In the 1840s, the press be­gan re­port­ing on the rise of an odd new movement whose ad­her­ents championed the ben­e­fits of a flesh-free diet. James Gre­gory ex­plores how veg­e­tar­i­an­ism was greeted by a pop­u­la­tion used to munch­ing mut­ton chops, mince­meat and jugg

BBC History Magazine - - Front Page - IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY FEMKE DE JONG

On 30 Septem­ber 1848, the satir­i­cal mag­a­zine Punch re­galed its read­ers with re­ports of a pe­cu­liar new so­ci­ety that had started hold­ing meet­ings across Manch­ester. The so­ci­ety, Punch re­vealed with thinly veiled in­credulity, “de­votes its en­tire en­er­gies to the eat­ing of veg­eta­bles, and the mem­bers meet oc­ca­sion­ally for the pur­pose of mas­ti­cat­ing mashed pota­toes and munch­ing cab­bage-leaves. ‘Sweets to the sweet’ is a pop­u­lar maxim, and ‘greens to the green’ may fairly be ap­plied to the veg­e­tar­i­ans.”

Vic­to­ri­ans were well versed in the Bi­ble, so many would have read how the an­cient Baby­lo­nian king Ne­buchad­nezza ate a diet of grass in­stead of meat. Oth­ers may too have been aware that the ec­cen­tric poet Lord By­ron once at­tempted to lose weight via a ‘veg­etable diet’. Nev­er­the­less, back in 1848, com­par­a­tively few would have heard the term ‘veg­e­tar­ian’. So why did a small but sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of our Vic­to­rian fore­bears choose to ab­stain from eat­ing flesh? And where should we look to find the roots of the veg­e­tar­ian movement? The an­swer lies in the the tar­get of Punch’s faintly mock­ing re­port.

Formed in Septem­ber 1847, the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety was the brain­child of a col­lec­tion of so­cial re­form­ers, phi­lan­thropists and de­vout Chris­tians who sought to woo the pop­u­la­tion away from the “flesh­pots” of meat, just as the tem­per­ance movement had pro­moted ab­sten­tion from al­co­hol.

It was a for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge – af­ter all, many Bri­tons, es­pe­cially those who were too poor to af­ford all but the most mea­gre serv­ings of beef, pork and lamb, sought to eat more meat, not less. But it was a chal­lenge that veg­e­tar­ian ac­tivists at­tacked with gusto, spread­ing the word through the clas­sic Vic­to­rian strate­gies of stag­ing pub­lic meet­ings and at­tempt­ing to win the press around to their cause.

And it worked. The late Vic­to­rian satir­i­cal press and news­pa­pers were fas­ci­nated by the new co­hort of youth­ful clerks, in­tel­lec­tu­als, dieting busi­ness­men and In­dian stu­dents con­verg­ing on the veg­e­tar­ian restau­rants that were pop­ping up across Britain’s big­gest cities. In Au­gust 1851, the Il­lus­trated London News told its read­ers how, at an event at the Freema­sons’ Tav­ern in London, “the veg­e­tar­ian course con­sisted of savoury pies, bread and pars­ley frit­ters, moulded ground rice, blanc­mange, cheese­cakes, and fruit, all of which dishes were con­sumed with an ev­i­dent rel­ish by the com­pany… whose healthy ap­pear­ance be­to­kened the ben­e­fits to be de­rived from the in­no­cent reg­i­men”.

Me­dia cov­er­age wasn’t al­ways so glow­ing, of course. But even dis­mis­sive jibes in the press helped turn the meat-free diet into an ‘ ism’. And if they couldn’t at­tract pos­i­tive cov­er­age, veg­e­tar­ian ac­tivists at­tempted to craft their own, hoping that tracts sent to self-im­prov­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions such as me­chan­ics’ in­sti­tutes, which pro­moted adult ed­u­ca­tion, would en­cour­age wider in­ter­est.

In ad­di­tion, high-pro­file veg­e­tar­i­ans such as the play­wright and Fabian so­cial­ist Ge­orge Bernard Shaw, and Isaac Pit­man of short­hand fame – who ad­dressed the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety’s se­cond an­nual meet­ing, and proudly an­nounced that he hadn’t eaten meat for 11 years – gave the movement some much­needed celebrity en­dorse­ment.

Health con­sid­er­a­tions

Veg­e­tar­i­ans gave up eat­ing flesh for all kinds of rea­sons. Some did so be­cause they be­lieved it con­ferred health ben­e­fits. In 1858, the Veg­e­tar­ian Mes­sen­ger op­ti­misti­cally de­clared that: “No veg­e­tar­ian in this coun­try has ever been at­tacked with cholera.” Oth­ers claimed that veg­e­tar­i­an­ism of­fered pro­tec­tion from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. Veg­e­tar­ian Vic­to­ri­ans opened sev­eral hos­pi­tals, in­clud­ing in­sti­tu­tions for can­cer pa­tients. Some of Britain’s most prom­i­nent anti-vac­ci­na­tion­ists – who op­posed the state-in­flicted ‘pol­lu­tion’ of their fam­i­lies – were veg­e­tar­i­ans in the Vic­to­rian era. Oth­ers re­jected meat out of com­pas­sion, shocked by the cru­elty in cities, where an­i­mals were brought to mar­ket, and where slaugh­ter­houses and butch­ers’ dis­plays of car­casses were un­avoid­able. Early veg­e­tar­i­ans tried, un­suc­cess­fully, to get the RSPCA’s sup­port. “Fling­ing maudlin sen­ti­men­tal­ity to the winds,” they ac­knowl­edged that “killing must be done”, was how one es­say­ist in the mag­a­zine All the Year Round de­scribed the RSPCA’s at­ti­tude in 1876.

Later in the cen­tury, veg­e­tar­i­ans op­posed vivi­sec­tion, and the slaugh­ter of birds and seals for fash­ion­able cloth­ing. They also cam­paigned against cru­elty to peo­ple: the Hu­man­i­tar­ian League’s first gen­eral meet­ing was in a veg­e­tar­ian restau­rant in London.

For some, veg­e­tar­i­an­ism wasn’t a choice, it was a re­li­gious call­ing. This was cer­tainly the case for the Bi­ble Chris­tians, whose leader, Wil­liam Cowherd, had ad­vo­cated re­ject­ing meat on health and hu­man­i­tar­ian grounds as far back as 1809. They re­mained in­flu­en­tial within the veg­e­tar­ian movement for much of the cen­tury. In fact, one of their num­ber, the in­dus­tri­al­ist James Simp­son, was elected the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety’s first pres­i­dent in 1847.

Oth­ers were at­tracted to the diet by po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions, rather than spir­i­tual ones. There was sig­nif­i­cant cross­over be­tween the so­cial re­form movement and meat avoid­ance through­out the 19th cen­tury and be­yond – from the fol­low­ers of the Welsh so­cial­ist Robert Owen right through to the suf­fragettes who con­gre­gated in veg­e­tar­ian restau­rants fol­low­ing their re­lease from prison. Ge­orge Or­well liked to char­ac­terise the veg­e­tar­ian so­cial­ist as nud­ist, be-san­dalled, fruit-juice drink­ing and sex­u­ally un­ortho­dox. It was a stereo­type with a long and colour­ful his­tory.

An­other im­por­tant fac­tor driv­ing the up­take of veg­e­tar­i­an­ism was cost. “How is it pos­si­ble that an agri­cul­tural labourer, earn­ing

nine shillings a week, can pay rent, clothe a fam­ily, and feed them upon flesh?”, wrote one cor­re­spon­dent to the Here­ford Times in 1863, ver­bal­is­ing the belief that veg­e­tar­i­an­ism of­fered a path out of poverty. Through­out the late 19th cen­tury, veg­e­tar­ian pro­pa­gan­dists lec­tured work­ing peo­ple on the eco­nomic ben­e­fits of go­ing meat-free. They also of­fered cheap or free meals through bod­ies such as the Na­tional Food Re­form So­ci­ety and, as was the wont of Vic­to­rian moral­ists, they linked thrift to self-im­prove­ment.

The forge labourer Ge­orge Perkin of Bram­ley ex­em­pli­fied this at­ti­tude, writ­ing in the Veg­e­tar­ian Ad­vo­cate in June 1850: “I now de­vote the money hereto­fore spent on those per­ni­cious things, to the pur­chase of books and oth­er­wise, to­wards the cul­ti­va­tion of my mind, un­til very re­cently much ne­glected.”

But the econ­omy could prove dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory for ad­vo­cates of veg­e­tar­i­an­ism. Crit­ics ar­gued that wage lev­els were de­ter­mined by the stan­dard of liv­ing, and if that stan­dard was ‘cheap­ened’ by a fall in house­hold ex­pen­di­ture on prod­ucts such as meat, then wages would fall too. They also as­soci- ated the veg­e­tar­ian movement’s as­ceti­cism with the puni­tively spare di­ets of­fered in in­sti­tu­tions such as pris­ons and work­houses.

A mer­ci­ful diet

Veg­e­tar­i­ans also ran into re­sis­tance from de­fend­ers of em­pire and mil­i­tary ad­ven­ture, who warned that a meat-free diet robbed peo­ple of stamina and force. They linked meat to viril­ity and racial strength, and were sus­pi­cious of a ‘mer­ci­ful’ diet. The “labourer who toiled in the field, or on the rail­road wanted some­thing bet­ter than cab­bages to keep up his strength”, sug­gested one cor­re­spon­dent to the Brighton Gazette in 1849.

Such re­sis­tance pro­vides one of the many rea­sons why we need to be care­ful about char­ac­ter­is­ing the Vic­to­rian era as a golden age for veg­e­tar­i­an­ism. The num­bers of peo­ple eat­ing meat-free di­ets rose from the low hun­dreds at the start of Vic­to­ria’s reign, to a to­tal, by 1899, of al­most 7,000 mem­bers and as­so­ciates of the Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety and its London-based ri­val. How­ever, vast swathes of the pop­u­la­tion re­mained en­tirely un­moved by the phe­nom­e­non – no more in­clined to give up beef, pork and lamb than they were wa­ter. Com­pared with to­day’s wide­spread, high-pro­file life­style choice, Vic­to­rian veg­e­tar­i­an­ism was dis­tinctly mar­ginal.

For all that, by the end of the 19th cen­tury, veg­e­tar­i­an­ism was mak­ing se­ri­ous waves. Mem­bers of the in­tel­li­gentsia such as phi­lan­thropist John Pass­more Ed­wards and An­nie Be­sant, a fa­mous sup­porter of In­dian na­tion­al­ism, threw their weight be­hind the movement. Man­u­fac­tured sub­sti­tutes such as ‘nut’ meats were on sale in the grow­ing num­ber of veg­e­tar­ian restau­rants and cafes. Ad­vice on how to re­duce meat con­sump­tion and en­ter­tain your meat-avoid­ing friends was now avail­able in a glut of veg­e­tar­ian jour­nals and books – and more main­stream works.

But per­haps the ul­ti­mate en­dorse­ment came with the fact that the 1880 edi­tion of Bee­ton’s House­hold Man­age­ment ded­i­cated an en­tire chap­ter to “veg­e­tar­ian recipes”. No one flick­ing through the pages of the bi­ble of culi­nary guide­books – and read­ing the recipes for fried ba­nanas and cur­ried beans con­tained within – could have been in any doubt that veg­e­tar­i­an­ism was here to stay.

Man­u­fac­tured sub­sti­tutes such as ‘nut’ meats were now on sale in the grow­ing num­ber of veg­e­tar­ian restau­rants and cafes

Veg­e­tar­i­ans op­posed fash­ion featuring slaugh­tered an­i­mals, like this out­fit worn by the ac­tress Amy Roselle in 1887

A 19th-cen­tury butcher’s shop. Many Vic­to­ri­ans – es­pe­cially the poor­est, who could barely af­ford pork, beef and lamb – sought to eat more meat, not less

The ere e was no short­age of culi­nary ad­vi­cei ffor veg­e­tar­i­ans, as these llus­tra­tions from Cas­sell’s C Book of th he House­hold (cc11895) prove

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