The first half of the nineteenth century saw a remarkable explosion of interest in natural history. In order to promote collaboration between the many different organisations and societies in this field already operating in Yorkshire, a special meeting was held at Heckmondwike in September 1861. This established the West Riding Consolidated Naturalists' Union, the forerunner of the Yorkshire Naturalists' Union.
During the 1860s the Victorian obsession with egg collecting and shooting wild animals, particularly birds, reached a peak. The slaughter of sea birds for 'sport' was widespread, but a noted spot was the area of high cliffs at Bempton and Flamborough between Bridlington and Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast. The mass destruction by sea-borne parties from Bridlington was graphically described by Charles Waterton in his Essays on Natural History (1838). There was also commercial exploitation of birds and their feathers for the millinery trade.
In 1868 Professor Alfred Newton, a founder of the British Ornithologists' Union , drew attention to this situation in his address to the British Association. This resulted in much publicity, and the levelling of blame on the people of Bridlington and its environs. This persuaded the Rev Henry Frederick Barnes-Lawrence (1823-1896), who was then vicar of the Priory Church of Bridlington, to call a meeting of local clergy and naturalists to consider ways of stopping the practice. He received strong support from another East Riding clergyman and nationally-known ornithologist, Rev Francis Orpen Morris (1810-1893), the vicar of Nunburnholme.
The meeting led to the formation of the Association for the Protection of Sea-Birds, based in Bridlington. Leading members included Canon HB Tristram, Henry E Dresser and John Cordeaux. They quickly secured the support of some local landowners, the Archbishop of York, and several local Members of Parliament. One of these, Christopher Sykes MP, of Brantingham Thorpe, introduced a Bill into Parliament which had the support of many scientific organisations. In June 1869 this reached the Statute Book as the Sea Birds Preservation Act. This provided protection for 35 species by introducing a close season running annually from 1 April to 1 August. This major success was only partly offset by the fact that eggs were excluded from the legislation, indeed they were not covered until Protection of Birds Act of 1954.
After its early success the Association for the Protection of Sea-Birds was quickly wound up. Other protective Acts of Parliament followed, including the Wild Birds Protection Act of 1880. In 1889 a group of ladies in London formed the Society for the Protection of Birds (later the RSPB) to campaign against the plumage trade. The AGM of the Yorkshire Naturalists' Union held in Scarborough on 14 November 1891 established what later became known as the Protection of Wild Birds' Eggs Committee, several members of which had previously been members of the Association for the Protection of Sea-Birds. The new Committee became the Protection of Birds Committee of the YNU in 1979.
This collection chiefly comprises letters sent to the Rev. HF Barnes-Lawrence in connection with the protection of sea birds between 1868 and 1874.