|International Vegetarian Union (IVU)|
Although some people consider vegetarianism a trendy new fad in reality it has a long history; Brahminism, Buddhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism, all long established religions, advocated abstention from flesh foods, as did such early philosophers and thinkers as Pythagoras, Seneca, Ovid, Diogenes, Plato, Plotinus and Socrates. In later times famous writers such as Voltaire, Paley, Pope, Shelley, Bentham and Lamartine all expressed similar opinions about the desirability of a flesh free diet. John Wesley, co-founder of Methodism and John Howard, the prison reformer, were also vegetarians.
It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that any attempt was made to organise a vegetarian movement in the UK. In 1809, the Reverend William Cowherd, the founder of the Bible Christian Church in Salford, asked his congregation to refrain from eating meat. One of his followers was Mr Joseph Brotherton, MP for Salford, who later became one of the first of the Vegetarian Society’s presidents. In addition his wife published the first vegetarian cookery book in 1812. It is unlikely though that many of the recipes would suit today’s tastes! Two followers of the Reverend Cowherd, the Reverend William Metcalfe and the Reverend James Clark emigrated to the United States in 1817 with 39 other members of the Bible Christian Church and formed the nucleus of a vegetarian movement in America. By 1846, a vegetarian hospital called Northwood Villa had been established in Ramsgate, Kent, under the direction of Mr. and Mrs. Horsell, both prominent vegetarians. A meeting held at that hospital on 30 September 1847 resulted in the formation of The Vegetarian Society which is, as far as we know, the oldest vegetarian association in the world.
The fledgling Society held its first annual meeting in Manchester the following year and by that time had grown to 478 members. The first issue of the Society’s magazine, called The Vegetarian Messenger in those days, came out in September 1848 and nearly 5000 copies were circulated. Mr Isaac Pitman, of short-hand fame, spoke at the Society’s second annual meeting and announced he had been a vegetarian for 11 years. The London Food Reform Society was formed in 1877 and Dr. Allinson (now immortalised on a popular brand of wholemeal bread) was one of its members. This organisation merged with The Vegetarian Society in 1885 and became its London Branch, but there was some friction and in 1888, the London Branch broke away and became a second national society, The London Vegetarian Society, with its own magazine, The Vegetarian. Both Societies flourished during the latter half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. Mahatma Gandhi was a member of The London Vegetarian Society and George Bernard Shaw joined the original Society, which was then based in the Manchester area. Other famous vegetarians of that time include Bramwell Booth of the Salvation Army, Anna Kingsland, a doctor and campaigner for women’s rights, Mrs Annie Besant of the Theosophical Society and the Russian novelist, Count Tolstoy.
The sort of food available to most vegetarians then was rather plain by our standards. Strangely enough, the magazines published few recipes, but were fond of printing “testimonies” from individual vegetarians who believed their diet was responsible for their good health. One such testimony was by a Mr Ching of Stockwell, who ate only “haricots at dinner with other vegetables, potatoes and cabbage; wholemeal bread and butter for tea, breakfast and supper, sometimes with some cheese.” He also reckoned that his occupation was “not a very laborious one”. Business hours were only 8am to 8.30pm and he had to walk three miles to and from work! The Societies’ social events seem to have been memorable, for example, in 1920, The Vegetarian Society held a summer school at Arnold House, Llanddulas that ran for five weeks at the height of the holiday season, averaging an attendance of 70 people a week.
World War II was a difficult time for vegetarians. The Committee of Vegetarian Interests was formed, with representatives from the two Vegetarian Societies, health food manufacturers and health food retailers to liaise with the Ministry of Food and win concessions. Vegetarians were allowed an extra ration of cheese and the committee was very concerned about ensuring the preferential distribution of nuts to vegetarians. As the number of registered vegetarians increased sharply during the years of rationing, it was suspected some non-vegetarians were signing up to claim the extra nuts and cheese! Human nature obviously has not changed much as this is still something that happens today both in our prison system and on plane journeys. This resulted in considerable discussion about the definition of vegetarian and methods of ensuring that only bona fide vegetarians could draw the extra rations.
The Committee of Vegetarian Interests continued for many years after the war, including representatives of vegetarian restaurateurs, the Vegetarian Catering Association and the Plantmilk Society. As rationing ended, they turned their attention to such things as the introduction of a vegetarian class in the Salon Culinaire competition, the production of cheese with non-animal rennet, standards in vegetarian catering and the establishment of soya milk manufacturing in this country.
During the 1950s and 60s, the Societies increasingly began to work together, and after 1958 combined to replace their magazines with a joint publication, The British Vegetarian. In 1969, they amalgamated to form one society again. The organisation we have today, The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom Ltd. Our magazine has had several changes of title but has now reverted to “The Vegetarian” and has been in continuous publication since that first issue in 1848.Vegetarianism increased steadily throughout the 1970s and 80s, with The Vegetarian Society taking a prominent lead in campaigning and education. The Society’s Food and Cookery Section was formed to teach nutrition and vegetarian cooking skills through courses and demonstrations and. by 1983, demand was so great the Food and Cookery Section was replaced by The Cordon Vert Cookery School which today runs courses almost every week of the year, for all levels of expertise from beginners up to professional chefs.
Our famous seedling symbol was first used in the early 1970s as the logo of the newly combined Societies. In 1987 we began the scheme which licenses manufacturers to use the seedling symbol on vegetarian products, after thorough checking, something which has made shopping much easier and is recognised by 96% of vegetarians according to a recent survey with McCains. Our Food and Drink Guild, a development from this performs a similar service in relation to guesthouses, restaurants and caterers.
National Vegetarian Day was first organised in 1991 and proved to be so popular, that it grew into National Vegetarian Week and has been held every year since, culminating this year in our first ever VegFest, held at Castlefields, Manchester. This exciting one day event, complete with the largest salad in the world , steel bands, cookery demonstrations and footballing vegetables attracted around 5000 people and a good time was had by all! The event, and the week in general attracted even more press than usual reflecting the growing interest in vegetarianism which the most recent Realeat survey estimates at 5000 converts a week in the UK. A number of other organisations dealing with specialised aspects of the vegetarian lifestyle have also been developed along with The Vegetarian Society such as the Vegetarian Housing Association (called Homes for Elderly Vegetarians prior to 1990), the British Vegetarian Youth Movement, The Vegetarian Charity, and The Vegetarian Cycling & Athletic Club ( founded in 1887).
Today around three and half million people in this country are vegetarians including such notables as Paul & Linda McCartney, the Society Patrons; Tony Banks, Minister for Sport; the actor Nigel Hawthorne; tennis champion Martina Navratilova; author Ruth Rendell and astronomer Heather Cooper. Restaurants, caterers, supermarkets and manufacturers have woken up to the size of the market and we now have an abundance of tasty, ready-made meals, a huge variety of vegetarian burgers, sausages, bacon, pates, sandwich fillings, and colourful vegetarian foods garnered from all over the world. It’s a far cry from Mr Ching’s haricots, potatoes and cabbage!
So where to now? First of all the celebrations! The Society has two main events to celebrate its very special Birthday. On September 30th a party will be held in the Mayfair InterContinental Hotel in London and on Saturday 4th October a Gala Dinner will be taking place in Salford, a joint event with Salford City Council because of their early involvement in the movement, and part of the Society’s AGM and social weekend. If anyone would like details of either please contact Julie Rowbottom at the Society. Then back to the work in hand to continue to promote vegetarianism in all possible ways, let’s hope it does not take another 150 years!
Bronwen Humphreys and Tina Fox