Was your ances­tor a veg­e­tar­ian?

Your Family History - - Front Page - Michelle Higgs is a free­lance writer and au­thor spe­cial­is­ing in so­cial his­tory and fam­ily his­tory

Nowa­days, no-one bats an eye­lid if you’re a veg­e­tar­ian. There are meat-free al­ter­na­tive foods in the su­per­mar­kets; syn­thetic ver­sions of leather for shoes and bags; and veg­e­tar­ian op­tions in ev­ery restau­rant and café. Back in the 19th cen­tury, veg­e­tar­i­an­ism was very much an un­con­ven­tional life­style, per­ceived as a fad and ridiculed in the press as just another ex­am­ple of ‘antiev­ery­thing-ism’. For many Vic­to­ri­ans, be­ing veg­e­tar­ian was an ex­ten­sion of their re­li­gious faith, which was of­ten non- con­form­ist. It could be de­scribed as a pu­ri­tan­i­cal way of life and they were al­most evan­gel­i­cal in their ef­forts to con­vert meat-- eaters to the their cause. They also cam­paigned on a va­ri­ety of other is­sues in­clud­ing tem­per­ance and tee­to­tal­ism, hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism, health and an­i­mal cru­elty be­cause their veg­e­tar­i­an­ismi was part of a con­cern about the wider world.

Although veg­e­tar­i­an­ism was prac­tised by our an­cient an­ces­tors, the Bri­tish veg­e­tar­ian move­ment was not ac­tive un­til the 19th cen­tury. When the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety was founded in 1847, its mem­bers com­prised three dis­tinct groups: the Bi­ble Chris­tians or ‘Cowherdites’, based in Manch­ester and Sal­ford, who did not eat meat but did con­sume dairy foods; mem­bers of a com­mu­nity in Rich­mond,

Sur­rey called the 'Con­cordium', or Al­cott House, who ate only plants; and a group of ad­vanced tee­to­tallers who were sym­pa­thetic to the veg­e­tar­ian cause. The 'Cowherdites' were fol­low­ers of Rev­erend Wil­liam Cowherd, who had es­tab­lished the Bi­ble Chris­tian Church in Sal­ford in 1809 af­ter break­ing away from the Swe­den­bor­gian New Church. Cowherd in­sisted that his con­gre­ga­tion stop eat­ing meat and drink­ing al­co­hol be­cause he be­lieved that God was in­side ev­ery liv­ing crea­ture, so to eat meat was sin­ful. In ad­di­tion, it pre­vented in­di­vid­u­als from re­ceiv­ing heav­enly love and wis­dom in the soul. There was also an an­cient be­lief that to slaugh­ter an­i­mals bru­talised hu­man be­ings, and that eat­ing meat made peo­ple ag­gres­sive. For Cowherd's largely work­ing-class fol­low­ers, giv­ing up meat would have been no great sac­ri­fice as it was ex­pen­sive and they could rarely af­ford it. In re­turn, Cowherd pro­vided free vegetable soup, ac­cess to med­i­cal help, a free burial ground and a lend­ing li­brary. Af­ter he died in 1816, Joseph Brother­ton took over as min­is­ter of the chapel and later be­came a founder mem­ber of the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety; he was also the first MP for Sal­ford. James Simp­son, a phi­lan­thropist and re­former, was another sig­nif­i­cant mem­ber of the con­gre­ga­tion. The Al­cott House Academy, also known as the Con­cordium, was founded in 1838 by James Pier­re­pont Greaves, a mer­chant,

so­cial­ist and ed­u­ca­tional re­former. Greaves died in 1842 but his utopian spir­i­tual com­mu­nity and school lasted for a decade. It of­fered an aus­tere, sim­ple life with veg­e­tar­i­an­ism at its core. The diet con­sisted mainly of oatmeal, por­ridge, bread, veg­eta­bles, fruit and wa­ter, with a gar­den to pro­mote self-suf­fi­cient liv­ing. The Con­cordium was open to the pub­lic, and Sun­day lec­tures were given. Pam­phlets, tracts and two jour­nals called The Health­ian and The New Age were also pro­duced.

Af­ter six is­sues, the ti­tle of The New Age was changed to The New Age, Con­cordium Gazette and Tem­per­ance Ad­vo­cate to re­flect the in­creas­ing num­ber of read­ers who sup­ported tem­per­ance or were ad­vanced tee­to­tallers. With sim­i­lar ideals, they were a nat­u­ral group to link with vegetarians. Wil­liam Horsell, a tee­to­taller and early ad­vo­cate of hy­dropa­thy, had be­come a veg­e­tar­ian while re­search­ing his book Hy­dropa­thy for the Peo­ple (1845). Af­ter set­tling in Rams­gate, he and his wife took on the man­age­ment of a ‘Hy­dro-Veg­e­tar­ian Es­tab­lish­ment’ at North­wood Villa. Horsell pub­lished nu­mer­ous jour­nals pro­mot­ing veg­e­tar­i­an­ism and tee­to­tal­ism, in­clud­ing The Truth-Tester. He de­scribed veg­e­tar­i­an­ism as ‘the next prac­ti­cal moral sub­ject which is likely to call forth the vir­tu­ous en­ergy of so­ci­ety’ and ad­vo­cated an ‘ad­vanced’ veg­e­tar­ian diet which was es­sen­tially ve­gan, although the word was not gen­er­ally used un­til 1944.


In April 1847, Horsell printed a letter in The Truth-Tester from a young tee­to­taller who sug­gested that a ‘Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety’ be formed. The idea was dis­cussed at a ‘phys­i­o­log­i­cal con­fer­ence’ at Al­cott House in July, with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Con­cordium (Wil­liam Oldham), the Cowherdites ( James Simp­son) and the tee­to­tallers ( Wil­liam Horsell). There was a fur­ther meet­ing at North­wood Villa in Septem­ber, where the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety was for­mally es­tab­lished. Simp­son be­came the So­ci­ety’s first Pres­i­dent, while Horsell was ap­pointed Sec­re­tary and Oldham was the Trea­surer.

On foun­da­tion, the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety en­rolled 150 mem­bers; the fol­low­ing year, there were 265 aged be­tween 14 and 76. Around half were from Cowherdite fam­i­lies. By 1853, mem­ber­ship to­talled 889, and over half were trades­men, me­chan­ics and labour­ers.

The idea of self-help for the work­ing- and lower mid­dle classes went hand-in-hand with veg­e­tar­i­an­ism. How­ever, con­vert­ing man­ual work­ers was dif­fi­cult be­cause of their

Any diet that avoided the con­sump­tion of bad meat was at­trac­tive

in­her­ent be­lief that a mixed diet, in­clud­ing an­i­mal foods, was best for op­ti­mum en­ergy. The high price of meat meant the poorer classes were veg­e­tar­ian through poverty, not choice.


There were three main ar­gu­ments put for­ward to pro­mote veg­e­tar­i­an­ism: econ­omy, health and an­i­mal wel­fare. The cheap­ness of the vegetable diet ap­pealed par­tic­u­larly to the work­ing and lower mid­dle classes, and Dr Thomas Low Ni­chols’ pam­phlet, How to Live on Six­pence a Day (1871), ex­plained how in­ex­pen­sive veg­e­tar­ian meals could be. Dur­ing times of eco­nomic de­pres­sion, it was al­ways eas­ier to drum up in­ter­est in veg­e­tar­i­an­ism.

One stum­bling block for the Vic­to­rian vegetarians was the lack of en­dorse­ments for the vegetable diet from con­ven­tional doc­tors. The med­i­cal pro­fes­sion be­lieved that cut­ting out meat al­to­gether was pos­i­tively harm­ful, and they rou­tinely pre­scribed beef-tea to build pa­tients up af­ter an ill­ness. Nev­er­the­less, the good health and (of­ten) long lives of so­ci­ety mem­bers was reg­u­larly quoted in veg­e­tar­ian jour­nals. In 1851, of the 606 mem­bers of the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety, 202 had given up meat for a decade, 159 for 20 years, 94 for 30 years, 29 for 40 years and 88 for their whole lives.

The food scan­dals of the 19th cen­tury were grist to the mill for vegetarians. Any diet that avoided the con­sump­tion of bad meat was at­trac­tive, es­pe­cially af­ter it was proved that tu­ber­cu­lo­sis could be con­tracted by eat­ing dis­eased flesh. Hav­ing said this, the ma­jor­ity of Vic­to­rian food was adul­ter­ated with poi­sons or other sub­stances, in­clud­ing the bread that vegetarians ate in large quan­ti­ties.

Many peo­ple ab­stained from meat af­ter a pe­riod of ill-health and dis­cov­ered their over­all con­di­tion im­proved. Ernest Bell, later a Pres­i­dent of the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety, be­came a veg­e­tar­ian in 1874 in his early 20s. 50 years later, he re­called he had suf­fered with rheuma­tism and headaches ‘so much so that for six­teen months at one time I was un­able to con­tinue my stud­ies’. Since adopt­ing a non-flesh diet, he had been free of colds, coughs and aches of any kind, with just one se­ri­ous ill­ness - from which he quickly re­cov­ered.

The an­i­mal wel­fare ar­gu­ment, which many Vic­to­rian crit­ics called sen­ti­men­tal, was per­haps the strongest. Vegetarians ob­jected to cat­tle and claimed that his cus­tomers came ‘for cheap­ness and a Change’.

Some veg­e­tar­ian restau­rants were run by non-vegetarians and had du­bi­ous rep­u­ta­tions for poor qual­ity food. How­ever, for women in par­tic­u­lar, they of­fered a safe place to eat out, ei­ther when din­ing alone or with friends. The St Ge­orge in London even had a ladies’ chess club.

For the veg­e­tar­ian move­ment, the new restau­rants were im­por­tant be­cause they were pop­u­lar and they of­fered a daily re­minder to passers-by of a vi­able al­ter­na­tive to meat.

sheep be­ing herded into towns and cities be­fore suf­fer­ing slow and painful deaths in un­hy­gienic slaugh­ter­houses. As one mem­ber of the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety ex­plained: ‘The sys­tem of the slaugh­ter-house must nec­es­sar­ily cause much cru­elty and bru­tal­ity, and if the flesh- eater once re­flects on the suf­fer­ings of the an­i­mals which fur­nish his repast the plea­sures of his ta­ble must surely be griev­ously di­min­ished.’ This con­cern for an­i­mal rights was ex­tended to cam­paigns against vivi­sec­tion and the hor­rors of cat­tle ships, trans­port­ing live an­i­mals on transat­lantic routes.


The ob­jec­tives of the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety were ‘to in­duce habits of Ab­sti­nence from the Flesh of An­i­mals as Food, by the dis­sem­i­na­tion of in­for­ma­tion upon the sub­ject, by means of Tracts, Es­says, and Lec­tures, prov­ing the many ad­van­tages of a Phys­i­cal, In­tel­lec­tual and Moral Char­ac­ter, re­sult­ing from Veg­e­tar­ian Habits of Diet; and thus, to se­cure through the As­so­ci­a­tion, Ex­am­ple, and Ef­forts of its Mem­bers, the adop­tion of a Prin­ci­ple which will tend es­sen­tially, to True Civil­i­sa­tion, to Uni­ver­sal Broth­er­hood, and to the In­crease of Hu­man Hap­pi­ness, gen­er­ally.’ Any­one want­ing to join had to sign a dec­la­ra­tion stat­ing they had ab­stained ‘from the Flesh of An­i­mals as Food’ for one month or more.

Mem­bers of the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety pro­moted veg­e­tar­i­an­ism by hold­ing meet­ings and lec­tures, dis­tribut­ing tracts and jour­nals, and send­ing no­tices to the press. The move­ment was most ac­tive in the in­dus­trial north of Eng­land, the Mid­lands and London. To boost mem­ber­ship, 19 as­so­ci­a­tions with lo­cal sec­re­taries in var­i­ous English towns were es­tab­lished; their suc­cess de­pended on the zeal of the vol­un­teer ac­tivists. In Scot­land, there were as­so­ci­a­tions in Glas­gow, Ed­in­burgh, Pais­ley and Thorn­liebank, but in Ire­land and Wales, lit­tle progress was made.

Af­ter James Simp­son’s death in 1859, the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety al­most closed due to lack of funds, and mem­ber­ship num­bers dwin­dled; there were only 125 mem­bers in 1870. In 1874, an ‘as­so­ciate’ grade of mem­ber­ship was in­tro­duced for those who were sym­pa­thetic to the cause but could not com­mit fully. By 1899, there were 3972 full mem­bers and 1823 as­so­ci­ates. It’s im­pos­si­ble to know how many vegetarians there were in Bri­tain at this time be­cause not ev­ery­one joined the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety or was even aware of it, nor were oc­ca­sional vegetarians counted any­where.

From the 1870s, the vegetarians linked with tem­per­ance groups to set up food re­form so­ci­eties across the UK to ed­u­cate the work­ing classes about cheap, nu­tri­tious meals; these or­gan­i­sa­tions had a broader ap­peal than the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety and there were groups across the coun­try, in­clud­ing Wales and Ire­land. In 1888, the more rad­i­cal London Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety was es­tab­lished, com­pletely sep­a­rate from the orig­i­nal Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety in Manch­ester. Both so­ci­eties flour­ished into the twen­ti­eth cen­tury and con­tin­ued to spread the gospel of veg­e­tar­i­an­ism.


Like most un­con­ven­tional life­styles, veg­e­tar­i­an­ism was lam­pooned in the press. A fa­mous car­toon by John Leech in Punch (1852) de­picted a ‘Grand Show of Prize Vegetarians’ with the hu­mans turned into veg­eta­bles. Charles Walker, a Lo­cal Sec­re­tary for the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety in Worces­ter, wrote about the car­toon in his di­ary (tran­scribed and edited by Jean Day at http://home­pages.which.net/~j.day/WALKER.htm). He called it a ‘clever sketch’, say­ing ‘a true cause is too hearty not to laugh with those who laugh at it’.

One chal­lenge vegetarians faced was per­suad­ing peo­ple that a meat-free diet was not un­pleas­ant or mo­not­o­nous. To do this, they held reg­u­lar pub­lic ban­quets to show­case veg­e­tar­ian food. At one event in 1848, the savoury dishes were based around onions, pars­ley, beet­root and mushrooms, while the desserts in­cluded flum­mery, cus­tards, plum pud­ding, nuts, dried fruits and cheese­cakes.

By the 1880s, the health ben­e­fits of veg­eta­bles were be­com­ing more widely un­der­stood. Veg­e­tar­ian recipes started to ap­pear in

main­stream cook­ery books, in­clud­ing Mrs Bee­ton’s (from at least 1888). The stan­dard fare at veg­e­tar­ian restau­rants in­cluded dishes such as lentil cut­lets and green peas; mac­a­roni and tomato omelette; savoury pie and pars­ley sauce; plus nu­mer­ous sweet pud­dings, pas­tries and stewed fruits.

Many sec­tions of the press had sym­pa­thies with veg­e­tar­i­an­ism, par­tic­u­larly in its goal of im­prov­ing work­ing- class di­ets. The Pall Mall Gazette com­mented in 1885: ‘With so much good work be­fore it, all it needs is to put it­self on the side of com­mon sense by mod­er­ate pro­fes­sions and great prac­ti­cal ac­tiv­ity, and to es­chew the large prom­ises and ster­ile self­im­por­tance which are char­ac­ter­is­tic of the panacea-mon­ger.’

By 1900, Bri­tish pi­o­neer vegetarians were part of a strong in­ter­na­tional move­ment with so­ci­eties in the USA, Europe, Aus­tralia and In­dia, paving the way for fu­ture growth. To­day, an es­ti­mated 1.2 mil­lion peo­ple in Bri­tain are veg­e­tar­ian.

Their suc­cess de­pended on the zeal of the vol­un­teer ac­tivists – in Ire­land and Wales, lit­tle progress was made

John Leech’s 1852 Punch car­toon, A Grand Show of Prize Vegetarians

A Punch car­toon about veg­e­tar­i­an­ism

Above & left: Pi­o­neers of veg­e­tar­i­an­ism from the mid19th cen­tury

Be­low: A map of London’s veg­e­tar­ian restau­rants in the 1890s

A se­lec­tion ofveg­e­tar­ian mag­a­zines from the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury

A veg­e­tar­ian din­ner at the Hol­born Restau­rant in 1897

Anna Kings­ford, née Bonus (1846–1888), was a veg­e­tar­ian and an­ti­vivi­sec­tion cam­paigner

Veg­e­tar­ian cy­cling and rambling clubs meet­ing in 1892 Top: Ge­orge Bernard Shaw in 1900 – in 1901 he said ‘I was a can­ni­bal for twenty-five years. For the rest I have been a veg­e­tar­ian’ Bot­tom: A statue of Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety founder Joseph Brother­ton in Manch­ester

A Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety an­nual from 1885 – the so­ci­ety was founded in 1847

The Veg­e­tar­ian Mes­sen­ger was pub­lished in Manch­ester

A late 19th cen­tury car­toon show­ing a Christ­mas Tur­key seek­ing re­venge

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