WE WON’T EAT MEAT!
Was your ancestor a vegetarian?
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.
A MEETING OF MINDS
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.
THE VEGETARIAN CRUSADE
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.
SPREADING THE WORD
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.
VEGETARIANISM IN PRACTICE
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