Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act 1921

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The Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act, known also as the Plumage Act, is an act of United Kingdom legislation passed in 1921. It had been proposed to Parliament in 1908 as the Plumage Bill and was the subject of determined campaigning by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Large amounts of plumage had been used to decorate women's hats, and a campaign against this "Murderous millinery" had been waged since the 1880s.[1][2]

The bill was presented to the House of Lords in 1908 by Lord Avebury, and was passed by the Lords on 21 July. It was read in the House of Commons the next day, but did not proceed because of lack of time.[1]:179 It came to the commons again in 1913, had two readings, and was again set aside, apparently because of "trade interests". Gertrude Ansell, a 52-year-old businesswoman and suffragette, reacted by smashing a window of the Home Office as a protest and was jailed for a month.[1]:219 During World War I feathers were among the luxury items whose import was banned in February 1917, but only for the duration of the war.[1]:247

In July 1919 Etta Lemon and the Duchess of Portland delivered a letter signed by 150 men including celebrities such as H. G. Wells and Thomas Hardy to the president of the Board of Trade, Sir Auckland Geddes, asking that the war-time restriction on the importation of plumage should be continued until legislation was passed. Geddes replied that the import restriction would continue "as long as possible" and that he "hoped" that the bill would be passed early in 1920.[1]:256–7

In July 1920 Henry William Massingham, editor of The Nation, wrote a column about the bill's lack of success, pointing out that the much-prized egret feathers were obtained by shooting birds which had chicks on their nests, and asking "But what do women care? Look at Regent Street this morning". This provoked Virginia Woolf to write a strong piece published in the Woman's Leader in which she painted pictures of the crowds of feather-wearing ladies in Regent Street and of the cruelty of the slaughter of the birds, but pointed out that it was men who were the bird-hunters and men who were 66 of the 67 members of Standing Committee C which had on five occasions failed to produce a quorum of 20 members for a discussion of the bill. "The Plumage Bill is for all practical purposes dead. But what do men care?".[1]:257–60

When Viscountess Nancy Astor took her seat in the Commons in December 1919 she took up the cause of the Plumage Bill and a parliamentary group was formed to support it; the bill passed into law on 1 July 1921. Although it forbade the import of plumage it did not control the sale or wearing of it, and Etta Lemon wrote in the RSPB annual report that "It is impossible to say that the Act is a wholly satisfactory one".[1]:261–2

The Act was the subject of debate in the House of Lords in May 1928, when a proposal to amend it had been made,[3] and in the Commons in March 1936, when it was alleged, and disputed, that bird skins were still being smuggled into the country,[4] and on several other occasions.[5]

It was suspended by the Import of Goods (Control) Amendment Order 1954.[6]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Boase, Tessa (2018). Mrs Pankhurst's Purple Feather. Aurum Press. ISBN 978-1-78131-654-2.
  2. ^ Patchett, Merle (2011). "Murderous Millinery". Fashioning Feathers. Retrieved 18 February 2019.
  3. ^ "Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act, 1921, Amendment (no. 2) Bill". Hansard. 8 May 1928. Retrieved 15 February 2019.
  4. ^ "Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act, 1921, Amendment". Hansard. 25 May 1936. Retrieved 19 February 2019.
  5. ^ "Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act 1921 (index of debates and written questions)". Hansard. Retrieved 19 February 2019.
  6. ^ "SI 1954: 627: Importation of Goods (Control) (Amendment) Order 1954" (PDF). HMSO. Retrieved 13 February 2019.