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1847-1981 :

A thesis presented to the London School of Economics, University of London,
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, by Julia Twigg
©AUTUMN 1981 - Thesis Index

The author is now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website. The ownership and copyright remain hers and no part of this thesis may be used elsewhere without her express permission.

[Numerical links are to the author's footnotes, use your back button to return to the same point in the text. Text links are to relevant items on the IVU website, all open in new windows]


The four chapters that follow outline the history of vegetarianism in England from 1847 to the present day. (1) They are offered with three aims in mind. The first is to elucidate the social and ideological location of vegetarianism in English culture. This involves asking who were the vegetarians, where were they likely to be found, and with what other movements and concerns did vegetarianism have affinities.

The second involves looking at the changing historical context of vegetarianism, and at the ways in which the vegetarian ideology itself undergoes changes.

The third concerns the historical explanation of vegetarianism. There are two aspects to this. The first relates to the cyclic rise and fall of the phenomenon: up in the late 1840's and early 1850's; down in the '60s and '70s up in the 1880's and '90s; down around the First World War and in the early '20s; up to some degree in the 1930's (the pattern for the early twentieth century is not so clear); down in the 1940's, '50s and early '60s; up in the 1970's. Vegetarianism as we shall see rides upon the back of a series of other cultural movements, so that the explanation of its rise and fall relies both on factors directly conducive to its development and on factors indirectly influential through the parallel associations - thus the decline of utopian socialism at the turn of the century with the rise of the parliamentary Labour Party, or the experience of the First World War in the development of inter-war pacifism, both affect vegetarianism indirectly through its wider milieu. Lastly, and perhaps most important, there are deeper cultural shifts that operate across a wide spectrum of ideas and that endow, at a particular time, certain movements or ideas with an essential plausibility and appeal. Shifts like these are usually conceptualised - rather unsatisfactorily - in such terms as the Late Victorian Revolt or the Counter Culture; but accounts based on these, where they do attempt to go beyond explaining one feature in terms of a general nexus of similar ideas of the time, tend like all formulation at this level, to be metaphorical rather than explanatory. The forces that lie behind these overall movements remain obscure - movements in the economy have been influential, though here the relationship is not direct, but is heavily mediated through cultural forms - for we are dealing here with levels of causation that are remote and for which the evidence from vegetarianism, even where widely drawn, does not permit one to draw adequate conclusions.

What these movements do represent however, is the periodic upsurge in English culture of Romantic consciousness, Those features of such consciousness that are particularly relevant to and occur recurrently in connection with vegetarianism are the concern with self-expression, the individual and freedom, and, in harmonic tension with this, the search for totality, unity and the whole, producing both a concern with community and the vitalist conception of the universe and nature that attempts to bring into relationship the subjective self and the cosmos. Romanticism emphasises nature as against civilisation, intuition and emotion as against intellect and rationality. Romanticism was in many ways an Anglo-German phenomenon, a revolt against French classicism and the cultural tradition of the South, (2) and vegetarianism follows the same basic pattern, with its further extension into American culture; thus the three significant centres of modern vegetarianism have been Britain, Germany and America, with the lesser addition of Scandinavia, and British vegetarianism is in different periods marked by German and American influences. (This pattern relates also to Protestantism and in particular to the post-Protestant experience.)

Against this pattern of rise and fall, there has been - as we shall see - a steady long-term growth, and this brings us to the second historical issue, that of the long-term underlying changes that have favoured the development of vegetarianism. The most fundamental of these has been the movement from a rural to an urban consciousness - albeit one that yearns for a rural existence. This shift from rural to urban produces changed relationships with animals, with nature, and with food.

From the eighteenth century there is evidence for an increased concern over animals and their suffering. (3) Such feeling appears to have been predominantly associated with the urban middle class, (4) and in particular with those touched by evangelicalism and. by the first Romantic movement. These connections continue into the early nineteenth century, when an organised animal welfare movement emerged - itself part of the larger humanitarian crusade. (5) This urban feeling was a revulsion from the unthinking brutality of rural life and from its conscious enjoyment of cruelty, and in this it was part of a larger and longer-term growth in the west of tendermindedness and squeamishness that occurred across a wide field, from attitudes towards punishment, both heavenly and secular, to children and child rearing, to street and domestic violence. (6)  (The early-nineteenth-century vegetarians and others saw these developments clearly in terms of the march of progress, or later, of neo-evolutionary developments; though modern historians, denied these simple models, have found such long-term changes more difficult to account for.)

Urban life breaks the organic contact with animals and increasingly replaces this with the experience of them as pets, creatures whose special function it is to be the repositories of affection. From the eighteenth century and before, there is evidence for the emergence of a closer, more pet-like relationship between owners and animals like dogs; (7) and in the nineteenth century, the pet becomes a standard part of the middle-class family, with the related proliferation in the sentimental portrayal of pets and their relationship with their masters. This pet experience in turn affected attitudes to animals more generally; and thin is clearly reflected in the form that animal welfare legislation took in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (8)

In rural life, animals are known and exploited. It is a recurrent theme in the conflict between town and country that the townsman finds it inexplicable that the hunter should have knowledge and respect for the creatures that he then goes out and kills, or that the family should feel affection for the pig that will eventually supply their winter needs. There is an obscure closeness - though it is one that revolts vegetarians and many others in modern, times - between the hunter and the victim that is killed and eaten: John Seymour refers to this rather eliptically in his belief that: 'we all owe God a death', and that in this lies some deep, organic relationship with the natural world. (9) Town life drives a psychic wedge between animals as food and animals as pets; and it is the bringing together of these otherwise separated aspects that in the context of modern consciousness provokes the disquiet and distress on which vegetarian arguments can operate. (10)

The second major change in sensibility relates to nature. While there is no simple equation between the growth in the consciousness of nature and those exposed to urbanisation, this latter development has had a profound influence on the development of the romantic conception of nature, on the concern for contact with it and on the perception of it as an alternative realm. As we shall see, this is a central aspect in modern vegetarianism.

Lastly, as a result of urbanisation, food becomes part of the market economy. Vegetarianism can only develop once there is a break with the accepting subsistence patterns of eating, and a substitution of selection in the market. (11) Choice makes possible alternative patterns; food becomes an area of conscious deliberation, and with this goes the development of experts, both orthodox and fringe, to advise and regulate the choices.

The second major change concerns the emergence of an ethic of individualism and a society organised less on organic bonds and more on internalised structures. That there has been such a basic shift in consciousness is the common stuff of analysis though conceptualisations of it have varied. I shall take as the assumed background here the formulation of the Bergers and Keller in The Homeless Mind: Modernisation and Consciousness, which, despite certain reservation that I have, offers a useful framework for understanding the long-term reciprocal changes productive of the kind of modern consciousness found in association with vegetarianism. (12)

  1. 'Modern vegetarianism', unless otherwise indicated, is here taken as encompassing this period.
  2. Though, of course, it has its expression in France.
  3. Though also before, as evidenced in the concerns of some seventeenth-century puritan reformers.
  4. See Keith Thomas, 'Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in Early Modern England', Trevelyan Memorial Lectures, Cambridge, 1979.
  5. See note on p 110.
  6. In the context of hell, for example, the decline in the acceptability from the seventeenth-century of the pleasure of the righteous in the sufferings of the damned, and the growing repugnance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for the idea of hell at all, and the tendency to shift from actual physical punishment, to mental suffering, to a self-imposed distress; in the context of secular punishment, the decline in the acceptability of public execution, torture and capital punishment; the decline in the acceptability of wife beating, of fist-fighting and public brawling: the vegetarians are connected with all these.
  7. See Keith Thomas.
  8. See Brian Harrison, 'Animals and the State in Nineteenth-Century England', English Historical Review, 1973.
  9. New Vegetarian, Feb 1977, p11.
  10. The strength of this bifurcation explains the principle exception to this developing tendermindedness towards the suffering of animals, that of food animals under the conditions of factory farming.
  11. Such choice was of course available for the rich and the emerging middle class before extensive urbanisation, though the qualitative shift in the early nineteenth century is still significant here.
  12. Putting the argument crudely, their account centres around the effects on consciousness of industrial, technocratic production and of bureaucracy, and the extension of the logic of these into wider spheres of life, producing in particular a highly compartmentalised and individuated experience of life. As a result, the reality of experience based around social roles and role-governed relationships is eroded, and we see the emergence of and increased significance given to the private sphere of life, and with this an increased stress upon subjectivity. Tensions within this modern form of consciousness have produced countervailing movements centred around opposition to the public/private dichotomy and aiming at a unity of experience.

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