International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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15th World Vegetarian Congress 1957
Delhi/Bombay/Madras/Calcutta, India


VEGETARIANISM - ENGLAND 1888

Kenneth Trueman

1888 was the year of Goshen conversion, but since this was not a conversion to vegetarianism, and merely concerned the National Debt, vegetarians did not seem to be particularly concerned. At the time Lord Salisbury was enjoying a six years' term as Prime Minister after succeeding Mr. Gladstone, and only three or four years previously the agricultural workers had been enfranchised. There are some members of the Society still alive to-day who will remember those days, but those of us to whom the eighties are only an historical decade might be fascinated to delve into them and see them with the eyes of contemporary vegetarians. Fortunately, we may browse on the carefully preserved columns of the "Vegetarian," a twelve-page weekly founded in this year, which provides us not only with inspiration but with a record of the times which may creditably be compared, despite its bias, with other better-known journals of its day.

The first issue of the "Vegetarian," price one penny (post free ), appeared on January 7th, 1888. It was to be -

" ...... as its title suggests, a journal for the proclamation of the Ideal in food and drink. But its scope will not be narrowed down to the mere promulgation of the principles of dietetic reform. It will endeavour to formulate the essential conditions necessary for the attainment of the ideal ; first in the physical and then in the mental, moral and spiritual life."

This was before the London Vegetarian Society became an independent body. It was then the London Auxiliary of the Vegetarian Society, the Headquarters of which, as to-day, was in Manchester. In this very first issue we find current affairs very much to the fore. The future of British Agriculture - a question everyone was asking in the last quarter of the nineteenth century - found its way into the columns of the paper, and no wonder, since corn was down to thirty shillings a quarter, and the great output of the American prairies was pouring into Free Trade Britain. In 1877, the annual consumption of meat per head was 103-lbs., we are told, and in 1885 it was 112-lbs., falling a little the next year to 100-lbs., owing to a general trade depression. 'The percentage imported in 1887 was over 20.per cent and in 1886 it was 25 per cent.- It is interesting to contrast these figures with those of the present day. In 1948-49, the last year for which figures are available, the provisional consumption of meat per head per annum was 69.8-lbs. This compares with 109.6-lbs. before the second world war. Fifty-two par cent of the carcass meat and offal consumed in the United Kingdom during 1949 was imported.

The correspondence columns of the "Vegetarian" are so alive that most of the letters might have been written today. The first letter is from the pen of Professor J. B. Mayor, President, at that time, of the Vegetarian Society. "Verify Quotations!" he begs his readers.

Mr. Jeffery tells us in an article that he is "one who has made the subject (reformed diet) his study" and on the diet he recommends "any man may work as hard as he likes." He has adopted it himself and "am in constant and active employment." Let us see what he takes on Sunday.

Breakfast : Oatmeal porridge, bread and fruit.

Dinner : Haricot beans, tomatoes, tapioca pudding, boiled rice and prunes, apples, pears, nuts and pineapple.

Tea : Wholemeal bread with honey and fruit.

On such a diet as this, Mr. Jeffery claimed, ten persons could live for a week and spend only one pound ten shillings and eight pence between them. Actually, this is not surprising when one looks at prices in those days. Fifty pounds of bread cost four shillings and a pineapple one shilling, celery was one penny per head and seven quarts of milk cost two shillings and four pence. This suggests that to live on such a diet was more than possible. On the other hand we must take into consideration that the average wage of the agricultural labourer of the time was fifteen shillings to eighteen shillings per week. This was no doubt lower on an average than the urban dweller's, but then some had not even this. In the same issue of the "Vegetarian" we find :

"It was a pitiful sight, at South Dock Gates, Poplar, the other morning - three hundred men waiting for work, and ten taken on, Poor two hundred and ninety! - pale, cold, hungry, and Oh! so weary, and you must go back to your bare-walled rooms and tell your famine stricken children again the words they know so well - 'No work to-day ; no work!' Oh! woeful words - no work! but hush your moaning you two hundred and ninety unemployed. I tell you there is no work. Thousands of acres of God's productive soil lie fallow and all untitled to-day. Let the teeming masses, let the wealthy classes, adopt vegetarianism and there is work and wages for you and thrice ten thousand more!"

Cold comfort to the men and their families! Either the author of these words was a genuine revolutionary, or his knowledge of "laissez-faire" economics was severely limited.

But let us turn to the internal progress of the Movement. We find taking place an important meeting of the London Auxiliary. There seemed some concern as to whether the debts of the organization had been fully met, but the Chairman announced amid applause that "with the exception of a few shillings" they had been. So everybody was satisfied and even asked the President, who was resigning, to remain.

To-day, we have in London twelve vegetarian restaurants. In 1888 there were eleven, and not one that then existed is now still in operation.

In the "Elvena" Vegetarian Restaurant, for instance, which we should have found in the City Road ("near the Baracks "), we could have porridge from 9 a.m. and in the "Acorn" Vegetarian Restaurant everything was first class except prices, we were told, while the piece de resistance was the "Bouverie" in Fleet Street where on the second floor we could have a three course Special Dinner for the price of sixpence.

But the social conscience of the "Vegetarian" pleases, while the conditions it uncovered shock. This for instance :-

"Gathered in one room are about thirty girls, very rough and unattractive, stunted and small and pale, with a shock of matted or oiled hair hanging over the forehead that proclaims the factory girl. Hard, joyless and cursed by monotony, are these girls' lives. Up at four and half past every morning, they walk about four miles, in all weathers, to their work, - some to match-making, some to pickling and preserving fruits, etc., and some to jute-working. This last is the worst, because of the dust they inhale. They work from six to six - heavy, bard, wear and tear work ; and then four miles back to their one-room homes ; and for this white slavery receive one shilling per day!"

But there are amusing records of propaganda meetings, of which me find there were many. In later issues of the " Vegetarian," we read :-

(Oct. 13th) " The battle ie begun. Our forces are engaged all along the line; every evening is occupied with one or more meeting ..."

At one of these held in the East End, we read :-

"On Tuesday, 3rd. inst., a t the Old Gravel-lane Mission Hall, there was a well-filled room, and our good friend Mr. Allen, the minister, was able to help our cause as "a friendly neutral," by testifying to the virtues of porridge in his native home, North of the Tweed. The chair was taken by Captain Darley, whose arguments as a sailor were specially acceptable to an audience of dock and river-side workers."

By this time, a permanent feature of the "Vegetarian" had become "Health in the Household."

Dr. Nichols ran this page and judging by his replies to some of the correspondents with their almost comic nom de Plumes, the original letters must have been really absorbing. "A moderate degree of plumpness and rotundity," our medical adviser writes, "may be attractive in what we call 'the fair sex,' but too much may be inconvenient and even dangerous. His too gracious Majesty, the fourth George, described his beau ideal of a woman as "fat, fair and forty." This was in reply to one who signed herself "Fatty." To "Ignoramus" Dr. Nichols confesses himself astounded. "How one can be an ignoramus after reading my books is a puzzle" - and me are convinced of his genuine surprise. To "Susan" he is most emphatic and says - and one is just a little intrigued by the possibilities - "No! Decidedly no! A thousand times no! I am not cruel. Save yourself and those you love, if you can; but do not violate nature." In the same column of the same issue, however, we find almost a light relief from that tinge of the tragic: "I have never heard that stewed pears and oranges caused illness," he seriously tells his correspondent.

Then, in the issue of March 24th, came a big event - the issuing of the prospectus for the "Charing Cross Vegetarian Hotel and Restaurant Co., Ltd." - ten thousand pounds worth of shares were to be issued and :-

"The Company has been formed for the purpose of leasing the premises situate at 40, Strand and with entrance 28, Buckinghain Street, for the conversion, of the same into a first class Vegetarian Hotel and Restaurant, to be constructed on strictly Temperance lines."

The Basement would provide popular sixpenny three course Dinners and seat about one hundred persons. It was also fitted with a Bar. On the first floor was a splendid Dining-room where A la carte meals were to be obtained. The premises contained hot and cold baths.

One of the most frequently used grounds for the adoption of a vegetarian diet was for reasons of domestic economy, and various individuals would quote their own expenditure. The cleric, for instance, with an income of thirty pounds and a further income of the same amount from private sources, found the only way to make ends meet was by adopting Vegetarianism (pulses, cereals, vegetables, eggs and milk).

In the issue of April 21st, came the report of the formation of the London Vegetarian Society, which, owing to the refusal of the parent Society's Executive Committee to sanction a broadening of the agreement between that Society and the London Auxiliary and mainly on the issue of publishing separate literature, decided in a resolution to abandon the relationship. "The Vegetarian," however, remained an independent journal.

After this event, the movement continued its powerful way and perhaps the most interesting propaganda meetings (if such they can be called) were the Debates held in the Oxford and Cambridge Unions. The motion before Oxford was :-

"That Vegetarianism represents the Ideal in food and drink and provides a remedy for the majority of social diseases."

It was lost by thirteen votes. A similar motion, differing slightly in wording, was defeated at Cambridge by thirty-five votes. Space forbids the quotation of the "Vegetarian's" report of these proceedings, but readers may be assured they were vigorous.

This article has not done justice to the spirit of those pioneers who conducted, no doubt at some considerable self-sacrifice, a propaganda effort on behalf of Vegetarianism that today is only found by comparison in the political parties, but if we look into the social history of the time we find that it was the era of general tub-thumping. It is true that militant trade unionism had died down a little compared with the 1830's and that Chartism was long dead, but the Social Democratic Federation was abroad, and G.B.S. had been haranguing crowds for many years. In the year 1888 subscriptions and donations to the Society amounted to one thousand and thirty six pounds, more than the L.V.S. collected in 1949 and probably more than it will collect in 1950, and it is not necessary to draw attention to the purchasing power of money to-day.

Times have changed, however, and since the spirit cannot be detached from the times, it seems futile to cherish vain hopes that the spirit of those days will return, The spirit of the movement to-day is expressed differently, perhaps because a change in the spirit of society itself has come about, but if we do not like the changes the age has produced, let us at least have the historical perspective to believe that movements tend to progress in spirals.