|International Vegetarian Union (IVU)|
A thesis presented to the London School of Economics, University of London,
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now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website.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.
CHAPTER FIVE: THE EARLY NINETEENTH CENTURY
THE VEGETARIAN SOCIETY
At this point it is appropriate to ask whether we have in vegetarianism an ideology conducive to capitalism. Ure after all was a leading propagandist of the mill owners and his 'moral machinery' has been quoted by Thompson and others as evidence for the conscious mobilisation of an ideology as a means to mould the character of the work force. Thompson's argument concerned Methodism, however the themes he traces in this context – the emphasis of self-discipline, the control of the passions, the revulsion from carnal man - are also the themes of vegetarianism; and we can ask therefore if his argument can be applied to the vegetarians. Simpson himself was a manufacturer, as were Harvey and Brotherton and the careers of Brotherton and Isaac Pitman, (1) particularly as recounted in the Messenger exemplify the bourgeois virtues. Was vegetarianism therefore an ideological tool of capital'? There are two aspects to an answer here. The first concerns the level of individual motivation and association. Though a certain caution is needed here – since vegetarianism like a number of such movements attracted across a social range, a factor that gave a mixed aspect to its motivations - I will suggest that the background of the majority in the working class and their - as we shall see – connections with radicalism, gave a different significance to their concerns: though these still related to the circumstances of industrial production, their point of departure was different.
In their political background, the vegetarians were not conformist. Their interest in orderliness never made for quiescence or deference; rather their position was consistently reforming or radical. Cowherd's popularity as a preacher was often attributed to the radical flavour of his sermons, and the Bible Christians recruited adherents through their political stance, attracting, amidst the variety of religious affiliations offered in Lancashire at this time, the support of independent working men. In the aftermath of Peterloo, when the more cautious Sunday schools expelled pupils who arrived wearing green ribbons - the emblem of the radical party - the Bible Christians specifically opened their doors to them, and we find Brotherton giving financial help to the families of the sufferers of the Massacre. Across the Pennines in Yorkshire the same spirit flourished among the Swedenborgian followers of Cowherd. In an account of Jonathan Wright, a shoemaker and leader of the vegetarian Swedenborgians in Keighley, we hear of him: 'marching through the streets bearing aloft a black banner unfurled, on the face of which was painted the cross bones and the skull, emblematic of the soon-to-be death of King George and all his oppressive laws . . .' (2) The government became alarmed by Wright's activities and issued a warrant. Wright was warned in the night by a friend and managed to stow away with his family on a barge and thus escape to Liverpool and thence to America where he joined his brother-in-law William Metcalfe in Philadelphia. During the 1840's we find the vegetarians involved in both the major radical movements of the time: the Anti Corn Law League and the Chartists. Brotherton and Simpson were both prominent members of the League, Brotherton representing it in Parliament. The League represented the interests of the radical manufacturing class, aiming at cheap food for industrial workers (cheap bread had of course an added appeal for vegetarians) and using the cause as part of the wider attack on the landed interest.
The Reverend James Scholefield offers a more dramatic example of Bible-Christian association with radicalism. (3) Scholefield had built the Round Chapel in Every Street, Ancoats, as a Bible-Christian church. In 1842 he planned to erect a monument in the graveyard to the memory of the recently deceased 'Orator' Hunt, hero of the Peterloo Massacre. Lancashire was then in the grips of the Chartist agitation; this was the time of the Plug Plot. The unstable political atmosphere persuaded Scholefield to cancel the celebratory procession through the streets, but he invited Fergus O'Connor to stay at his house and to confer at the chapel with the other Chartist leaders. Through this he was named, though later acquitted, in the indictment against the Chartist leaders heard before the Lancashire assizes in 1843.
If we turn to the Messenger itself, though it does not directly advocate any political stance, it is clear where its sympathies lie 'While the vices that disgrace humanity proceed from the higher classes, all the reformatory means which have morality and nobility of purpose for their object, have sprung up and streamed from the working or humble classes'. (4) Arising from the same basic loyalties, we find, the magazine concerned that the many reform movements which it supports so prodigally should become a means to obscure rather than alleviate social problems It takes the example of the nascent public-health and housing reforms, praising their efforts, but warning against schemes of improvement that are just a means of shifting the problem to another area, out of the sight of the middle classes. (5)
As we have seen the Bible Christian approach contained a strongly intellectualist strain and the church itself was deeply involved in the movement for working-class education. It is clear that as important as their chapels were the Sunday schools, institutes, evening classes and discussion groups that gathered around them, for example in Salford, Cowherd established a Grammar School and Institute of Science (mostly staffed by young men training to become pastors in the church); and at Hulme, the Reverend James Gaskill developed the work of the school establishing the Hulme Philosophical Society (later Mechanics' Institute) and in his enthusiasm to satisfy the desire for education of the working people ran a special class at 6am on Sundays for labourers. (6) In a similar way, we find Brotherton involved in the establishment of the local mechanics' institute, and at the national level campaigning in parliament for the extension of education.
When we look at the Messenger, we find that the link with education and self improvement is repeated. In the list of venues for the travelling lectures delivered by representatives of the society, we find the mechanics' institutes, temperance halls, lyceums and discussion groups are the most frequent choice. (7) Letters and references in the Messenger attest to the popularity of vegetarianism as a topic for discussion in Mutual Improvement Societies; and one report recounts how the debate continued over several nights. (8) The vegetarians clearly found in these groups some of their most receptive audiences. It should be noted that vegetarianism had an appeal within a 'variety of educational institutions. The mechanics' institutes were largely founded through the efforts of the propertied and established elements in society, and though they catered for genuine working-class needs and interests, always retained an aspect of benevolent philanthropy and control, (9) and that quality of preaching to the poor was not wholly absent in vegetarianism. The mutual improvement societies and groups, however, were more in the way of spontaneous working-class groups under their own direction and often formed in opposition to the mechanics' institute: interest in vegetarian arguments was not just fostered from above by men like Simpson, but arose indigenously out of the interests and experience of working men.
Many of the leading vegetarians came from this background, and their lives, especially as recounted in the Messenger, exemplify the possibilities of education and persistent endeavour as a means of betterment. A number of individuals rose directly through the church. (10)
The career of Roland Detrosier (11) illustrates the background within which the Bible Christians flourished. Born illegitimate and brought up in poverty, Detrosier struggled all his life to educate himself and to spread the gospel of self-education and independence among the working classes. It was through the Bible Christian Sunday school that he began his search and it was as a youthful lecturer in their institutes at Salford and Hulrne that he realised his gifts as a propagandist. The institutes were run as co-operative enterprises, often drawing on their own talent (Detrosier was only sixteen when he started to teach), and as such they became centres for the doctrine of total working-class independence through self-education that men like Detrosier had begun to promote. Brotherton and Scholefield recognised Detrosier's talent, and established him as a Bible Christian minister at Brinksaway, near Stockport. At this point their paths diverged, as Detrosier's thinking developed away from Swedenborgianism towards Deism and the religion of science. (12) From the pulpit of his 'Beefsteak Chapel', as it was nicknamed) he preached a rival vegetarian religion of Universal Benevolence, in which man was perfectable through rational self-education. When a group of radicals decided to set up a new mechanics' institute in Manchester, where they would be free to discuss religion and politics, Detrosier was chosen as the president. In 1831 he published his famous address, On the Necessity of an Extension of Moral and Political Instruction Among the Working Class. In this he argued that no political progress would be possible for the working class without moral progress first; it was precisely working-class ignorance, fecklessness and drunkenness, he argued, that formed the bulwarks of privilege and injustice, for they enabled the ruling class to justify their denial of political power, at the same time as they undermined working-class action and resolve.
This concern to upgrade the nature of working-class life, to foster an independent working man, was very much in the fore-front of the vegetarians' concerns. The self-help virtues of thrift and abstinence were associated in their writings with the drive to give working men independence and security. (13) Working-class life was notoriously insecure, lived with very little margin at the mercy of market forces1 and the virtues of diligence, thrift and carefulness were not the exclusive property of the ideologists of the capitalist class. Laqueur has concluded from his study of the Sunday school movement that: 'what appears to have been an imposition from above, was in fact a way in which those who spent their lives in disorder, uncertainty, dirt and disease brought some order into this environment. Cleanliness in body, punctuality and neatness in dress and in one's home and orderliness in one's life style were very much part of the fabric of respectable working-class society and by no means inhibited those engaged in their pursuit from attacking the repressive aspects of the contemporary political and economic system; rather the reverse'. (14)
This brings us to the second aspect of the relationship of their ideology to industrial society - and this concerns timing. The social atmosphere was changing, England was moving into the High Victorian period, and the 1850's saw a quietening of conflict and a growing accommodation with and acceptance of the new industrial society. It was a period of greater prosperity. A range of working- class groups underwent a transformation at this time - exemplified in the co-operativists, but found also in the changes and ambivalences of the self-help movement itself. There is a strongly Smilesian tone to much of the vegetarian writing and the lives of vegetarians such as Isaac Pitman and Joseph Brotherton, (15) as well as more humble exaniples. (16) are presented in ways that embody self-help themes. Though the ambiguity of its social aims should not be lost sight of, J.F.C. Harrison has concluded: 'In its origins self-help was intended as a means of personal and social advancement for the working classes. Its appeal was that it appeared to offer a way forward when other methods had become unacceptable or discredited. By 1848 most roads to working-class betterment seemed to be blocked'. (17) The Vegetarian Society is here part of that turning inwards after the collapse of the radicalism of the forties.
Vegetarianism had a relevance to these self-help concerns, for the self-help movement, though it pointed to practical means like education as routes to advancement, primarily emphasised the will. Again and again the examples preach that it is not circumstances, or even ability, that provide the means, but mora1 character. The literature aims to rouse the will with optimistic examples and stiffen resolve for the exercise of its virtues. What vegetarianism offered were concrete aids to this effect, for it claimed to free men from the passions that disrupted the orderly, diligent pursuit of advancement, and that threatened to carry them off to drunkenness and 'low sensuality'. Simpson relates how one working man found that upon adopting the diet, he was no longer sank into a stupor on returning from the factory but was moved to pursue intellectual labours: 'now I can really enjoy my books and the company of my family in a natural way', he reported. (18)
Vegetarianism also worked at a more symbolic level, embuing life with a daily sense of balance, order and control; it represented conscious direction in life. Care for the small details of life was a characteristic self-help doctrine; and vegetarianism put an end to thoughtlessness and the undisciplined taking of food on impulse.
Though vegetarianism at this time can be spoken of as a broadly working-class response, it was confined to certain sections of that class and conforms to the familiar division between rough and respectable. Here social boundaries were important those of the working class who aspired to respectability needed strong social insulation around them, for the material conditions of life – the insecurity of employment, the housing, the poverty - all supported the rival working-class culture, of the pub and the streets and. made it hard to sustain what were essentially genteel patterns of living. In circumstances such as these, where it required an effort of will to maintain the impetus to improve oneself, moderate images were of little appeal. (19) What was needed was self mission, and a sustaining moral image strong enough to justify sacrifices; and it is this that given an 'extremism' to many working-class social movements: tee-totalism, with its ideology of saved and ruined provided one such image; (20) vegetarianism with its vivid sense of the corrupt nature of meat, a parallel one. These divisions were reinforced by social patterns of isolation. Bormond, a temperance advocate, argued that it was best for those labouring to improve the human character to be free 'from carniverous indulgences' and to set themselves apart from ~wine bibbers and eaters of flesh' (21) Tee-totalism attempted to set up a rival network based not around the pub but the temperance meeting with its competing excitements, warmth and community feeling. The network was envisaged as encompassing all sorts of institutions, so that one could aim to move wholly within a temperance world. The 'rival commonwealth' of the co-operatives displays the same aim. The vegetarians attempted - though less successfully - a similar network that included hotels, restaurants and meetings. These elements of association are clear in Mrs Humphrey Ward's description of the world of the Manchester vegetarians found in her The History of David Grieve, where the hero, newly arrived from the countryside in his teens, is drawn into the world of vegetarianism that centres around the vegetarian restaurant which acts a contact point for men with similar radical and secularist interests. (22)
Last and most important of these social boundaries was that around the home, for vegetarianism was part of the wider reform of leisure in this period. (23) that involved a new emphasis on the virtues of the bourgeois family and on sober enjoyment in the home; and with its hatred of cruelty and distaste f or violence and its belief in purposive and uplifting pursuits, vegetarianism was part of the mechanism that cut men of f from what were seen as the idle associations of the pub, the rat pit and the street corner.