How the flamboyant Victorians hunted birds to the brink of extinction for their fancy hats

FROM a tigerskin rug to a ladies’ fan decorated with a whole stuffed bird, it is fair to say Victorian attitudes to using animals in fashion and furnishings would now seem grotesque to most.

Curator Kitty Ross Abbey with a Himalayan Black Bear cub, that was once part of a Victorian menagerie  Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Curator Kitty Ross Abbey with a Himalayan Black Bear cub, that was once part of a Victorian menagerie Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

A fascinating new exhibition delving into the way Victorians interacted with and sometimes exploited animals, shows many of the same ethical issues resonate today.

A cast of characters, from pet lovers, to lion tamers, colonial hunters, and offal eaters feature in the Curious Creatures exhibition at the Abbey House Museum, in Leeds.

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The fashion for flamboyant, feather-bedecked hats saw birds persecuted in huge numbers on a global scale. In the UK, great crested grebes, attractive birds of lakes and reservoirs, which were shot for their chestnut-brown ear feather tufts, were driven to the brink of extinction.

Curious Creatures Exhibition at the Abbey House Museum, Leeds: Curator Kitty Ross is pictured with a Model Lion in a Cage made by Fred Day of Armley, Leeds late 18th century Picture: Simon Hulme

Seabirds – in particular sea-cliff breeding kittiwakes – were persecuted too.

Not everyone could stomach the industrial scale of the carnage and the era saw the birth of movements such as the RSPB, which was founded as the Plumage League in 1889 by Emily Williamson.

It had two simple rules with members sworn to discourage the “wanton destruction” of birds and banned from wearing bird feathers – with the exception of the ostrich.

The exhibition’s curator, Kitty Ross, said: “Animals were seen as a resource – people were travelling to parts of the world and animals seemed to be everywhere, a resource that wouldn’t diminish.

Curator Kitty Ross with a feather fan decorated with a stuffed bird, from 1860-1880 Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

“It’s only when a fashion takes off and demand outstrips the supply that people realised that whole species were disappearing.

“Some Victorians were aware and it was debated, but not everyone went along with it.

“The RSPCA was also set up in the 1820s and it was mainly concerned initially with the ill-treatment of horses, because everybody had a horse and a lot were being worked to death.

“Because they had a quite a lot of aristocratic patrons, they were more divided on fox hunting.”

Some visitors, she said, have been surprised by the fact vegetarianism is not a modern trend, with a vegetarian cookery book on display from the 1850s, bursting with recipes for carrot marmalade, puddings and fritters, but no carrot cake.

She said: “In Leeds, there was a small percentage of people who were vegetarians but they were prominent people like the suffragette Leonora Cohen.”

Animals also helped to inspire art. Cartoonists of the era enjoyed poking fun at the ludicrous fashions and there is a children’s book showing the illustrations of Louis Wain, which featured anthropomorphized large-eyed cats and kittens. “There was fashion for brightly-coloured cut out images you could put in a scrap book,” said Ms Ross.

When they were setting up the exhibition, which runs until December 31, they didn’t realise its opening would coincide with the new film, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.