The Vegetarian Society is a dynamic and well known organisation, respected around the globe. But what were its origins? How did it come into being? What were the early aspirations of the founding members of the Vegetarian Society and what kind of people were they? Could they have envisaged the success and appeal that vegetarianism enjoys now in the modern world?
The Vegetarian Society has its roots in the reforming spirit of the early 19th century. The backdrop of health reform, the temperance movement, and the rise of philanthropy set the scene for the convergence of groups that eventually formed the vegetarian movement. The Industrial Revolution unleashed any number of social problems, and the ‘vegetable diet’ was seen by some as a solution (the word ‘vegetable’ at that time meant all types of plant foods, including fruits, grains, beans etc.). The idea that eating meat was a brutalising force was strong and, in an age where social reform was gathering pace, the question of whether abstention from meat might bring order attracted attention.
Historically the idea of abstinence from flesh had always had some currency amongst the educated (see World History) and the idea had appealed, throughout history, to people who questioned the majority view on social and religious issues.
The Salford connection
From the turn of the 19th century, many individuals in Britain were developing ideas that involved adopting a meat-free diet. The contexts in which these individuals came together as groups were quite different. The first long-term modern organisation to abandon meat eating was the Bible Christian Church, led by the Reverend William Cowherd in Salford, near Manchester.
Back in 1809, Cowherd famously advanced the principle of abstinence from the consumption of flesh to his congregation. His reforming spirit, which encouraged temperance and self-improvement through education, won favour with local people through the practical support he gave them in the form of warm food, medical help, and unusually for the time, free burial. The Rev Cowherd’s emphasis on vegetarianism was that it was good for health and that meat eating was unnatural and likely to engender aggression. Later he is reputed to have said “If God had meant us to eat meat then it would have come to us in edible form, as is the ripened fruit”. William Cowherd died in 1816 but prominent members of his church were later to become leading lights of the Vegetarian Society. These included Joseph Brotherton who succeeded Cowherd in leading the Church and later became Salford’s first MP; and James Simpson, a wealthy industrialist. In 1832, Brotherton’s wife Martha published the first ‘vegetable diet’ cookery book.
The initiative to launch the Vegetarian Society came from a very different group, based around the Alcott House Academy on Ham Common, near Richmond, Surrey. This was founded by the merchant and ‘sacred socialist’ James Pierrepont Greaves. He set up the school in 1838, following the example of Bronson Alcott and naming it in his honour. Alcott, the father of author Louisa May Alcott, had run a similar school in Boston, USA, based on the ideas of the educational reformer Pestalozzi. In 1842 the Ham Common school was renamed ‘The Concordium’, still in Alcott House and they began publishing journals, first The Healthian and then The New Age. The April 1842 issue of The Healthian contained the earliest known printed use of the word ‘vegetarian’, and for the next five years all known uses of the word were from people closely connected with Alcott House. Though health was undoubtedly part of their reasoning, the basis of their vegetarianism was asceticism – living as simple and morally accountable a life as possible.
The first hydrotherapy unit in Britain was opened in Alcott House in 1841. William Horsell, who lived nearby, had become a vegetarian by 1845 and published a book entitled ‘Hydropathy for the People’. In 1846 a Hydropathic Institute opened in Ramsgate, Kent, replacing the one in Alcott House, and Horsell became the manager. He also edited a journal The Truth Tester (by 1846 incorporating The Healthian) avowing that vegetarianism was ‘the next practical moral subject which is likely to call forth the virtuous energy of society’. In April 1847, a letter printed in his journal from a reader in Hampshire suggested that a Vegetarian Society should be formed.
The Vegetarian Society
The business manager of Alcott House, William Oldham, responded to the letter by organising a conference at the school on Thursday July 8, 1847, to bring together those who might be interested in forming a society. The Salford Bible Christians were represented by James Simpson.
A second meeting was held on September 30, 1847, at Northwood Villa, home of the Hydropathic Institute in Ramsgate. Joseph Brotherton, MP for Salford, was invited to chair the historic meeting, and the Vegetarian Society was born, following a unanimously passed resolution. 150 members were soon enrolled.
William Horsell became the first Secretary, renaming his journal The Vegetarian Advocate for the benefit of the Society. James Simpson, of the Salford Bible Christians, was elected the first President, with William Oldham from Alcott House as the first treasurer.
The following year, at the Society’s first annual meeting in Manchester, the fledgling organisation boasted 265 members, who spanned ages 14-76, and 232 attended the post-AGM dinner. By 1849 the President had moved all the operations of the Society to the Manchester area, where it has been based ever since. The Vegetarian Messenger was launched that year, with almost 5,000 copies circulated each month of this penny publication. It continued under that name for more than 100 years.
Spreading the message
Shorthand ‘guru’ Isaac Pitman (left) spoke at the Society’s second annual meeting, and proudly announced that he had been vegetarian for 11 years. By the turn of the century, his contribution to the movement was commemorated when the imposing Pitman Vegetarian Hotel opened in Birmingham in 1899. Throughout the 1850s, meetings were held, and local vegetarian groups formed, in many major cities and towns including London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham and Liverpool. The movement spread to many parts of the country and local branches sprang up from Colchester to Worcester and Paisley.
In 1877 The London Food Reform Society (LFRS) was formed, with Dr T R Allinson (of bakery fame) one of its founder members, a man who abstained from flesh, tobacco and alcohol. The two societies merged in 1885, with the LFRS becoming the London branch of the Vegetarian Society until 1888, when there was a breakaway and the formation of The London Vegetarian Society, with its own publication, ‘The Vegetarian’ (replaced by ‘Vegetarian News’ in 1921).
By the late 19th century, Britain could boast two influential vegetarian organisations. Both were to flourish as the nation entered the 20th century. The great Mahatma Gandhi was a Committee member of the London Vegetarian Society, and playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw joined the original society, still based in Manchester. An associate of Shaw and Gandhi, Henry Salt played a prominent role in the vegetarian and animal welfare movements and wrote forty books on both topics. Other notable vegetarians of the time included: John Barclay, athlete and Scottish half mile running champion in 1896; Salvation Army’s Bramwell Booth; Dr Anna Kingsford, a leading campaigner for women’s rights; Mrs Annie Besant of the Theosophical Society; and the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.
This page last revised August 2011, by John Davis, Manager and Historian of the International Vegetarian Union. For full details of the origins of the word ‘vegetarian’, with links to all original sources, see: www.ivu.org/history/vegetarian.html.
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