reintroduction project.

White-tailed eagles pass the milestone of 50 pairs in Scotland – the highest number since their reintroduction.

RSPB Hope Farm celebrates its 10th anniversary with a three-fold increase in the farmland bird index since 2000

Groundbreaking agreements see the RSPB managing 40 square kilometres of moor and hill at Dovestone in the Peak District with our partners United Utilities. Nearby we join forces with the National Trust to manage the Eastern Moors.

2011 361,869 people sign ‘Letter to the Future’ urging the new government to safeguard spending on nature.

Picking up the momentum of Letter to the Future, our Stepping Up for Nature campaign is launched, putting our supporters at the heart of our mission

For the first time, RSPB volunteers donated over one million hours of their time as they stepped up for nature

More than 600,000 people take part in this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch – beating previous records.

Bitterns break records as more than 100 calling male birds are found – up from just 11 in 1997

RSPB Cymru celebrated 100 years of conservation in Wales

2012 Our programme ‘Birds without Borders’ is launched focussing on birds migrating between Europe and Africa.

RSPB takes on management of Pagham Harbour in West Sussex.

Wallasea Island Wild Coast restoration project in Essex is launched with our partners Crossrail

We add the Dell of Killiehuntly to our Insh Marshes reserve on Speyside and add 15 square kilometres to our landholding in the Flow country at the extreme north of Scotland.

2013 Giving nature a home campaign launches. 

We joined forces with 24 other conservation organisations to launch the State Of Nature report. 

The Albatross Task Force reduced Albatross deaths by 99 per cent

RSPB Centre for Conservation Science launched. 

Big Wild Sleepout launched

RSPB Medmerry breached to let the tide into our partnership project with the Environment Agency in West Sussex

Finding short-haired bumblebee workers at Dungeness is a milestone in our partnership project to restore this species to the UK

Belfast Swift city launched.

2014 Skydancer – our project to raise the profile of hen harriers in northern England won a National Lottery Award as Best Education Project

We brought together partners from conservation and business at the Conference for Nature following up the 2013 State of Nature conference.

We open Langford Lowfields in Nottinghamshire to the public - a nature reserve developed in partnership with Lafarge Tarmac.

The Great British Oceans Coalition is established campaigning for Marine Protected Areas around key UK Overseas Territories – leading to a welcome commitment from the UK Government to designated 834,000 square kilometres of sea around Pitcairn Island in the Pacific.

After years of campaigning the Airports Commission rejects proposals for an airport in the Thames Estuary and excludes it from the shortlist of options for extra airport capacity.

Black-winged stilts raised young on RSPB Medmerry where, with the Environment Agency, we have restored part of the West Sussex coast.

In Northern Ireland, our Hating Environmental Loss (HELP) project delivers increases in lapwings, snipe and redshanks.

2015 More than 520,000 people across the European Union (65,000 of them RSPB supporters) spoke up to defend the Nature Directives supporting an international campaign to safeguard the laws that protect nature.

We announce a landmark agreement with Severn Trent Water securing the future of our tenancy at Lake Vyrnwy in Powys.

The RSPB is honoured to have been awarded the management of the Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve, as part of a partnership with Nottinghamshire Country Council, the Sherwood Forest Trust, Thorsby Estate and Continuum Attractions.

The Great Crane Project announces the first crane to fledge in South West England for 400 years.

A partnership with Aldi is launched to connect young people with nature

Vote for Bob – our red squirrel campaigner attracted 120,000 supporters who were encouraged to contact their MPs and Prospective Parliamentary Candidates resulting in nearly 1100 backing the campaign.

RSPB took part in the Climate Coalition’s ‘show the love’ campaign which resulted in government leaders agreeing to work together to tackle climate change

Thanks to the generosity of CEMEX UK we add Lade Pits to our Dungeness reserve in Kent. 

Start of the rat eradication programme on the Shiant Isles of northwest Scotland.

Ascension Island frigatebirds reach 100 pairs following the removal of feral cats from the island

2016 We saved the laws that protect nature! The Nature Directives were under threat but thanks to 520,000 people across the EU (65,000 of them RSPB supporters) these laws were protected from being ‘opened up’ and weakened.

The 10th anniversary of the hugely successful Albatross Task Force. Bycatch reductions of 80% had already been achieved in 5 out of 10 target fisheries.

The 2016 national cirl bunting survey has shown the population has increased to over 1000 pairs – 10 times more than in the 1980s. This is thanks to a highly successful reintroduction to Cornwall and decades of partnership working with farmers in Devon, supported by Natural England and grants to recover nature-friendly farming.

St Agnes and Gugh in the Scilly Isles were officially declared rat-free in 2016, and the breeding population of Manx shearwater has increased from 22 pairs in 2013 (pre rat eradication) to 73 pairs in 2016 (post rat eradication) with two new locations colonised.

2017 The Albatross Task Force has been so successful that black-browed albatross has recently been downgraded to ‘Least Concern’. Argentina has announced new measures to introduce bird-scaring ‘Tori lines’, which are predicted to save 9,000 albatross lives a year.

We helped launch NFFN: “The Nature-Friendly Farming Network has launched and will provide a platform for farmers to use their voices to advocate for farming that works for people and wildlife. Farmers have come together to demonstrate what they do for wildlife, whilst still producing plentiful quality produce by building markets for nature-friendly farming products. The members are committed to secure farming policies that support wildlife, sustainable agriculture and fairness for farmers."

The ‘Puffarazzi’ project brought in more than 1,400 pictures of puffins from 602 people over 39 sites across UK and Ireland. Tracking 22 and 11 puffins respectively on the islands of Shiants and Unst also revealed foraging patterns for the species.

In Sierra Leone, $1.8 million has been secured from the West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change Programme to scale up conservation work across the 350,000 hectares of the Greater Gola forest landscape. At the same time, we have worked with 1,500 farmers to produce rainforest friendly cocoa, with 12 metric tonnes exported and the first trial RSPB Gola chocolate bars produced. Target species favoured by the conservation methods are the white-necked picathartes and the pygmy hippopotamus.

Our vulture programme in Nepal is celebrating a major milestone as six captive-reared, Critically Endangered, white-rumped vultures have been released into the wild after 7 years in captivity. This exciting news followed the thankful end in this region of diclofenac sales for veterinary purposes and a partial recovery of the wild population of the species.

In September, we reached a major milestone in our battle to save Lodge Hill, the most important site for nightingales in the UK. The planning application for 5,000 houses was withdrawn, with more than 10,000 people objecting to the application to build on this incredibly important SSSI.

2018 The Shiants are declared rat-free after a partnership project to eradicate invasive rodents. The first storm petrel chick is heard calling on the islands.

Thanks to the efforts of the RSPB Investigations team and Sovereign Base Area Police, illegal bird trapping on the UK Base in Cyprus falls by 70%.

First bittern heard booming on the Isle of Wight - at RSPB Brading Marshes.

Nightjars breed at The Lodge for the first time in 45 years.

The Wallasea Wild Coast project in Essex is completed.

Sherwood Forest now managed by an RSPB-led group, new visitor centre opens.

One hundred years since white-tailed eagles were lost from the UK, there are now more than 100 pairs breeding in Scotland. The first WTE chicks on Orkney for 145 years successfully fledge on Hoy.

2019 RSPB marks its 130 year anniversary!

In a historic first, the RSPB purchased land in a UK Overseas Territory, ten acres of tropical rainforest in the Cayman Islands, home to Grand Cayman blue iguana.

Best ever year for bitterns in recent times, with over 100 male bitterns recorded on RSPB nature reserves.

RSPB Cymru helped launch the Celtic Rainforests Wales LIFE project to restore, protect and enhance the ancient Welsh woodlands.

The RSPB released a single of pure birdsong, Let Nature Sing. It reached number 18 in the UK music charts.

Together with over 70 other organisations, the RSPB launched the State of Nature 2019 report, a detailed analysis of the status of UK species

2020 - Present

2020 From March, the global coronavirus pandemic forced national lockdowns and widespread hardships.

The RSPB launched a weekly email Notes on Natures for supporters and to share news about nature. This now reaches over one million people.

Many people turned to nature during lockdown and the RSPB experienced an uplift in the number of people sharing sightings of birds and wildlife.

The RSPB launched online events to share in the joy of nature during lockdown – including the Breakfast Birdwatch and Dawn Chorus Day.

Record-breaking year for UK’s rarest seabirds, roseate terns, with 130 breeding pairs recorded on Coquet Island.

Twenty-year anniversary of nature friendly farming at RSPB Hope Farm was hailed a success as wildlife numbers soared.

UK Overseas Territory of Tristan da Cunha became one of the world’s biggest sanctuaries for wildlife thanks to joint efforts of the RSPB, local people and partners.

Crane numbers hit a record high of over 200 birds after becoming extinct in the UK nearly 400 years ago.

2021 The RSPB recorded the largest Big Garden Birdwatch ever, with over one million people taking part.

Golden eagles breed again in Orkney after an absence of almost 40 years.

To be continued...

Share this article