International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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6th European Vegetarian Congress
Bussolengo, Italy, September 21 - 26, 1997

150 Years of Vegetarianism

Maxwell G. Lee
IVU General Secretary 1979-1996 and present Deputy President of the IVU

I've given time, money and everything else I can think of to vegetarianism, and now we come to a Congress where we give our blood to join the common cause! What I'm going to speak about is the way in which modern vegetarianism has developed, particularly in Britain because we are very proud of the fact that we set up the very first vegetarian society in the world.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries there was growing interest in health problems and the treatment of animals. Because of the industrial revolution taking place in Britain at that time large numbers of factories were being developed with appalling living conditions. The workers in these factories, children among them, had an extremely poor diet. Some people responded to this problem by taking a closer look at health, the environment, and animals. This movement was very much centered on the Manchester area. There was a church in the town next to Manchester called the Bible Christian Church, whose minister, William Cowherd, converted his congregation to vegetarianism. Gradually the interest grew in the vegetarian movement; in fact, around the year 1817 some of the congregation of this church actually went out to live in the United States, where they chose Philadelphia and set up a vegetarian group there which some consider to be the start of the American vegetarian movement. The interest in Britain then spread beyond the Manchester area to other parts of the country where people began to think about developing health resorts. In Ramsgate, Kent, there was, in fact, a health resort very much like a hospital. A group of vegetarians organized a meeting there on 30 September 1847. At that meeting they formed the Vegetarian Society, and James Simpson became its first president. Joseph Bratherton, a Member of Parliament, was an ardent vegetarian, and his wife in 1810 produced what we think is the first vegetarian cookery book in the world. In 1848 they held the first Annual General Meeting of the Society in Manchester. From 1849 onwards we published a magazine, which was quite something because, as far as I know, there were no other vegetarian societies at that time. Mrs Annie Bessant became particularly well known as a leading member of the Theosophical Society, but ladies at this Congress will be pleased to hear that she was also a very keen advocate of women's rights and emancipation. In 1880 the Vegetarian Cycling and Athletics Club was set up, a group of people who aimed to show that vegetarians could equal meateaters in their sporting performances. This club is still in existence today, and its members have won many trophies with their marvellous performances down the years. They have a vast collection of cups and have beaten all sorts of records. The big thing of course is not the performances themselves but the evidence that vegetarians can equal or outshine meateaters. In the 1890s the young George Bernard Shaw was an active member of the Vegetarian Society.

Around 1890 there was a split between those running the Vegetarian Society in Manchester and members in London who believed that the headquarters of the Society should be moved to the capital. Consequently the vegetarian group in London broke away from the Vegetarian Society in Manchester, and developed into what became known as the London Vegetarian Society, also a national society. So we then had two separate vegetarian societies producing two separate magazines and each going their own way.

Mrs Leonora Cohen was a famous vegetarian. She went to live in a rest home for elderly vegetarians in North Wales, which is where she lived until her death at the age of 100. In 1935 in the Liverpool area a completely vegetarian children's home was opened.

The IVU started at a meeting in Chicago in 1894, but it officially came into being in 1908 when the first IVU Congress was held in Germany. In 1947 the first World Vegetarian Congress was held at Stonehouse in Gloucestershire, England.

At that time we used to go on holidays together. Our Young Vegetarian movement was described as a "marriage bureau" because so many people met their life partners at these events. In 1957 there was a congress held near Lake Constance, organized by a German society. The main groups were from Holland and Germany. The holiday was a great success. Just after that, in 1962, a friend and I organized another camp near London which attracted over 200 young vegetarians from all over Europe. Another aspect of our developing activity was the decision to run a cookery course; our courses steadily gained in popularity. The courses were originally run by enthusiastic amateurs who volunteered.

As time went by we realised it was ridiculous to have two vegetarian societies, one based in Manchester, and the other in London. Eventually the two merged to form the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom (VSUK).

As I said earlier, there were homes for elderly vegetarians, where people could go and live and be catered for - lunch was provided every day. Subsequently three other homes were opened. Now their number is decreasing because it has become so easy for people to get vegetarian food that special homes are no longer needed.

In London there was, and still is, an annual institution called the Smithfield Show, where farmers used to bring their best animals. They were groomed, examined, judged, awards were made, and at the end they were killed and their meat judged. We found this totally objectionable and obnoxious, and so started our traditional protest against it. We used to hold a parade in London, where we dressed people up to represent animal slaughter by covering their aprons and banners with blood. Normally we had hundreds of people parading through London to the Smithfield Show where we presented funeral-type wreaths. An annual protest still takes place every year.

We also had a beauty competition. We introduced this because it was good publicity for vegetarianism.

Another World Congress took place in 1971 in Holland. At that time we were distributing our magazine, "The Vegetarian", free of charge at health shops, printing 50,000 copies a month. We finally decided to stop free distribution, so that people had to pay as for any other magazine.

A lady called Sarah Brown started a professional cookery school where people paid to learn vegetarian cookery. She was our first professional tutor. She became famous, was often on television, wrote books, made a fortune, and finally left us to set up her own cookery school.

Paul and Linda McCartney were made patrons of the Vegetarian Society.

We also started the National Vegetarian Week, with a one-day fair in Manchester where various foods and other items are sold. We cooperate with major vegetarian food manufacturers, and give our approval for products to carry our licensed "V" symbol only if they meet our strict criteria. We have also recently had an event aimed at promoting cooperation with Parliament. I would especially mention Steve Conner, who is in charge of campaigning, and Tony Banks, a Labour Member of Parliament and vegetarian, who has just been appointed Sports Minister. We are actively working to get the government to become more vegetarianism-orientated.

This is how modern vegetarianism has developed so far in Britain, and 150 years of our activities are being celebrated this year. The week after the Congress is "our" week, devoted to the 150 years of the Vegetarian Society. It's very exciting to be a vegetarian in Britain now, because vegetarian food is available everywhere and we are no longer regarded as cranks. In fact, when I was young, people used to say to me, "You must be a crank, you must be a bit weird to become a vegetarian." Now such a person is mainstream and accepted as a normal individual. Once again I stress that, in schools, hospitals, prisons, army barracks, wherever you go, you can get vegetarian food. So we're now looking forward to another 50 years: we're looking forward to a vegetarian Britain.

- translations by Hugh Rees, Milan - commissioned by Associazione Vegetariana Italiana (AVI)