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

Sir Richard Phillips 1767-1840
(text from the 1st edition, 1883 )

It is an obvious truth - in vain demonstrated seventeen centuries since by the best moral teachers of non-Christian antiquity - that abolition of the slaughter-house, with all the cruel barbarism directly or indirectly associated with it, by a necessary and logical corollary, involves abolition of every form of injustice and cruelty. Of this truth the subject of the present article is a conspicuous witness. During his long and active career, in social and political as well as in literary life, Sir Richard Phillips was a consistent philanthropist; and few, in his position of influence, have surpassed him in real beneficence. In the face of rancorous obloquy and opposition from that too numerous proportion of communities which systematically resist all "innovation" and deviation from the "ancient paths," he fearlessly maintained the cause of the oppressed; and, as a prison reformer, he claims a place second only to that of Howard.

Of his life we have fuller record than we have of some others of the prophets of dietetic reformation. Yet there is uncertainty as to his birth-place. One account represents him to have been born in London, and to have been the son of a brewer. Another statement, which appears to be more authentic reports his place of birth to have been in the neighbourhood of Leicester, and his father to have been a farmer. What is of more permanent interest is the account preserved of the reason of his first revolt from the practice of kreophagy. Disliking the business of farming, it seems, while yet quite young, not without the acquiescence of his parents, he had adventurously sought his living, on his own account, in the metropolis. What, if any, plans had been formed by him is not known; but it is certain that he soon found himself in imminent danger of starvation, and, after a brief trial, he gladly re-sought his home. Upon his return to the farm, he found awaiting him the welcome of the "Prodigal Son" - although, happily he had no just claim to the title of that well-known character. A "fatted-calf" was killed, and the boy shared the dish with the rest of the family. It was not until after the feast that he learned the slaughtered calf had been his especial favourite and playmate. So revolting to his keener sensibility was the consciousness of this fact, that he registered a vow never again to live upon the products of slaughter. To this determination he adhered during the remainder of his long life. (1)

His next venture, and first choice of a profession, while he was still quite young, led him to engage in teaching. As an advertisement he placed a flag at the door of a house in which he rented a room, where he gave elementary instruction to such children as were entrusted to his tuition by the townspeople of Leicester. The experiment proved not very successful, and at the end of a twelvemonth he tried his fortune elsewhere. He next turned to commerce - at first in a humble fashion. His business prospered, and his next important undertaking was the establishment of a newspaper - the Leicester Herald. This journal was what is now called a "Liberal" paper. Yet by those who affected to identify the welfare of England with the continued existence of rotten boroughs and other corruptions, it was held up to opprobrium as revolutionary and "incendiary." Phillips himself had the reputation of an able political writer; but the chief support of the journal was the celebrated Dr. Priestley, whose name and contributions gave it a reputation it otherwise might not have gained. The responsible editor did not escape the perils that then environed the denouncers of legal or social iniquity, and Phillips, convicted of a "misdemeanour," was sentenced to three years' imprisonment in Leicester jail. During his imprisonment he displayed the beneficence of his disposition in relieving the miseries of some of his more wretched companions. Upon his release, he sold his interest in the Leicester Herald, and for some time confined himself altogether to business.

Leaving Leicester he migrated to London and set up a hosiery establishment, which however he soon converted into the more congenial bookshop. It was the success of the Leicester Herald that, probably, led him to think of starting a new periodical. Upon consultation with Priestley and other friends he was encouraged to proceed, and the Monthly Magazine was the result. It commenced in July 1795 and proved to be a most decided success. At first conducted by Priestley, it was afterwards partly under the editorship of Dr. Aitkin, author of the Country Around Manchester. The proprietors shared in the management of the magazine, but to what extent it is difficult to ascertain. Amongst the contributors was "Peter Pindar," so well known as the author, amongst other satirical rhymes, of the verses upon George III., perplexed by the celebrated "apple dumpling." The monthly receipts from the sale amounted to £1,500. A quarrel with Aitkin was followed by the resignation of the editor. Increase of business soon led to a removal of the publishing house from St. Paul's Churchyard to a much larger establishment in Blackfriars. His home was at Hampstead where, in a beautiful neighbourhood and in an elegant villa, the opulent publisher enjoyed the refined pleasures which his humaneness of living, as well as beneficent industry, had justly deserved. At this time he began a correspondence with C. J. Fox, on the subject of the History of James II., upon which the famous whig statesman was then engaged. Four letters addressed to him by Fox have been printed, but they have no special importance. He was already married, and the story of his courtship has more than the mere gossiping interest of ordinary biography. Upon his first arrival in London, he had taken lodgings in the house of a milliner. One of her assistants was a Miss Griffiths, a beautiful young Welsh girl, who, learning the unconquerable aversion of their guest from the common culinary barbarism, had amiably volunteered to prepare his dishes on strictly anti-kreophagisitc principles. This incident induce and sympathy and friendship which speedily resulted in a proposal of marriage. They were a handsome pair; and a somewhat precipitate matrimonial alliance was followed by many years of unmixed happiness for both.

In 1807 the "Livery" of London elected him to the office of High Sheriff of the City and County of Middlesex for the ensuing year. This responsible post put to the proof the sincerity of his professions as a reformer. Nor did he fail in the trial. During his term of power he effected many improvements in the treatment of the real or pretended criminals who, as occupants of the jails, came under his jurisdiction. No one who had read Howard's State of the Prisons, published thirty years before Phillips. entrance upon his office, or even general accounts of them, need to be told that they were the very nurseries of disease, vice, misery, and crime of all kinds - one of the many everlasting disgraces of the governments and civilisation of the day. Nor had they been appreciably improved during the interval of thirty years.

The new Sheriff daily visited Newgate and the Fleet prisons and, by personal enquiry, made himself acquainted with the actual state of the occupants, and in many ways was able to ameliorate their condition. By his direction several collecting boxes were conspicuously displayed, and the alms collected were applied to the relief of the families of destitute debtors. He further insisted that persons, whose indictments had been ignored by the grand jury, should not be detained in the foul and pestilential atmosphere, as was then the case, but should be immediately released.

In his admirable Letter to the Livery of London, he begins with an appeal to the common sentiments of humanity which ought to have some influence with those in authority. He reminds his readers that :-

"It is too much the fashion to exclude feeling from the business of public life, and a total absence of it is considered as a necessary qualification in a public man. Among statesmen and politicians he is considered as weak and incompetent who suffers natural affection to have any influence on his political calculations."

In a note to this passage he adds :-

"It appears to me that political errors of all kinds arise, in a great degree, from the studied banishment of feeling from the consideration of statesmen. Reasoning frequently fails us from a false estimate of the premises on which our deductions are founded. But feeling, which, in most respects, is synonymous with conscience, is almost always right. Statesmen are apt to view society as a machine, the several parts of which must be made by them to perform their respective functions for the success of the whole. The comparison is often made, but the analogy is not perfect. The parts of the social machine are made up of sensitive beings, each of whom (though in the obscurest situation) is equal, in all the affections of our nature, to those in the most conspicuous places. The harmony and happiness of the whole will depend on the degree of feeling exercised by the directors and prime movers."

After the preliminary exhortation, he presents to their contemplation an appalling revelation of the stupid cruelties of the criminal law and its administration. He gives a graphic account of the jail of Newgate - both of the felons' and the debtors division. The dimensions of the entire building were 105 yards by 40 yards, of which only one-fourth part was used by the prisoners. Into this space were crowded sometimes seven or eight hundred, never less than four or five hundred, human beings of both sexes and of all ages. "Felons" and debtors seem to have fared pretty much the same, and filth, fever, and starvation prevailed in all parts of the jail alike. The woman prisoners he describes as pressed together so closely as, upon lying down, to leave no atom of space between their bodies. As for the results of this neglect on the part of the State, he finds it impossible to draw an adequate picture of them, and is at a loss to imagine how the whole city is not carried off by a plague. By preserving energy he obtained some reformation, although he failed in his proposal for a new building.

As to the individual occupants of these pest-houses, he found a large number whose offences were comparatively of an innocent kind, but who were herded with the most savage criminals. He espoused the cause of several of these prisoners - especially of the women - who, after some years of incarceration, were frequently drifted off to Botany Bay, which, besides its other terrors, was for almost al of them a perpetual separation from their homes, their husbands, and families. Twice he vainly addressed a memorial to the Secretary of State (Lord Hawkesbury) on their behalf. The traditions and routine of office were too powerful even for his persistent energy.

Romilly has lately introduced his measure for amendment of the barbarous and bloody penal code of this country. Sir Richard Phillips addressed to him also a thoughtful letter, in which were pointed out some of the more glaring abuses in the administration of the laws, with which his official experience as High Sheriff had made him familiar. When Mansfield was Lord Chief Justice, and Thurlow Lord Chancellor, the hangings were so numerous that, as he informs us, on one "hanging holiday" he saw nineteen persons on the gallows, the eldest of whom was not twenty-two years of age. The larger number, probably, had been sentenced to this barbarous death for theft of various kinds. Three hundred years had passed away since the animadversions of More (before his accession to office) in the Utopia, and some half-century since Beccasria and Voltaire had protested against this monstrous iniquity of criminal legislation, without effect, in England, at least. As far as their contemporaries and their successors for long afterwards were concerned these philanthropists had written wholly in vain.

In a letter to Romilly Phillips insists particularly upon the following reforms : (1) No prisoner to be placed in irons before trial. (2) None to be denied free access of friends or legal advisers. (3) None to be deprived of adequate means of subsistence - 14 ounces of bread then being the maximum of allowance of food. (40 Every prisoner to be discharged as soon as the grand jury shall have thrown out the bill of indictment. (5) Abolition of payment to jailors by exactations forced from the most destitute prisoners, and of various other exorbitant or illegal fines and extortions. (6) separation of lunatic from other occupants of the jails. (7) That counsel be provided for those too poor to pay for themselves.

In 1811 Phillips published his Treatise on the Powers and Duties of Juries, and on the Criminal Laws of England. Three years later Golden Rules for Jurymen, which he afterwards expanded into a book entitled Golden Rules of Social Philosophy (1826), in which he lays down rules of conduct for the ordinary business of life - lawyers, clergymen, schoolmasters, and others being the objects of his admonitions. It is in this work that the civic dignitary - so "splendidly false" to the habits of his class - sets forth at length the principles upon which his unalterable faith in the truth of humanitarian dietetics was founded. The reasons of this "true confession" are fully and perspicuously specified, and the first forms the key-note of the rest :- (2)

  1. Because, being mortal himself, and holding his life on the same uncertain and precarious tenure as all other sensitive beings, he does not find himself justified, by any supposed superiority or inequality of condition, in destroying the enjoyment of existence of any other mortal, except in the necessary defence of his own life.
  2. Because the desire of life is so paramount, and so affectingly cherished in all sensitive beings, that he cannot reconcile it to his feelings to destroy or become a voluntary party in the destruction of any innocent being being, however much in his power, or apparently insignificant.
  3. Because he feels the same abhorrence from devouring flesh in general that he hears carnivorous men express against eating human flesh, or the flesh of Horses, Dogs, Cats, or other animals which, in some countries, it is not customary for carnivorous men to devour.
  4. Because Nature seems to have made a superabundant provision for the nourishment of [frugivorous] animals in the saccharine matter of Roots and Fruits, in the farinaceous matter of Grain, Seed, and Pulse, and in the oleaginous matter of the Stalks, Leaves and Pericarps of numerous vegetables.
  5. Because he feels an utter and unconquerable repugnance against receiving into his stomach the flesh or juices of deceased animal organisation.
  6. Because the destruction of the mechanical organisation of vegetables inflicts no sensible suffering, not violates any moral feeling, while vegetables serve to sustain his health strength, and spirits above those of most carnivorous men.
  7. Because during thirty years of rigid abstinence from the flesh and juices of deceased sensitive beings, he finds that he has not suffered a day's serious illness, that his animal strength and vigour have been equal or superior to that of other men, and that his mind has been fully equal to numerous shocks which he has had to encounter from malice, envy, and various acts of turpitude in his fellow-men.
  8. Because observing that carnivorous propensities among animals are accompanied by a total want of sympathetic feelings and gentle sentiments - as in the Hyena, the Tiger, the Vulture, the eagle, the Crocodile, and the Shark - he conceives that the practice of these carnivorous tyrants affords no worthy example for the imitation or justification of rational, reflecting, and conscientious beings.
  9. Because he observes that carnivorous men, unrestrained by reflection or sentiment, even refine on the most cruel practices of the most savage animals [of other species] and apply their resources of mind and art to prolong the miseries of the victims of their appetites - bleeding, skinning, roasting, and boiling animals alive, and torturing them without reservation or remorse, if they thereby add to the variety or the delicacy of their carnivorous gluttony.
  10. Because the natural sentiments and sympathies of human beings, in regard to the killing of other animals, are generally so averse from the practice that few men or women could devour the animals whom they might be obliged themselves to kill; and yet they forget, or affect to forget, the living endearments or dying sufferings of the being, while they are wantoning over his remains.
  11. Because the human stomach appears to be naturally so averse from receiving the remains of the animals, that few people could partake of them if they were not disguised and flavoured by culinary preparation; yet rational beings ought to feel that the prepared substances are not the less what they truly are, and that no disguise of food, in itself loathsome, ought to delude the unsophisticated perceptions of a considerate mind.
  12. Because the forty-seven millions of acres in England and Wales would maintain in abundance as many human inhabitants, if they lived wholly on grain, fruits, and vegetables; but they sustain only twelve millions [in 1811] scantily, while animal food is made the basis of human subsistence.
  13. Because animals do not present or contain the substance of food in mass, like vegetables; every part of their economy being subservient to their mere existence, and their entire frames being solely composed of blood necessary for life, of bones for strength, of muscles for motion, and of nerves for sensation.
  14. Because the practice of killing and devouring animals can be justified by no moral plea, by no physical benefit, nor by any just allegation of necessity in countries where there is abundance of vegetable food, and where the arts of gardening and husbandry are favoured by social protection, and by the genial character of the soil and climate.
  15. Because wherever the number an hostility of predatory land animals might so tend to prevent the cultivation of vegetable food as to render it necessary to destroy and, perhaps, to eat them, there could in that case exist no necessity for destroying the animated existences of the distinct elements of air and water; and, as in most civilised countries, there exist no land animals besides those which are properly bred for slaughter or luxury, of course the destruction of mammals and birds in such countries must be ascribed either to unthinking wantonness or to carnivorous gluttony.
  16. Because the stomachs of locomotive beings appear to have been provided for the purpose of conveying about with the moving animal nutritive substances, analogous in effect to the soil in which are fixed the roots of plants and, therefore, nothing ought to be introduced into the stomach for digestion and for absorption by the lacteals, or roots of the animal system, but the natural bases of simple nutrition - as the saccharine, the oleagious, and the farinaceous matter of the vegetable kingdom. (3)

Perhaps his most entertaining book is his Morning Walk from London to Kew (1817). In it he avails himself of the various objects on his road for instructive moralising - as, for example, when he meets with a mutilated soldier, on the frightful waste and cruelty of war; or with a horse struggling up a precipitous hill in agony of suffering from the torture of the bearing-rein, on the common forms of selfish cruelty; or again when he deplores the incalculable waste of food resources, by the careless indifferentism of owners of land and of the State in allowing the country to remain encumbered with useless, or comparatively useless, timber, in place of planting it with valuable fruit trees of various sorts according to the nature of the soil.

His next publication of importance was his Million of Facts and correct Data and Elementary Constants in the entire Circle of the Sciences, and on all Subjects of Speculation and Practice (1832) 8vo. It is this work by which, perhaps, Phillips is now most known - an immense collection and, although many of the "Constants" may be open to criticism or have already become obsolete, it may still be examined with interest. The plan of the work is that of a classified collection of scraps of information on all the arts and sciences. It was so popular that five large editions were published in seven years. His preface to the stereotyped edition is dated 1839. He remarks that "his pretensions for such a task are a prolonged and uninterrupted intercourse with books and men of letters. He has, for forty-nine years, been occupied as the literary conductor of various public journals of reputation; he has superintended the press in the printing of many hundred books in every branch of human pursuit, and he has been intimately associated with men celebrated for their attainments in each of them." In the facts concerning anatomy and physiology will be found references to scientific and other authorities upon the subject of flesh-eating.

Occasionally we meet with biographical facts of special interest. Thus, he says that, early in 1825, he suggested the first idea of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge to Dr. Brkbeck and then, by his advice to Lord Brougham. His idea was the establishment of a fund for selling or giving away books and tracts, after the manner of the Religious Tract Society. As regards his astronomic paradoxes, his theory, in opposition to the Newtonian, that the phenomena attributed to gravitation are, in reality, the "proximate effects of the orbicular and rotatory motions of the earth" (for which he was severely criticised by Professor De Morgan), exhibits at least the various activity, if not the invariable infallibility, of his mental powers.

A work of equal interest with a Million of Facts is his next compilation - A Dictionary of the Arts of Life and Civilisation (1833). Under the article Diet he well remarks :-

"Some regard it as a purely egotistical question whether men live on flesh or on vegetables. But others mix with it moral feelings towards animals. If theory prescribed human flesh, the former party would lie in wait to devour their brethren; but the latter, regarding the value of life to all that breathe, consider that, even in a balance of argument, feelings of sympathy ought to turn the scale. . . . . We see al the best animal and social qualities in mere vegetable-feeders. . . . Beasts of prey are necessarily solitary and fearful, even of one another. Physiologists, themselves carnivorous, differ on the subject, but they never take into account moral considerations.

"Though it is known that the Hindus and other Eastern peoples live wholly on rice - that the Irish and Scotch peasantry subsist on potatoes and oatmeal - and that the labouring poor of all countries live on the food, of which an acre yields one hundred times more than of flesh, while they enjoy unabated health and long life - yet an endless play of sophistry is maintained about the alleged necessity of killing and devouring animals.

"At twelve years of age the author of this volume was struck with such horror in accidentally seeing the barbarities of a London slaughter-house, that since that hour he has never eaten anything but vegetables. He persevered, in spite of vulgar forebodings, with unabated vigorous health; and at sixty-six finds himself more able to undergo any fatigue of mind and body than any other person of his age. He quotes himself because the case, in so carnivorous a country, is uncommon - especially in the grades of society in which he has been accustomed to live. . . . On principle he does not abstain from any vegetable luxuries or from fermented liquors; but any indulgence in the latter requires (he hastens to add) the correction of carbonate of soda. He is always in better health when water is his sole beverage; and such is the case with all who have imitated his practice." (4)

Under the article "Farming," he observes that "a man who eats 1lb. of flesh eats the exact equivalent of 6lbs. of wheat, and 128lbs. of potatoes." That is, that he, in such proportion, wastes the national resources of a country.

The High Sheriff, on the occasion of some petition to the King., had been knighted (to the affected scandal of his political enemies, who, apparently, wished to reserve all titular or other recognition for their own party), and the conspicuous beneficence of his career, while in office, had gained him an honourable popularity. But fortune, so long favourable, now for a time showed itself adverse. In 1809 his affairs became embarrassed, and recourse to the bankruptcy court inevitable. Happily his friends aided him in saving from the general wreck the copyright of the Monthly Magazine. Its management was a chief occupation of his remaining years; and his own contributions, under the signature of "Common Sense," attracted marked attention. In his publishing career, the most curious incident was the refusal of the MSS. of Waverley. The author's demands seem to have been in excess of the value placed upon the novel by the publisher. It had been advertised in the first instance (he tells us) as the production of Mr. W. Scott. The name was then withdrawn, and the famous novel came before the world anonymously.

Besides the writings already noticed, Phillips compiled or edited a large number of school books, published under the names of Goldsmith, Blair and others, were his own productions - between the years 1798 and 1815. Nor was his mental activity confined to literary work; mechanical and scientific inventions largely occupied his attention. To prevent the enormous expenses of railway viaducts, embankments, and removals of streets, he proposed suspension roads, ten feet above the housetops, with inclined planes of 20° or 30°, and stationary engines to assist the rise and fall at each end. Cities, he maintained might be traversed in this way on right lines. with intermediate points for ascent and descent. This bold and ingenious idea seems very like an anticipation of the elevated railways of new York, although even these have not yet reached the height Phillips thought desirable.

He interested himself, also, in steam navigation. When Fulton was in England he was in frequent communication with his English friend, to whom he despatched a triumphant letter on the evening of his first voyage on the Hudson. This letter, having been shown to Earl Stanhope and some eminent engineers., was treated by them with derision as describing an impossibility. Sir R. Phillips then advertised for a company, to repeat on the Thames what had become an accomplished fact on the American rivers. After expenditure of a large sum of money in advertising he obtained only two ten-pound conditional subscribers. He then printed, with commendation, Fulton's letters in the Monthly Magazine, and his credulity was almost universally reprobated. It is worth recording that, in the first steam voyage from the Clyde to the Thames, Phillips, three of his family, and five or six others, were the only passengers who had the courage to test the experiment. To allay the public alarms he published a letter in the newspapers, and before the end of that summer he saw the same packet set out on its voyage with 350 passengers. (5)

In 1840, the year following the final edition of his most popular book, he died at Brighton in the seventy-third year of his age. During his busy life if, by his reforming energy, he had raised up some bitter enemies and detractors, he had made, on the other hand, some valuable friendships. Among these - not the least noteworthy - is his intimate friendship with that most humane-minded lawyer, Lord Erskine, one of those who have best adorned the legal profession in this country.



    1. Memoirs of the Public and Private Life of Sir R. Phillips. London, 1808
    2. They had been published by him several years earlier in the Medical Journal for July 27, 1811.
    3. Golden Rules of Social Philosophy : Being a System of Ethics. 1826.
    4. A Dictionary of the Arts of Life and Civilisation, 1833. London : Sherwood & Co. It will be seen that the origin of his revolt from orthodox dietetics, given by himself, differs from that narrated in the Life from which we have quoted above. It is possible that both incidents may have equally affected him at the moment but that the spectacle of the London slaughter-house remained most vividly impressed upon his mind.
    5. Million of Facts, p. 176. For the substance of the greater part of this biography, our acknowledgements are due to the researches of Mr. W. E. A. Axon, F.R.S.L., F.S.S.


Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index