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THE VEGETARIAN MOVEMENT IN ENGLAND,
1847-1981 :
A STUDY IN THE STRUCTURE OF ITS IDEOLOGY

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now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website.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.

CHAPTER FIVE: THE EARLY NINETEENTH CENTURY
[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 original was text-only, all pictures have been added.]

Simpson
James Simpson, Bible Christian, first President.

Brotherton
Joseph Brotherton, MP for Salford, Bible Christian, chaired the Ramsgate meeting which founded the Society.

THE VEGETARIAN SOCIETY
Society Members and their Beliefs

Who were the members of the Society? Of its leading figures, many were Bible Christian pastors, and three were drawn from the liberal manufacturing class. James Simpson, 1812-1859, was the son of a wealthy calico printer, educated privately in London and Berlin. (1) He was prominent in public life, supporting a variety of social and political reforms. He was a member of the Anti Corn Law League, and joined the tee-total movement, 'when few gentlemen would'. A Bible Christian and admirer of Swedenborg, he had through the influence of his mother been a life-long vegetarian. Joseph Brotherton, 1783-1857, was the son of an excise man, turned mill owner, (2) A follower of Cowherd, he became the pastor of the Salford Bible Christians in 1817. In 1819 at the age of thirty-six he retired from business with a 'competence'. He became Salford’s first MP after the Reform Act and championed various causes including factory reform, especially the reduction of hours for children, free-trade and the repeal of the Corn Laws. He is credited with writing the first tee-total tract. William Harvey, 1789-1870, was also a Bible Christian and the brother-in-law of Brotherton. He was a cotton spinner and known as an 'advanced liberal'. He was alderman and mayor of Salford, and succeeded Simpson as the second president of the society in 1859. (3)

These leading figures were not, however, typical of the membership as a whole. Each month the Messenger published a break-down of the membership according to 'position in society', and from this it is clear that although groups like physicians and merchants were quite well represented, by far the bulk of the membership, well over two-thirds, was drawn from 'tradesmen, mechanics and labourers' (see table). Accounts and references in the magazine bear out this picture. The society drew in particular from the new industrial cities of the north; and it is in towns like Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Paisley and Rotherham that there is the greatest interest and activity. (4) There was some activity centred around London, (5) but the focus of the society was strongly northern and working-class. The working-class aspect is atypical of vegetarianism - or certainly of the vegetarianism of the subsequent periods studied here - I shall therefore concentrate on this here, using the Salford vegetarians as my principle illustration.


TABLE ONE:
Membership figures for the Vegetarian Society, according to‘position in society', a sample of three typical months, taken  from the Vegetarian Messenger.

  Feb 1850 Feb 1853 Jan 1858
MP 1 1 1
County magistrate 2 1 1
Alderman 1 1 1
Private gentlemen 6 17 19
Physicians and Surgeons 16 20 17
Ministers 5 8 5
Authors 7 13 & Lecturers 5
Professional men 43 54 no category
Merchants 15 24 11
Farmers 6 9 12
Tradesmen, Mechanics
& Labourers
245 466 427
     Students 17 13
    Book-keepers
& clerks
55
    Schoolmasters
& teachers
25
    Commercial
travellers
7
Females* 158 242 218
Totals 478 889 851

* The social class of these females is not recorded. Reports of dinners etc. include the names of numbers of wives and daughters of leading figures (we know Mrs Brotherton published a vegetarian cookery book, possibly the first, in 1812) though there is evidence for the existence of at least one independent working woman, living in lodgings.


If we turn now to their beliefs about vegetarianism, we find that all the major arguments are present. There are, however, certain differences that mark the period and I shall comment briefly on these alone. There is a very close association with teetotalism; nearly all the vegetarians at this time were active abstainers from alcohol, and they often termed vegetarianism 'the higher phase of temperance'. They believed there was an organic link and that meat stimulated the desire for alcohol. The vegetarians have close links with the tee-total movement, and share many of its social characteristics. (6) Many also abstained from tea, coffee and. tobacco, which like meat and alcohol were regarded as stimulants. Salt, pepper and spices were disapproved of by many, again through their being seen as stimulants, including of sexual desire, and the majority at this time believed in the virtues of a bland, unspiced diet. (7)

During this early period the society faced a need to establish that it was possible to live on a vegetarian diet. Both vegetarianism and teetotalism were widely regarded as dangerous experiments that threatened to undermine the health of anyone foolish enough to try them. (8) Much vegetarian propaganda was therefore aimed at dispelling these beliefs and great stress was laid on the health and longevity of vegetarians. (9) The healthiness of peasants who lived an almost vegetarian existence. was related, as were the evils of a life that relied on meat alone. (10) Bormond pointed out that people laid. a stress on meat out of proportion to its presence in their diet, and. This remained true even of the poor who, though their consumption of meat was low and sometimes non-existent, still clung to the belief in its necessity. (11)

In this period though vegetarianism is spoken of as the natural diet and the idea of following nature's ways is central, the romantic idealisation of nature as landscape that is so characteristic of educated taste in the first romantic revolt is effectively absent. (12) These vegetarians are too recent emigrants from rural poverty for the romanticisation of nature or of cottage life that we can find among ordinary vegetarians later in the century.

Lastly during this period, certain effects of a vegetarian diet are given a special emphasis. Meat eating, it was believed, dulls the mind, whereas a vegetarian diet produces 'superior mental powers'. (13) Intellectual capacity is seen here as part - together with the moral and the spiritual - of man's higher nature, which vegetarianism, by direct physiological effect, strengthens. Against this is man's lower nature, which seeks out sensual gratification and rejoices in the lower instincts: 'flesh eating is known to gratify and expand the lower propensities of our nature, it is opposed to the development of the intellectual and moral faculties; . . . it exites in us those "lusts which war against the soul" '. (14) This emphasis on rising to a higher intellectual plane is to some extent an eduring element in vegetarianism, though it is partly disrupted in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries by the attack, by some, on cerebration and its replacement in the category of approval by the intuitive and bodily.


  1. 43. See Axon, and obituary Vegetarian Messenger, Oct 1859, p120.
  2. 44. See Axon; DNB, and T. Bergin, ed., Salford: A City and its People, Sa].ford 1974.
  3. 45. See Axon.
  4. 46. For example, VM, June 1851, p45, talks of Rotherham and of the 'good many practical earnest working men, carry on the social advocacy of the system in this town'. See also recurring accounts of successes in the northern cities. There are minor exceptions to this pattern: Padstow, for example, was a centre of activity for a while. (for example, VM, April 1851, p32),
  5. 47. The London vegetarians seem to have been generally of a slightly higher social class and probably represented the continuation of the sort of groups in which Greaves and others had earlier moved.
  6. 48. For this background, see Brian Harrison, Drink and the Victorians, 1971.
  7. 49. The society though led by people who supported these causes also, felt that it was enough initially to work for abstinence from meat and alcohol. (VM, July 1850, iv) A similar line was taken on veganism (VM, April 1850, correspondence).
  8. 50. Until the coming of the temperance movement alcohol was a staple part of the national diet and the primary thirst-quencher in a period before the development of beverages and soft drinks. (See Harrison) Like the teetotallers, who suffered during illness from doctors who insisted on a regimen that included alcohol, the vegetarians found it difficult to escape the ubiquitous prescription of beef tea.
  9. 51. Each month the Messenger printed a list of members who had sustained a vegetarian diet for twenty, thirty and forty years. The age of elderly members is often alluded to as well as their freedom from illnesses. The early death of Simpson at forty-seven occasioned special explanation least it reflect badly on the diet. Cobden's attributed remark that the two MPs who were best able to endure the long and dreary speeches of the House, were Brotherton and Colonel Thompson, both vegetarians and tee-total, was quoted with approval. (VM, March 1850, notes).
  10. 52. The Lapps in particular were castigated as showing: 'what life on fat and oil, and in polar winters, reduces men to', for ‘The Laplanders comprehend nothing of the grand moral sense of religion . . . On the whole [they) are a gross and wretched people, vegetating in a sort of moral and. Physical stupor, and well fitted to inhabit this frozen corner of the world, whence all light retired with the sun’ (quoted from Mme Leoni d'Aunet in VM, Feb 1859 p15.) There are other rather fanciful anthropological ideas that pick up the imagery of light; for example, it was asserted in connection with the belief that: 'nearly all the social and domestic virtues are indissolubly connected' that vegetarians, like the animals, are early risers, whereas carnivorous tribes go out at night and sleep away the days. (VM, April 1852, p30).
  11. 53. VM, June 1853, p16. For a discussion of how much meat an urban worker could expect to eat, see Betty MacNamee, 'Trends in Meat Consumption', T.C. Barker et al, eds, Our Changing Fare, 1966; the issue also takes us into the standard of living debate, for a discussion of this in the context of food, see John Burnett, Plenty and Want, 2nd. ed., 1979, p28-9, 48ff.
  12. 54. This underlies their health ideas: 'The crime, misery and premature death caused by diseases to which our less luxurious forefathers were utter strangers must convince us that all is not right – that there is a great mistake somewhere. We cannot attribute the suffering which so lamentably abounds in the world to a beneficient Creator; this would be little short of blasphemy. It must be because we have departed from the created harmony of our nature'.  VM, Jan 1850, p27, Clubb. Vegetarianism was however described as inducing an interest in gardening (VM, May 1850, supp p14) and Simpson at Foxhill Bank, as part no doubt of the rational reform of leisure, set up an allotment scheme whereby people could grow their own food. 'The Foxhill Temperance Garden Allotments' were laid out ornamentally with borders and evergreens and with on its hill a mast from which flew a flag inscribed 'The Flag of the Free' (pamphlet pages bound in the issues of the VM, March 1851 onwards).
  13. 55. VM, Dec 1849, p15, Clubb.
  14. 56. VM, Jan 1850, p33, Clubb

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