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England: 19th Century
Roots of vegetarianism

Talk to the Salford Local History Society

(c) Derek Antrobus, 1998

Banish from your mind any image you may have of an industrial, murky, smog-bound Salford. Imagine it as a small, suburban settlement nestling in the bend of the River Irwell opposite Manchester Cathedral. Imagine a rural aspect, a place of market gardens, orchards and elegant streets. Such was Salford before its transformation by the industrial revolution.

Now imagine on a chill January morning in 1809. Crowds in their Sunday best are making their way past the Cathedral (then the Collegiate Church), past the chapel of Sacred Trinity, past the Wesleyan Sunday Schools to the pretty Swedenborgian chapel sandwiched between King Street and Queen Street, off Gravel Lane.

I think it's fair to talk of crowds because the attraction was the area's most charismatic preacher who didn't just talk of the word of God but of the Rights of Man, of democracy and liberty. The working classes and small traders of Salford and Manchester adored him.

On this occasion especially, there would be a buzz of expectation among the congregation as they sat on the green baize of the white-painted pews. The rumour had gone around that something important, new and exciting was to be said.

The service progresses. Then the preacher rises for his sermon. A bull-necked, powerfully built man makes his way to the pulpit – and the pulpit isn't tucked away in some corner of the church but there, in the centre, above the altar. The text was Genesis 9.3: "And God said, Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you: even as the green herb I have given you all things, but the flesh, with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat." Thus the Rev William Cowherd began a sermon which instructed his congregation to abstain from meat.

We cannot know what he said but he would certainly have argued that a vegetarian diet was good for health for he was profoundly influenced by Dr George Cheyne (1671-1743) the foremost exponent of this view.

He would surely have also argued that a vegetarian diet would make its adherents of a less aggressive disposition for he is reported as noting on a later occasion "All the mildly disposed animals eat vegetables, while the savages of the forest are universally carnivorous." Meat-eating, he would say, was unnatural. If God had meant us to eat meat, then it would have come to us in edible form "as is the ripened fruit".

But his underlying argument would have been that all life had within it a spark of the divine, everything was related in a great kinship of nature. A poem he publishes the following year (1810) puts it:

Hold, daring man! thy hand restrain -
God is the life in all;
To smite at God, when flesh is slain -
Can crime like this be small?

In other words, to destroy any living thing was to destroy a little bit of God. The sermon had both immediate and lasting effects. It precipitated a split between Cowherd and the Swedenborgian leadership who regarded vegetarianism as "a pernicious doctrine". By the summer Cowherd had established the Bible Christian Church which consisted of his own and three other congregations. It was the first modern institution established to advocate vegetarianism. But, though small, its influence grew and a generation later its members formed the nucleus of the Vegetarian Society both in Britain and America.

There are three key questions that I want to address. Firstly, where did Cowherd get his ideas from? Secondly, why were those ideas so successful and influential in this place, in Salford, at that time? And, thirdly, what did they lead to?

Where did his ideas come from? The idea of vegetarianism stretches back at least to Pythagoras who lived some 2,600 years ago. Pythagoras believed that the soul was immortal and inhabited someone else's body after death. The soul itself was a spark of the divine, literally a bit of god. It followed that all life was related and all life was sacred. That idea not only led to vegetarianism but also to political ideas about human society: egalitarian, democratic, individualistic, libertarian ideas. These were radical, even revolutionary ideas. They were seen as subversive both to state and church. And in the early Christian era they were driven underground.

The Church and the Roman state suppressed Pythagorean, later revived as Neo-platonist ideas, and the philosophy of Aristotle and the Stoics became the dominant world view. They saw nature in general and animals in particular as existing for the sole purpose of being exploited by humans.This philosophy chimed in with the idea that there was a natural order of things - an idea justifying imperial power and later the Divine Right of Kings. It also supported the Church's claim to stand between God and the people.

The Reformation liberated much of Western Europe from ecclesiastical dogma and Pythagorean ideas enjoyed a new popularity as people experimented with previously heretical doctrines. A key figure here is the German mystic Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) whose work embodied the Pythagorean ideals of the kinship and sanctity of all life. Boehme influenced many of the more radical sectarians who emerged during the Cromwellian protectorate, including Thomas Tryon (1634-1703), the earliest English vegetarian propagandist. A generation later, Boehme’s main disciple was to be William Law (1688-1743), the foremost theologian of the period.

Law was a friend and contemporary of George Cheyne, the vegetarian doctor whose work so impressed Cowherd, and of John Byrom (1691-1763) who was the link between between these nature-loving mystics and Salford. Byrom is, of course, remembered as one of Salford's most famous sons. His family home was Kersal Cell. He was famous as a poet, author of the hymn Christians Awake! and best known in his own days as inventor of a system of shorthand.

It may be that he developed the shorthand as a secret language to communicate with others who shared his mystical views – views which could have been interpreted by the authorities as dabbling in magic. He was certainly a member of secret societies. He may have become attracted to mysticism while studying theology at Cambridge.

But I think this was his natural leaning. There is a wonderful story of Byrom as a boy going out into the Irwell valley and shouting out Latin verse at the top of his voice. The poetry of such a moment suggests a soul enraptured by the beauty of nature.

Byrom's behaviour was unconventional. But, I suppose, he and his friends were the hippies of their day. Byrom was a vegetarian. William Law may have been. He ate only a bowl of raisins for his evening meal, he'd go around freeing birds from their cages, and lived in what can only be described as a commune with a few followers.
Byrom and other followers of Law were attracted to the teachings of a Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg who developed theories about the kinship of nature. He believed that the whole universe was related. The link was love. You see the point I make about hippies?

Byrom's beliefs were shared by his friends and relations in Salford and Manchester. In particular his closest friend, John Clayton, and cousin, Joseph Clowes, were fellow spirits. John Clayton (1709-73) was the vicar of Sacred Trinity and ran Salford's grammar school St Cyprian's. Known as the first Methodist in Salford, he often hosted visits by John Wesley who had been his contemporary and friend at Oxford where they both studied. (Wesley, incidentally, was also a vegetarian on the advice of his doctor - Dr Cheyne again!). Joseph Clowes was a barrister who lived in Ridgefield (off the present-day John Dalton Street). He shared lodgings with Byrom in London and they worshipped together in Manchester. All three were Jacobites and their political stance was linked to their religious attitudes.

They were Jacobites because they did not accept the settlement of 1688 in which James II was ousted in the Glorious Revolution. They believed the oath of allegiance sworn to James Stuart was irrevocable even though they might have disagreed with James's politics. They sympathised with the Church hierarchy which had been expelled for taking this view. Their Church had been turned from a guardian of spirituality into an instrument of state. No wonder they sought solace in mystical writers and supported the evangelical revival. The Established Church had failed them and they felt free to experiment with new religious ideas. But it was left to the sons of John Byrom and Joseph Clowes to give those ideas, ideas about the kinship of nature taken from William Law and Emmanuel Swedenborg, their full force.

When John Byrom died his son, Edward, built St John's Church, Castlefield, as a memorial. Edward (1724-73) was one of Manchester's wealthiest men and was partner in its first bank. The site of the church, which was demolished in 1931, is now a public garden on Byrom Street near the Granada Television centre. Work on St John's started in 1768 and it was completed in July 1769 when it opened with a sermon preached by the Rev John Clayton.

The Rev John Clowes - son of Joseph Clowes and a kinsman of the Byroms - was installed as rector. Clowes (1743-1831) became the greatest exponent of Swedenborg, translating and publishing his works, despite being warned by his Bishop not to engage in such "wild enthusiastic opinions."

In the 1790s he was joined by a new curate, William Cowherd. Cowherd had been born in Ambleside in the Lake District. I believe that Cowherd, brought up in the heartland of the back-to-nature movement, sought out the position with Clowes. But he turned out to be more devoted to Swedenborg than to Clowes. In 1793, the followers of Swedenborg left the Anglican church despite the pleas of Clowes. They were led in Manchester by Cowherd. He set up a chapel in Peter Street.

In 1800, Cowherd quarrelled with fellow ministers and built his own chapel in Salford. And, as we have seen, in 1809 he broke with the Swedenborgians to establish his own Bible Christian Church. His chapel was known as Christ Church but his detractors (especially the Swedenborgians who built a chapel of their own in nearby Bolton Street in 1813) referred to Cowherd's place of worship as Beefsteak Chapel.

But it was more than a chapel. It was a grammar school and academy of science. (At the school's annual speech day, pupils recited lines from Cowherd's favourite poem, Oliver Goldsmith's The Hermit:

No flocks that range the valley free
To slaughter I condemn;
Taught by that Power that pities me
I learn to pity them.
But from the mountain's grassy side
A guiltless feast I bring:
A scrip with fruit and herbs supplied
And water from the spring.

The dome of the church doubled up as an observatory. Cowherd ministered to the sick and became known as Dr Cowherd. There was a soup kitchen for the poor and Cowherd's study served as a public library. With its provision of rudimentary welfare services, the church attracted large numbers of the working class created by the industrial revolution which had its hub in Manchester and Salford. And Cowherd preached the revolutionary politics of Tom Paine from his pulpit. Belief in human equality and liberty, democracy and cooperation, was the logical consequence of a religion which venerated all life as holy. Members of the vegetarian church were also political radicals.

Cowherd died in 1816 and his successor as pastor was Joseph Brotherton who became Salford's first MP. A mill-owner, he was able to retire in 1819 at the age of 36. He devoted himself to his church and to public service. Brotherton was one of a tightly-knit group - linked by religion and family ties - which took over the reigns of power in Salford and not only helped to create a new way of governing the city but were influential on the national stage.

Brotherton was born in 1783, the son of a Derbyshire schoolteacher and exciseman. In 1789 the family moved to Shudehill in Manchester and established a spinning factory. In 1797 the Brothertons opened a mill on Canal Street, off Oldfield Road. Joseph Brotherton became a partner in the business in 1803 and took over on his father's death in 1809. Brotherton had joined the Bible Christians in 1805 and became William Cowherd's chief disciple. He was a fervent believer in the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg and shared Cowherd's radicalism.

From 1812 Brotherton was an Overseer of the Poor and used his position to root out the abuses of charities where the rich trustees benefited more than the poor for whom they were intended. And in 1816 he took over the ministry of Christ Church on Cowherd's death. Running a business, a church and a portion of local government may have been within his powers. But in 1819 he decided to retire from business. He devoted himself to public service with a new zeal – perhaps spurred into activity by the Peterloo Massacre which he witnessed.

In the years that followed he seemed to have his finger in every pie. He rescued the church from a parlous financial position and erected a reading room and lending library there to extend education to the working classes. The Bible Christian congregation in Hulme developed its chapel into the Hulme Institute and in 1824 a new branch of the Bible Christians opened in the Round Chapel in Every Street, Ancoats. The Church also sent out its first pilgrims to America where the Rev William Metcalfe set up a chapel in Philadelphia.

The vigorous expansion of the church under Brotherton's leadership was matched only by his political energy. From about 1815 he had been part of a group of radical Liberals who met in the warehouses of the Potter brothers (who later dominated Manchester politics). He became active in the Anti-Corn Law League, was on the committee that established the Manchester Mechanics' Institution and was associated with the founders of The Manchester Guardian (indeed, John Edward Taylor, the Guardian's first editor, enjoyed Brotherton's patronage. He lived in Islington Street opposite today's Salford Cathedral).

The 1830s proved to be enormously successful for Brotherton and his fellow radicals. In 1832 he was elected as Salford's first MP after the Reform Act. By 1835 his party had captured control of the Police Commissioners - the most democratic organ of local government in the city. They used that power base to secure a more democratic form of municipal government in Salford, succeeding in 1844 in gaining the status of Borough. Such was its success as a local authority that Broughton and Pendleton were constrained to join in 1853.

As a politician Brotherton campaigned for the end of child labour, he led the Manchester and Salford Peace Society, he was the first MP to speak against capital punishment, he was a leading opponent of slavery. He steered through parliament legislation to set up municipal libraries and art galleries. He supported every measure aimed at improving the prospects and welfare of the working classes.

But the promotion of opportunity for the working classes involved for Brotherton not only public measures but private morality. People could advance in society if they lived healthy lives. To find true happiness, the people must not only pursue intellectual progress; they must also abstain from injurious habits. Thus Brotherton and his circle led the temperance movement, the anti-tobacco movement and were in 1847 responsible for founding the Vegetarian Society.

Something must be said of Brotherton's circle. Family ties and membership of the Bible Christians linked so many of the key radicals. Foremost among them was William Harvey, Brotherton's cousin and a deacon of the Church. He was a Salford alderman from 1844 until his death in 1870. The first meetings of the UK Alliance - the main temperance organisation - were held at his home in Acton Square. He was a vice-president of the Anti-Tobacco Society.

Harvey's sister, Martha, had married Brotherton in 1806 and she was a powerful organiser behind the scees. She wrote the first true vegetarian cookery book in 1812 and dealt with the practical side of running events.

Harvey's son-in-law, James Simpson, was a wealthy cotton magnate who had met the Harveys through the church. He toured Europe preaching the values of pacificism and temperance. And it was Simpson who became the first president of the Vegetarian Society. There were a variety of other characters associated with the church, such as John Kay who became the second mayor of Salford in 1846: probably the first vegetarian Mayor in the country! But it must be acknowledged that Simpson was the chief propagandist.

Early in 1847 he engaged in a discussion through the letters column of a temperance magazine which resulted in a conference on vegetarianism being held on September 30th in Ramsgate. Brotherton chaired the conference and Simpson proposed the resolution that the Vegetarian Society be formed. The movement grew rapidly around its Salford heartland. And its membership was predominantly working class - like the membership of the Bible Christian Church.

The movement suffered a double blow in the late 1850s. Brotherton, its figurehead and most famous member, died in 1857. Two years later Simpson died and Ald William Harvey succeeded him as president of the Vegetarian Society. The Society's fortunes declined but by the 1880s there was a revival in interest in vegetarianism. And the Bible Christians were still in the thick of it with their pastor, the Rev James Clark, and other members holding key positions in the Society.

There were probably more vegetarian restaurants in Manchester in the 1880s than there were in the 1980s. In Fountain Street in the heart of Manchester there was a vegetarian establishment which boasted two dining halls, a lecture theatre, and billiard, smoke and reading rooms. It had a full-time staff of 21 and spawned a satellite restaurant nearby. There were also the Smallman's Restaurants, founded by Frederick Smallman a health food pioneer and vegetarian. He set up business in 1876 and his establishment grew to eight in the city.

By this time the Bible Christians had moved their chapel from the Greengate area and built new premises at the corner of Woodbine Street and Cross Lane. Although the church leaders were actively involved in all the issues which agitated the previous generation, the growth of socialism took away their working class support. By 1932 the church could no longer attract sufficient vegetarian total abstainers to survive and the church merged with the Pendleton Unitarians.

I began this talk by posing three questions. Where did William Cowherd get his ideas from? Where did they lead to? And why did they take off in such a spectacular way in 19th century Salford?

The answer to the first question is straightforward. There is a thread of mystical belief linking Cowherd right back across the centuries to Pythagoras. These ideas were introduced into Salford society by John Byrom and picked up and developed by the succeeding generation.

It is also clear, in answer to the second question, where these ideas led. Driven by an underlying belief in the kinship of nature, members of the Bible Christian Church exercised an influence out of all proportion to their number. They developed a political programme of emancipation. They led campaigns to free people from slavery, war and exploitation. They advanced the prospects for all to enjoy a
good life through programmes of health and education. And the focus on health saw their campaigns against tobacco, alcohol and meat-eating. Vegetarianism in particular illustrates the force of their belief in the kinship of nature. Humans are related to animals and so animals should be respected. But humans are equal to other humans and so humans must be respected. Since vegetarians are likely to be less aggressive, and likely to be healthier and more alert, they are more likely to contribute to the welfare of others.

This leads me to addressing the third question: Why 19th century Salford? I believe that it was this linking of private ethics and public welfare that made the Bible Christians such a disproportionately powerful force in Victorian England. The industrial revolution had created an urban working class who hankered after self-improvement. A second reason lies in the process of urbanisation itself. When cities start to grow rapidly, they draw in people from the rural areas. Village life is essentially conservative and everything is governed by tradition. Urban dwellers are no longer bound by tradition and open to new ideas. They are also more likely to find others who share their ideas in the hurly burly of the city. So Manchester and Salford's place at the cutting edge of the industrial revolution opened people up to new ideas. Thirdly, it could be argued that Manchester and Salford in particular, and Lancashire in general, were highly susceptible to religious innovation. The Established Church had never really taken hold. Catholicism and even paganism were prevalent. In the urban centres non-conformism was dominant. As one writer put it, "religion was privatised to a unusual degree". Even a church of vegetarian mystics was accepted in the marketplace of religion. Finally, there was a shift generally in society's attitude towards nature. This was partly a reaction against the 'dark satanic mills'. It was partly that the industrial revolution had taken people from farming communities where animals were reared and slaughtered to towns where animals were pets. This romantic view of nature tended to be led by men like Brotherton, whose wealth and leisure created by the dark satanic mills, gave them an appreciation of the finer things in life: love of nature and things of the spirit. And one should not forget the contribution of Darwin. Evolutionary theory led to a genuine revolution in the way the relationship between humans and animals was seen.

Although the book on which this talk is based has the history of vegetarianism as its central theme, I hope I have been able to tell that story within the wider context of the development of a radical tradition in Salford. I set out on my research with two aims. Firstly, I wanted to rescue a little bit of history which might serve the purpose of highlighting the importance of Salford in this aspect of social history. And, secondly, I wanted to help to transform the image of Salford and throw in my tuppenny worth to the attempt to shake-off the Lowryesque, Love-on-the-Dole image. Salford was a place of poets and philosophers: a place of enlightened endeavour.

I think I may have been successful in some small degree. There are plans for an annual Brotherton Lecture. Brotherton's bust has been rescued from the museum cellars and is now on display. His statue overlooking the Irwell off Bridge Street has been the topic of press coverage.

I welcome this revival of interest in our Victorian city fathers – not just because of an interest in local history. I feel pride about our past but I am fascinated by the lessons the Bible Christian radicals have for the present. They believed in promoting opportunity through education, culture and welfare. They believed in environmental stewardship through their love of nature and civic improvements. They believed in healthy living through their promotion of particular lifestyles and public health measures. They also believed in compassion to our fellow beings, human or not.

We should look back with pride at their achievements. But we should ensure that those values still inform the ethos of the city of Salford today.

(c)Derek Antrobus, 2001.
All articles on this site have been written by Derek Antrobus who
asserts his right to be identified as the author of this work.