History of the Vegetarian Society
The Vegetarian Society is a dynamic and well known organisation, respected around the globe. But what of its origins? How did it come into being? What were the early aspirations of the founding members of the vegetarian society and what kind of people were they? Could they have envisaged the success and appeal that vegetarianism enjoys now in the modern world?
The Vegetarian Society has its roots in the reforming spirit of the great Victorian Age. In the mid 1800s the backdrop of health reform and the rise of philanthropic movements set the scene for the convergence of a number of actively vegetarian groups that came together to form the vegetarian movement. The Industrial Revolution unleashed any number of social problems, and vegetarianism was seen by some as a solution. Historically the idea that the eating of meat was a fundamentally brutalising force was strong and, in an age where social reform was gathering pace, the question of whether abstention from meat might bring order attracted attention.
Historically the idea of abstinence from flesh had always had some currency amongst the educated (see World History) and it idea had appealed, throughout history, to people who questioned the majority view on social and religious issues.
From the turn of the 18th century, many groups in Britain were developing ideas that involved adopting a meat-free diet. The contexts in which these groups sprang up were quite different. One key group involved in the setting up of the Vegetarian Society were the followers of Reverend William Cowherd, known as the Cowherdites.
The Salford connection
Back in 1807, the Reverend William Cowherd, founder of the Bible Christian Church had famously advanced the principle of abstinence from the consumption of flesh to his congregation in Salford, Manchester. His reforming spirit, which encouraged temperance and self-improvement through education, won favour with local people through the practical support he gave them in the form of warm food, medical help, and unusually for the time, free burial. The Rev Cowherd's emphasis on vegetarianism was that it was good for health and that meat eating was unnatural and likely to engender aggression. Later he is reputed to have said '..If God had meant us to eat meat, then it would have come to us in edible form "as is the ripened fruit". William Cowherd died in 1816 but prominent members of his church such as Salford's first MP, Joseph Brotherton, who became a follower and later a preacher in the church, and James Simpson were to become leading lights of The Vegetarian Society. In 1812, Joseph Brotherton's wife Martha published the first vegetarian cookery book.
The second group were the Concordists founded by the merchant and theosopher James Pierrepoint Greaves. He set up a community at Richmond in Surrey in 1838. They were associated with a successful group in the US led by William A Alcott, the grandfather of the author Louisa May Alcott, who wrote A Vegetable Diet Defended. The Concordium were very active promoting vegetarianism by admitting Sunday visitors to their premises and publishing journals The Healthian and The New Age.Though health was undoubtedly part of the reason, the basis of their vegetarianism was asceticim - living as simple and morally accountable a life as possible.
William Horsell had become a vegetarian in 1846. He ran a hydropathic infirmary and published his journal The Truth Tester avowing that vegetarianism was 'the next practical moral subject which is likely to call forth the virtuous energy of society'. In April 1847, a letter printed in his journal from a young teetotaller named William Bramwell Withers called for such a society to be set up.
Coining the term 'vegetarian'
Up until 1847, the word 'vegetarian' was not widely used. The origins of the 'Vegetable Diet' as it was commonly known could be traced to antiquity but had a more tangible historical link to the medical and dietetic figures of the preceding two centuries, such as Dr Cheyne (see World History Renaissance and Enlightenment).
On the 30 September 1847, at a vegetarian hospital called Northwood Villa in Ramsgate, Kent, The Vegetarian Society was born. The name was the result of a unanimously passed resolution. Joseph Brotherton, MP for Salford, presided over the historic meeting at Ramsgate which led to the formation of The Vegetarian Society with 150 members immediately enrolled.
The following year, at the Society's first annual meeting in Manchester, the fledgling organisation boasted 265 members, spanning ages 14-76, with 232 attending the post-AGM dinner. London's vegetarians met in 1849 and decided to organise to spread vegetarianism in the capital further and in September 1849 the journal The Vegetarian Messenger was launched, with almost 5,000 copies circulated each month of this penny publication.
Spreading the message
Shorthand 'guru' Isaac Pitman spoke at the Society's second annual meeting, proudly announcing that he had been vegetarian for 11 years. By the turn of the century, his contribution to the movement was commemorated when the imposing Pitman Vegetarian Hotel opened in Birmingham in 1899. Throughout the 1850s, meetings were held in many major cities and towns including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham and Liverpool. The movement spread to many parts of the country and local branches sprang up from Colchester to Worcester and Paisley.
In 1877 The London Food Reform Society (LFRS) was formed, with Dr T R Allinson (of bakery fame) one of its founder members, a man who abstained from flesh, tobacco and alcohol. The two societies merged in 1885, with the LFRS becoming the London branch of The Vegetarian Society until 1888, when there was a breakaway and the formation of The London Vegetarian Society, with its own publication, 'The Vegetarian' (replaced by 'Vegetarian News' in 1921).
By the late 19th century, Britain could boast two influential vegetarian organisations. Both were to flourish as the nation entered the 20th century. The great Mahatma Gandhi was a member of The London Vegetarian Society, and playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw joined the original society, which was based in Manchester. An associate of Shaw and Ghandhi, Henry Salt played a prominent role in the animal welfare movement and wrote his tract The Logic of Vegetarianism in 1899. Other notable vegetarians of the time included: John Barclay, athlete and Scottish half mile running champion in 1896; Salvation Army's Bramwell Booth; Dr Anna Kingsford, a leading campaigner for women's rights; Mrs Annie Besant of the Theosophical Society; and the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy .