History of Butterfly Conservation

Learn about the national society from its beginnings in 1967

Note: This history was written in the mid-1990s, and we have chosen not to update it.

On Tuesday evening, 12th September 1967, a handful of people met in a flat in Montague Square, London, and the British Butterfly Conservation Society (BBCS) was conceived. The instigators were Thomas Frankland, Julian Gibbs with Robert and Rosemary Goodden. It was to be based at Over Compton, near Sherborne, the home of Worldwide Butterflies. The BBCS was incorporated on 16th January 1968. Robert designed a logo based on the initials, and within a few weeks Peter Scott agreed to become President. Shortly after this Thomas and Julian relinquished their responsibility for the new-born Society. At this, the BBCS could well have crumbled.

However, Robert was acutely conscious that Peter Scott became President because of their long friendship, and also he was passionately aware of the need for conservation of butterflies. So Robert and Rosemary then ran the Society, sitting up late into the night, typing letters, acknowledging subscriptions, replying to queries. It was a difficult situation and some people questioned the fact that a charitable society was being run alongside a commercial operation. But imagine starting a charity from scratch without premises, telephone or any facilities and staff, so the BBCS had a wonderful start in being able to make use of all of these facilities at Worldwide Butterflies. The first members were all members of Worldwide Butterflies' Mailing List.

Eventually it was decided that, if the Society was to grow, more volunteer help must be found, and News Sheet No. 2, July 1969, listed "Capacities in which the Society needs Help". This appeal brought forth an encouraging number of staunch supporters, without whom the Society would not have moved forward and grown in the amazing way it has. John Tatham brought a great deal of professional advice and expertise, becoming the Hon. Subscriptions Secretary, later Chairman for many years. His efficient and organised records were an immediate benefit to the Society. His wife, Noelle, volunteered secretarial help, Reuben Jackson was the first Treasurer, Jill Harris became the first News Sheet Editor. Margaret Empedocles was an enthusiastic Information Officer, followed by Ancell Newton. Terry Green handled publicity and did years of valuable work for the Society until he retired from the post in recent years. Special help was also given by Brian Higgs and Ken Willmott.

In official circles people were very slow to acknowledge the Society or see its potential, but now some have become actively engaged in the Society's work.

On 1st August 1970, the BBCS put on a special display at Worldwide Butterflies on the occasion of their 10th Anniversary Open Day to mark European Conservation Year, which was launched by the Society's President, Peter Scott. Proceeds from admission collected for the Society amounted to two hundred guineas! (worth several thousand pounds today). Some 2,500 people attended. This was the first public opportunity to promote the BBCS to a large number of keen entomologists and others interested in butterflies.

In October 1972 the BBCS Quarterly News was first issued as a booklet of six pages, a great step forward from the single sheet that had been issued spasmodically up till then. This contained a plea to members: "Now comes the crunch! The Society can really only succeed if all members play a much fuller part in all its activities: the mere fact that you are a member does not ensure the conservation of a single butterfly: without your help and co-operation the Society cannot succeed in its objects....." so wrote the Chairman, John Tatham.

By the late seventies the first Branch had been formed, covering the West Midlands area. This was followed quite soon by the then London Branch; this process of formation of local Branches continued wherever large enough groups of active members came together.

By the late eighties, Butterfly Conservation had grown in stature to the point where significant sponsorships were being obtained. Janssen Pharmaceuticals supported Operation Butterfly and this was follows by significant funding from BP specifically for a membership drive and more importantly for the publication of a comprehensive Education Pack made available free to school teachers; several thousand of these have been distributed. These initiatives were followed by a most important sponsorship from Land Rover, which continues and currently addresses the need to conserve our woodland butterfly species.

Membership rose by 1993 to some 10,000 household subscriptions, representing probably at least double this number of interested supporters. A new logo was designed by Young & Rubicam and Butterfly Conservation appointed its first paid staff, initially to service membership records and carry out administration and accounting (at Dedham); later, professional conservation staff, led by Dr Martin Warren as Head of Conservation were installed in offices near Wareham, Dorset. Funding for these appointments came as a result of support from English Nature and also a most generous endowment of £1 million from a donor who still wishes to remain anonymous.

Following Sir Peter Scott's death, Gordon Beningfield, the internationally-renowned artist, broadcaster and author, accepted the Presidency. Dr Harold Hughes became Chairman following the retirement of John Tatham.

Although the policy remains of working with other landowners to conserve butterflies and moths throughout the countryside, Butterfly Conservation decided to acquire a small number of high value reserves to protect particular species, or as exemplars of particular habitat types. This started with the acquisition of Monkswood near Worcester jointly with the County Trust, followed by major reserves at Catfield Fen in Norfolk, Magdalen Hill Down and Bentley Station Meadow in Hampshire, and at Prestbury Hill near Cheltenham, this last through the generosity of Dr Bill Smyllie. Other reserves were acquired elsewhere, especially in Dorset on Portland with the help of ARC plc.