Eliza Phillips

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Eliza Phillips (née Barron; 1823 – 18 August 1916) was an English animal welfare activist and co-founder of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.[1] She was the RSPB's vice president and publications editor.[2]


Early life and marriage[edit]

Eliza Barron was born in Wandsworth, Surrey[3] and baptised at the church of St Mary-at-Lambeth on 11 July 1823, the only child of George Barron (c. 1763–1852), a gentleman, and Elizabeth Joanna Barron (née Barron; 1792–1824). Little is known of her early life, though she did meet Samuel Taylor Coleridge while living in Highgate in her youth.[1]

On 11 November 1847, she married the author Robert Montgomery Martin after he had his first marriage dissolved by an Act of Parliament.[1] She was widowed in 1868 and her interest in animal welfare began, inspired by witnessing the sufferings of cattle on a sea voyage.[1]

On 16 May 1874 she married the Reverend Edward Phillips (1807–1885). They lived at Culverdon Castle, Tunbridge Wells, where she became the central figure in the local branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (later RSPCA). There is a plaque recognising her life on the original entrance pillars at Culverdon, although the castle no longer exists.

Society for the Protection of Birds[edit]

After the loss of her second husband in 1885, Phillips made a central contribution to the history of the protection of bird life in Britain. The focus of these groups was opposition to the use of bird feathers in ladies' fashions and the plumage trade. The Society for the Protection of Birds was formed by the 1891 amalgamation[4] of The Plumage League, an anti-plumage group based in Didsbury, Manchester, run by Emily Williamson and the ‘Fur, Fin and Feather Folk’[5] whose afternoons meetings were established in 1889 at Phillips's house with Catherine Hall, Hannah Poland and other women, in Croydon.[1] Phillips became head of publications.[6]

In 1890, the society published its first leaflet, entitled Destruction of Ornamental-Plumaged Birds,[7] 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,[8] 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.[1] The society received a Royal Charter in 1904.[4]

Death and legacy[edit]

Phillips died on 18 August 1916 at her home in Croydon.[1] Even though she was 93, an inquest was held into her sudden death, as she abruptly became ill and died within half an hour, before a doctor could arrive. The inquest determined she died of natural causes.[9]

Phillips made an important, and often forgotten, contribution to the animal and bird welfare groups of the later 19th century. She left a sizable estate of more than £100,000 (£6.83 million as of 2020), half of which was designated "for the protection of and relief of suffering of beasts and birds" in her will (and half to over 70 named family and friends).[10]

In 2012, the RSPB had over a million members, including over 195,000 youth members, as well as 18,000 volunteers assisting on 200 nature reserves covering almost 130,000 hectares, home to 80% of the UK's rarest or most threatened bird species.[11]

There is no known picture of Phillips.[6]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Jonathan Burt. "Phillips [née Barron], Eliza [known as Mrs Edward Phillips] (1822/3–1916)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 19 October 2012.
  2. ^ Barbara T. Gates (15 February 1999). Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian Women Embrace the Living World. University of Chicago Press. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-226-28443-9. Retrieved 19 October 2012.
  3. ^ 1901 England Census
  4. ^ a b "A history of the RSPB, from its humble beginnings, to the thriving far-reaching organisation it is today". Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Retrieved 13 February 2017.
  5. ^ "Feathers and Facts: A Reply to the Feather-Trade, and Review of Facts with Reference to the Persecution of Birds for their Plumage". Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. April 1911.
  6. ^ a b "Five women who founded the RSPB - Natures Home magazine uncovered - Our work - The RSPB Community". RSPB. Retrieved 8 March 2019.
  7. ^ Phillips, Eliza (1890). "Destruction of Ornamental-Plumaged Birds". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  8. ^ Phillips, Eliza (1897). "Bird Food in Winter". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  9. ^ "Vicar Widow's Death". Norwood News. 25 August 1916. p. 3. Retrieved 21 July 2018.
  10. ^ "Local Wills". Norwood News. 13 October 1916. p. 5. Retrieved 21 July 2018.
  11. ^ "RSPB facts and figures". Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Archived from the original on 20 October 2012. Retrieved 18 November 2012.