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England: 19th Century
Salford's first MP

(c) Derek Antrobus, 1999

Joseph Brotherton was born in the village of Whittington, near Chesterfield, Derbyshire, on May 22nd, 1783, the second son of Mary and his exciseman father John Brotherton. In 1789 the family moved to Manchester and established a cotton factory. In 1797 they set up a cotton-spinning business in neighbouring Salford. Brotherton was thus engaged in the industry which was emblematic of the Industrial Revolution and based in the place which was known as the first industrial city. Far from becoming a Dickensian Mr Gradgrind, as might be conjectured given his background, Brotherton championed a series of causes - vegetarianism, pacificism, anti-slavery - which made him a crucial figure in Victorian social history.

Joseph was a studious child, teaching himself shorthand, French, science and philosophy: "The industrious habits and methodical arrangement which characterised him later in life were only the continuation of the early self-discipline he voluntarily practised in youth" (Dietic Reformer, January, 1885). In 1803, he was taken into partnership and assumed control of the business in 1809 on the death of his father. By 1819 he considered that he had amassed enough money to live on and at the age of 36 retired from business to devote himself to public service and religious activities.

He had already become prominent in the social and political life of the town. This surprises one historian who notes that Brotherton enjoyed this success despite the obstacles in his way for he "had received no outstanding education, had no great eloquence or skill as an orator, possessed few external graces, and perhaps most serious of all, no real wealth...perhaps his greatest asset was a remarkably placid temperament" (Smith, A., p28). He certainly had a reputation as a conciliator and was praised by Palmerston for his integrity and independence.

The sobriety of his character was reflected in his physical presence. Axon's biographical introduction to a republished abstinence pamphlet notes the "severe simplicity of his dress, relieved only by a constant flower in his button-hole" (Brotherton, 1890, p6). His piety might have made some see him as sanctimonious. Morley (p139) quotes Cobden on Brotherton and his terse comment is telling testimony: "Brotherton is now speaking a very good sermon" (my emphasis).

In 1805 Brotherton, who had been a regular member of the congregation at the Collegiate Church (now Manchester Cathedral), joined the Swedenborgian Christ Church in King Street, Salford. The church, founded by the political radical Rev William Cowherd (Antrobus, 1997), split from the Swedeborgians in 1809 and its members created their own sect, the Bible Christians. The sect was famed for its vegetarianism and teetotallism. Brotherton became a deacon of the Church and eventually succeeded Cowherd as pastor on the latter's death in 1816.

The church had been left in a parlous financial state and one of Brotherton's strategies was to increase the value of the site in King Street by new buildings. He erected a lending library and reading room there - wherein lay the seeds of his later pioneering of the library movement locally and in the country.

He was a passionate advocate of education and attended the meeting called April 1824 to discuss establishing a new institution to spread scientific knowledge to manufacturing. Brotherton was elected to the small committee which came forward with proposals to set up the Manchester Mechanics' Institution (Kargon, p20).

In 1832 the Reform Act was passed and the Borough of Salford was made a parliamentary constituency. In December of that year Brotherton was elected its first Member of Parliament. Brotherton was re-elected in 1835, 1837 and 1841 against Tory opposition. He was unopposed in his subsequent two elections, in 1847 and 1852. In the capacity of Member of Parliament he achieved some fame, becoming chairman of the private bills committee and persistently (if unsuccessfully) moving the adjournment of the House of Commons each midnight. His voting record and interventions in debate show Brotherton to be an industrious and eloquent MP.

Among his many activities, Brotherton became prominent in the peace movement. There was a clear link between Brotherton's vegetarianism, pacifism and his liberal economic outlook. The religious basis of his vegetarianism was reverence for all life (he claimed to have been the first MP to speak in the House of Commons against capital punishment) and this gave him a pacifist character shared by other Bible Christians. Free trade was perceived as a means of securing peace among nations, hence his strong involvement in the Anti-Corn Law League. Charles Poulett Thomson, who was the Liberal MP for neighbouring Manchester, put the case starkly: "Make foreign nations dependent upon you for some of their comforts and conveniences, encourage them in the prosecution of their own industry by becoming their customers, give to them the products of your own, on exchange advantageous to both parties, and you raise up mutual feelings of affection and sympathy, which will go further than anything else to prevent that which in my mind has been, and is, the greatest curse that has ever afflicted mankind - war" (cited in Gatrell, p39).

Brotherton became chairman of the Manchester and Salford Peace Society which had been established in 1833. He was chairman when the international peace conference was held in Manchester at the original Corn Exchange in January 1853 and he wound up the first day's proceedings by arguing that free trade was the best way to underpin peace (Manchester Region History Review, vol. 5.i, 1991, p14).

His main concern was with child labour and during the 1820s when the Tories resisted any legislation, Brotherton was foremost among campaigners (Cowherd, R.G., p141) and from the moment of his election "to the passage of the Ten Hours Bill, he never ceased advocating factory legislation” (ibid). An account of the development of factory legislation which refers to Brotherton's prominence can be found in Lubenow (pp137-179). But the height of his national celebrity came in February 1842 when, in a debate on the Factory Bill, which he supported, he was accused of hypocrisy on the ground that he had amassed a fortune from the factory system. He replied that his "riches consisted not so much in the greatness of my means as in the fewness of my wants" (DNB). This was, in fact, a phrase borrowed from Epicurus. But it captured the public imagination. Pamphlets reprinting Brotherton's speech circulated in thousands, newspapers pronounced on it and sermons were preached.

For Brotherton, the political transformation of society and individual moderation were indistinguishable. His utilitarian motivation is plain: "The object of the philanthropist is to diminish as much as possible the amount of human misery, and, on the other hand to increase as much as possible the amount of human happiness," he told a general meeting of the Vegetarian Society in August, 1851 (BS, 41/72). Human happiness depends on physical and mental health which in turn depend on diet. Therefore "the only method of reforming society was by inducing habits of temperance, both in eating and drinking" (ibid.).

Brotherton had presided at the meeting in 1847 which set up the Vegetarian Society. Its aim was to persuade by reason. Education of the masses was an essential stepping stone to this liberation.

We have already noted the private efforts of the Bible Christians to educate through their own library. But from the 1832 Reform Act, the Radicals had a platform in Parliament. Almost immediately Brotherton co-operated with the Sheffield MP, James Silk Buckingham to secure a select committee on drunkenness. The select committee, of which Brotherton was a member, called in 1834 for: “[T]he establishment, by the joint aid of the government and the local authorities, and residents on the spot, of public walks and gardens, or open spaces for athletics and healthy exercises in the open air, in the immediate vicinity of every town, of an extent and character adapted to its population, and of district and parish libraries, museums and reading rooms, accessible at the lowest rate of charge” (cited in Kelly, p7).
Buckingham brought in bills, of which Brotherton was a sponsor, to curb drinking, provide parks and establish libraries and museums. Attempts to introduce legislation in 1835, 1836 and 1837 were unsuccessful. Buckingham left Parliament and Brotherton teamed up with William Ewart (1798-1869), an Oxford-educated Liverpool merchant.

In November 1844, a public meeting of ratepayers was held in Manchester, attended by Brotherton. The meeting resolved that museums should be provided and that 1d rate be levied. Armed with this endorsement, Brotherton drafted a bill which he and Ewart successfully steered through to become the Museums Act of 1845.

Salford had already acquired (ironically from Brotherton’s parliamentary opponent William Garnett) a mansion – Lark Hill – set in its own grounds for L4,500 in 1844. The Parks Committee bought it with a grant from government and a L1,000 donation from the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, after whom the park was named. The mansion was used as refreshment rooms. As Brotherton gathered evidence for legislating for libraries, he encouraged Salford’s then Mayor, Edward Ryley Langworthy to institute a library and museum at Lark Hill, hence the 1849 resolution.

In 1850 Ewart introduced the Public Libraries Bill, supported by Brotherton, who spoke in its favour as a measure to improve education and reduce crime, describing the library as providing “the cheapest police that could be established” (Kelly, p51).

Certainly, Brotherton felt that the provision of social facilities would curb disorder. We find him alongside William Thackeray at a special ‘Meeting of the Working Classes’ at the opening in 1852 of Manchester’s public library. Brotherton was the main speaker and he emphasised that learning would reduce conflict in society: “They [the different classes] would learn how necessary they were to each other – how labour and capital were bound together by a link, and how the interests of all classes, rich or poor, were intertwined, like the ivy with the oak” (Manchester Guardian, September 4th, 1852).

Earlier that day, flanked by Charles Dickens and Thackeray, Brotherton had listened to Edward Bulwer Lytton extolling the Salford library “which owes much to the philanthropy of my excellent friend Mr Brotherton”. Lytton assserted that “education does not cease when we leave school: education rightly considered is the work of life, and libraries are the school-books of grown-up men (sic)”. Referring to his visit to the Salford Library, he remarked: “I was moved and affected when I saw so many intelligent young faces bent over books with such earnest attention; and then I felt what healthful stimulants had replaced an old English excitement of the alehouse and the gin palace”.

Salford’s library was seen as beacon by other councils and its early years were marked by visits from eminent Victorians, amongst whom were the Duke of Wellington, John Ruskin, John Stuart Mill, William Gladstone, Robert Peel, and Lords Russell, Palmerston and Brougham. In 1851 over 80,000 people gathered in the park when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the library.
So popular was the library and museum that expansion was soon necessary. New wings were added in 1853 and 1857, the latter opened by Prince Albert. A further wing was added in 1878, funded from a L10,000 bequest in the will of the former Mayor, Edward Langworthy. The original Georgian buildings were found to be unsafe and were demolished in 1938. A new wing to mirror the 1878 extension was built.

The building now houses the city’s local history library and the largest collection of Lowry paintings.

In April 2000 the new millenium project, the Lowry Centre, opens in Salford and the artist’s work will be transferred to the modern cultural complex of theatres and galleries at Salford Quays. The museum and gallery will be transformed into ‘Lifetimes’, a multimedia exploration of Salford and its people. Among the stories given prominence at the centre will undoubtedly be its founding father, Joseph Brotherton.

In 1857, after two years of failing health, Brotherton died of a heart attack. On Sunday, January 4th of that year, he preached his last sermon at Christ Church in King Street. On the Monday he carried out a number of business engagements and on Tuesday sat as a magistrate in the police court. He passed the afternoon engaged in the greatest passion of his declining years, pottering about in the Salford Library. The following morning he walked from his home at Rosehill, Pendleton, to the bus stop to await the horse-drawn omnibus for Manchester. There he met up with two of his oldest friends, Sir John Potter and Sir Elkanah Armitage. Barely had the journey begun when, as the bus crossed Windsor Bridge, Sir John turned to his friend. His face was pale and his eyes fixed to the heavens. Silently, painlessly, he had slipped away.

His funeral took place on January 14th. There was a procession of 120 carriages, the streets were lined with silent crowds and all the shops along the route were closed. He became the first person to be buried in Salford’s Weaste Cemetery - the provision of municipal burial grounds being one of his last campaigns. A bronze statue by Matthew Noble was commissioned which stood outside the Salford Art Gallery and Library until 1954. That statue now looks out from Manchester, across the Irwell, to the city he represented in Parliament for a quarter of a century.


Antrobus, D., (1997) A Guiltless Feast: The Salford Bible Christians and the Rise of Vegetarianism, Salford.
Brotherton, J., (1890) The First Teetotal Tract, Colchester.
Cowherd, R.G., (1959) The Politics of Religious Dissent: The Religious Aspects of Liberal and Humanitarian Reform Movements from 1815 to 1848, London.
Gattrell, V.A.C., (1982) ‘Incorporation and the pursuit of Liberal hegemony in Manchester, 1790-1839’ in Fraser, D. (ed), Municipal Reform and the Industrial City, Leicester.
Kargon, R.H., (1977) Science in Victorian Manchester: Enterprise and Expertise, Manchester.
Kelly, T., (1973)A History of the Public Library In Great Britain 1845-1965, London.
Lubenow, W.C., (1971) The Politics of Government Growth: Early Victorian Attitudes To State Intervention, 1833-1848, Newton Abbott.
Morley, J., (1903)The Life of Richard Cobden, London.
Smith, A., (1976) Salford Sketches, Salford.
Vigeon, E.V., (1985)Lark Hill Place, Salford.


BS: Brotherton Scrapbooks followed by volume and page number (held at Salford Local History Library)
DNB: Dictionary of National Biography

Statue of Joseph Brotherton on the Manchester side of the River Irwell, looking across to Salford.