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The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A., 1883

John Frank NEWTON, 1770-1825
(text from the 1st edition, 1883)

John Frank Newton, the friend and associate of Dr. Lambe, Shelley, and the little band who met at the house of the former to share his vegetarian repasts, appears to have been one of the earliest converts of Dr. Lambe, to whom he dedicated his Return to Nature, in gratitude for the recovery of his health through the adoption of the reformed regimen.

He published his little work, as he informs us in his preface, to impart to others the benefits which he himself had experienced; and especially to make known to the heads of households the fact that his whole family of himself, wife, and four children under nine years of age, with their nurse, had been living, at the date of his publication, for two years upon a non-flesh diet, during which time the apothecary's bill, he tells us, had amounted to the sum of sixpence; and that charge had been incurred by himself.

The ever-memorable meetings of the reformers at the house of Newton, where Shelley was a constant guest, have been thus recorded by one of the biographers of the great poet :-

"Shelley was intimate with the Newton family, and was converted by them in 1813, and he began then a strict vegetable diet [sic -all up to here is a misquote of Hogg...]. His intimate association with the amiable and accomplished votaries of a Return to Nature, was perhaps the most pleasing portion of his poetical, philosophical, and lovely life. . . .

For some months, for some years, I was in the thick of it; for I lived much with a select and most estimable society of persons (the Newtons), who had 'returned to nature', and I heard much discussion on the topic of vegetable diet. Certainly their vegetable dinners were delightful ; elegant and excellent repasts ; Flesh, fowl, fish, and 'game', never appeared - nor eggs, nor butter bodily, but the two latter were admitted into cookery, but as sparingly as possible, and under protest, as culinary aids not approved of and soon to be dispensed with. We had soups in great variety, that seemed the more delicate from the absence of meat.

There were vegetables of every kind, plainly or stewed or scientifically disguised. Puddings, tarts, confections and sweets abounded. Cheese was excluded. Milk and cream might not be taken unreservedly; but they were allowed in puddings, and sparingly in tea. Fruits of every description were welcomed. We luxuriated, in tea and coffee, and sought variety occasionally in cocoa and chocolate.
Bread and butter and buttered toast were eschewed ; but bread cakes, plain seed-cakes, were liberally divided amongst the faithful. (1)

The cause of the publication of his book Newton thus states :-

"Having for many years been an habitual invalid, and having at length found that relief from regimen which I had long and vainly hoped for from drugs, I am anxious, from sympathy with those afflicted, to impart to others the knowledge of the benefit I have experienced, and to dispel, as far as in me lies, the prejudices under which I conceive mankind to labour on points so nearly connected with their health and happiness.

"The particulars of my case I have already related at the concluding pages of Dr. Lambe's Reports on Cancer. To the account there given I have little to add, but that, by continuing to confine myself to the regimen advised in that work, I continue to experience the same benefit; that the winter which has just elapsed has been passed much more comfortably than that which preceeded it, and that, if my habitual disorder is not completely eradicated, it is so much subdued as to give but little inconvenience; that I have suffered but a singles day's confinement for several months; and, upon the whole, that I enjoy an existence which many might envy who consider themselves to be in full possession of the blessings of health.

"All that I have to regret in my present undertaking is the imperfect way in which it is executed. The adepts in medicine have gained their knowledge originally from the experiences of the sick. I have taken my own sensations for my guide, and am myself alone responsible for the conclusions which I have drawn from them, the manuscript of this volume having been neither corrected nor looked over by any individual. While I make no pretensions to medical science, I cannot consent to be reasoned or ridiculed out of my feelings; nor to believe that to be an illusion, the truth of which has been confirmed to me by long-continued and repeated observation."

The use of distilled water was a cardinal article in the dietary creed of his friend Dr. Lambe, and upon this point Newton particularly insists. He appeals with much fervour, as we have just stated, to parents to have recourse to the natural means of prevention and cure, in place of vainly trying every available artificial method by medicine and drugs. He instances, with minute particularity, the regimen of his children, whom he asserts have been, up to the moment of his writing, perfectly free from any sort of malady or disorder, and to be :-

"So remarkably healthy that several medical men who have seen and examined them with a scrutinizing eye, all agreed in the observation that they knew nowhere a whole family which equals them in robustness. Should the success of this experiment, now of three years' standing. proceed it has begun, there is little doubt, [he venture to flatter himself] that it must at length have some influence with the public, and that every parent who finds the illness of his family both afflicting and expensive, will say to himself 'Why should I any longer be imprudent or foolish enough to have my children sick?' All hail to the resolution which that sentiment implies! But until it becomes general, I feel it necessary to exhort, in the warmest language I can think of, those who have the young in their charge to institute an experiment which I have made before them with the completest success. To those parents especially do I address myself who, aware that temperance in enjoyment is the best warrant of its duration, fell how dangerous and how empty are all the feverous amusements of our assemblies, our dinners, and our theatres, compared with the genuine and tranquil pleasures of a happy circle at home."

He presents an alluring picture of the health-producing results for the young of the natural regimen. He promises that:-

"They will become not only more robust but more beautiful; that their carriage will be erect, their step firm; that their development at a critical period of youth, the prematurity of which has been considered an evil, will be retarded; that, above all, the danger of being deprived of them will in every way diminish; while by these light repasts their ability will be augmented, and their intellects cleared in a degree which shall astonishingly illustrate the delightful effect of this regimen. . . . . I will beg here to attempt an answer in this place to that trite and specious objection to Dr. Lambe's opinions that 'what is suitable to one constitution may not be so to another.' If there be a single person existing, whose health would not be improved by the vegetable diet and distilled water, then the whole system falls at once to the ground. The question is simply, whether fruits and other vegetables be not the natural sustenance of man, who would have occasion for no other drink than these afford, and whose thirst is at present excited by an unnatural flesh-diet, which causes his disorders bodily and mentally . . . . Another objection sometimes urged is this: 'If children, brought up on a vegetable regimen, should at a further period of their lives adopt a flesh diet, they will certainly suffer more from the change than they otherwise would have done.' The very contrary of this, I conceive, would happen. The stomach is so fortified by the general increase in health, that a person thus nourished is enabled to bear what one whose humours are less impaired would sink under. The children of our family can each of them eat a dozen or eighteen walnuts for supper without the most trifling indigestion, an experiment which those who feed their children in the usual manner would consider it adventurous to attempt. So also the Irish porters in London bear these alterations of diet successfully, and owe much of their actual vigour to the vegetable food of their forefathers, and to their own, before they emigrated from Ireland, where in all probability, they did not taste flesh half-a-dozen times in the year."

As to another well-know pretext, that the propensity to flesh-eating, and the relish with which it is evidently enjoyed by the majority of flesh eaters, is proof of its fitness, Newton justly objects the various unnatural and disgusting foods of many savage peoples which are eaten with equal relish, so that "the argument of the agreeable flavour proves nothing, I apprehend, by proving too much." He exhorts the medical faculty generally, and those members of it who are in charge of hospitals, infirmaries or workhouses, to try the effect of the pure regimen on the sufferers and patients - in particular, in the cases of the victims of cancer. Amongst others of his personal acquaintance who had derived the greatest benefit from the regimen, he instances Dr. Adam Ferguson, the historian of the Roman Republic, who lived strictly on a vegetable diet. he was in the habit of accompanying Mr. Newton, in the year 1794, in rides through the environs of Rome. He was still living in 1811, and he died, in fact at the age of ninety, holding a professorship in the University of Edinburgh.


    1. Life of Shelley, by Jefferson Hogg, [mis]quoted by Mr. Hare in Life of Dr. Lambe. Hogg adds that he conformed for good fellowship, and found the purer food an agreeable change.

  • John Frank Newton - extracts
  • The life of Percy Bysshe Shelley Vol. 2 (PDF 20mb) by Jefferson Hogg, pub. 1858. This is a much criticised biography, more about Hogg than Shelley.

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index