|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now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website.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
Vegetarianism was essentially an urban phenomenon. Attempts were made to proselytise rural areas, but with little success. One saddened correspondent reporting from Bury St. Edmunds admitted that despite the distribution of tracts and a visit from the president, the vegetarian principle had made little headway:
Rural life was much more governed by traditional patterns than was the new more voluntaristic life of the great towns. (2) Vegetarianism rests upon choice and has little relevance to the circumstances of an almost subsistence peasantry, as yet not part of the cash economy. With the changed nature of association went the emphasis placed by the mid-Victorians on the free exercise of choice, both as a value in itself and for the moral training its discipline and proper exercise brought, and for many, vegetarianism represented just such an exercise of rational choice and will.
A second aspect of their appeal to urban rather than rural values was in their promotion of a new slim physique. (3) Vegetarianism does not of itself produce slimness, though it has persistent, perhaps symbolic, associations with it. Behind their promotion of this image lies the attempt to substitute a rival ideal of manhood to that which was inextricably tied up with the images of beer and beef (the concern at this time was almost exclusively masculine). The old ideal of John Bull, the beef-eating, beer-quaffing, fine-figure-of-a-man had been slow to give way. Both the teetotallers and the co-operativists felt the absence of such weighty figures on their platform: 'We never had a large speaker among our advocates, which was a great disadvantage', wrote George Holyoake, 'it would have suggested a well-fed system. Obesity has weight in more senses than one. A fat look is imposing'. (4) 'The prestige that goes with weight belongs to a society that still uses abundance of food as an indicator of wealth and substance. With growing prosperity, such gross indicators give way to more refined measures. The promotion of slimness among such groups was one aspect also of a more general spread of genteel patterns within urban society, here previously only relevant to those whose social position had raised them above physical work and the simple prestige of superfluous food. Sheer brute strength had a part to play in a rural society that was largely unmechanised; industrial society by contrast was now calling for alertness rather than strength. The sharpness and quickness of industrial workers, 'their acuteness and intelligence of countenance', (5) in contrast to what seemed the heavy slowness of rural people, was frequently commented on by observers of Manchester life in the 1840's.
Vegetarianism's appeal to the urban worker rested also on its concern with practical health. The appalling conditions in cities like Manchester and Salford in the 1840's and '50s have been described both then and by subsequent historians – the overcrowding, the lack of sanitation, the poverty, the polluted air. Clubb looking back to his days as Simpson's secretary recalled the house at Foxhill Bank: 'The bleachery was very close to the driveway leading up to the residence and there was usually a large escape of sulphuric acid which was often sufficient to make breathing exceedingly difficult to persons passing up the driveway. I had frequently seen Mrs. James Simpson stop and pant for breath on her way past...I well remember that soot from the neighbouring chimneys so blackened the fruit in the garden that it was impossible to gather it without blackening the fingers. (6) The vegetarians believed that they could offer ways to cope with these unhealthy conditions. Wyth testified to how a vegetarian diet had enabled him to survive in the bad atmosphere of a cotton mill. (7) Vegetarianism offered a cheap means to a healthy diet, and its concern with pure food was particularly relevant in the new circumstances in which food was beginning to be subject to industrial production and commercial distribution and was entering what Burnett has described as the golden age of food aduiteration. (8) (The co-operative movement also shared this concern with pure food) Vegetarian preoccupation with the diseased and corrupt nature of meat also had a sound hygenic basis at this time. (9)
The link in this period with urbanism has, however, a more particular aspect. Historians and sociologists have written much in recent years concerning the process of change in attitudes and character structure that is known as the coming of the work discipline. One of the central problems posed in the early years of the industrial revolution was the training and adaption of the work force to the new patterns dictated by the revolution in production, and most especially by the coming of the factory system. Employment according to the abstract discipline of clock time and not of task, had to replace the older irregular patterns of seasonal work, mixed occupations, St Monday. (10) Similarly within the factories: 'what was needed was regularity and steady intensity, in place of irregular spurts of work'. (11) The factory needed to break down the individual impulses of the worker and substitute the impersonal ones of the machine. (12) Men had to be taught to defer their pleasures and discipline their desires; a man who lives for the moment will not bear: 'the patient and toilsome exertions which are required to form a good mechanic'. (13)
We know that the vegetarians drew heavily for their membership from operatives in the cities and towns of the north, many of which had pioneered the factory system, and great emphasis was placed in vegetarian propaganda on its relevance to working people in particular - a relevance that went beyond just the advantages of cheap food. Personal testimonials in the Messenger link vegetarianism with the problem of work. They refer to the 'nervous irritability' and 'restlessness occasioned by flesh eating' (14) and the direct effect of these feelings on the capacity to work; a vegetarian regime is presented as the means to overcome these difficulties: 'one of the first effects of abstinence from flesh had been stated by some of these men [ 'those who worked in laborious occupations in the factories' ] to be that they could get through their work with greater ease'. (15) We find Ure talking of the same symptoms when describing the unregenerate workforce: 'It is found nearly impossible to convert persons past the age of puberty, whether drawn from rural or handicraft occupations into useful factory hands. After struggling for a while to conquer their listless or restive habits, they either renounce the employment spontaneously, or are dismissed by the overlookers on account of inattention', (16) and he notes with disapproval how high wages among the cotton spinners have enabled them 'to pamper themselves into nervous ailments by a diet too rich and exciting for their indoor occupation'. (17)
Vegetarianism had relevance in this context in two ways: one was in the symbolism of control enshrined in its practices, and the other, more directly physiological, was in its claimed effects on the passions. As we have seen the new factory discipline called for the very reverse of these (Ure's mention of puberty is significant here) and vegetarianism's traditional association with the subduing of them thus came to have a particular relevance here, Meat is described as making men aggressive, prey to passion, choleric and feverish. It stimulates the body, but in an unnatural and debilitating way: 'the unnatural excitement of stimulants telling fearfully on the system'. (18) 'Food feeds the passions' and meat makes children fretful and peevish. (19) It exhausts and disturbs. There is a nervous sexual imagery underlying much of their description. The restlessness and the enervation, the passion and the aggression are here seen as one. What vegetarianism offered in the new circumstances of the factory discipline was the alleviation of these tensions in the dampening down of what were seen as over-stoked fires.