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Vegetarian Society: the first 175 years

Our Chief Executive, Richard McIlwain, explores the fascinating, transatlantic story of how the Vegetarian Society’s modern incarnation came about.

History of vegetarian and vegan diets

With vegetarian and vegan diets perhaps more in vogue than at any other time in history, it might appear to some, particularly in the media, that the issue is something of a new ‘fad’ that has gathered pace over the past five years or so. Not so, of course!

In fact, the welfare of animals and the impact of eating meat on human health has been discussed and written about for millennia. Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism, Jainism and some branches of Buddhism, have the longest track record in this area, with the West taking a while to catch up with the writing of Pythagoras who promoted a largely vegetarian diet around 500 BC.

However, despite vegetarianism’s continued popularity within India in particular, there is little evidence that the concept captured imaginations within Western civilisation to any great extent, and you have to fast-forward to the beginning of the 19th century to find the beginnings of the modern vegetarian movement in the West.

Founding figures

And what a fascinating story it represents. At a time when, in the UK, traditional rural populations were migrating into the rapidly developing industrial cities, the Vegetarian Society was formed thanks to the efforts of a range of fascinating, reforming characters, engaged in women’s suffrage, anti-slavery and animal welfare, drawn from the industrial North, Victorian London, the south coast and across the Atlantic in the USA.

In essence, the story begins with a North–South divide and two key individuals, the Reverend William Cowherd and Dr William Lambe: somewhat ironic names for key advocates of the move away from eating farmed animals.

Up in Salford, the Reverend William Cowherd established his Bible Christian Church, influenced by the writings of theologian, scientist and philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg, who believed the spirit of God was present in all things. In 1809, he preached a now famous sermon, extolling the benefits of what he called ‘the vegetable diet’ and insisting his congregation abstain from eating flesh, although the diet did include dairy and eggs: what we now call the ovo-lacto vegetarian diet. After his death, leadership of the church was taken on by Joseph Brotherton, who later became Salford’s first ever MP and remained committed to the vegetable diet throughout his life. His wife, Martha, wrote the first cookbook for the diet, simply entitled Vegetable Cookery. He was supported within the church by James Simpson, a wealthy cotton industrialist, also committed to the vegetable diet.

The Vegetarian Society was formed thanks to the efforts of a range of fascinating, reforming characters, engaged in women’s suffrage, anti-slavery and animal welfare

Above: Joseph Brotherton

Above: Joseph Brotherton

Meanwhile, down in London, Dr William Lambe was busy promoting the benefits of a plant food-only diet without the use of eggs and dairy. He adopted this diet in 1806, at the age of 40, in a bid to resolve his own chronic illness and inspired by the upturn in his health, began to write about the diet and its benefits. As a sidenote, Dr Lambe was the first recorded person to raise concerns about the presence of faecal matter in London’s drinking water, which was ultimately linked to cases of cholera in London by his protégé the physician John Snow.

Dr Lambe’s writing influenced numerous people, in particular a certain James Pierrepont Greaves, who adopted the plant-food only diet back in 1817. Greaves was not only interested in diet, but like all good reforming Victorians he also took a keen interest in education. In particular, he was taken with the ideas of the radical educationalist Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi from Switzerland, which focused on creative thinking over rote learning (an issue of debate within the education sector which persists to this day!).  Greaves subsequently went on to publish a series of letters between himself and Pestalozzi on the subject of education.

These letters eventually made their way to an American called Amos Bronson Alcott, another keen reforming character interested in a wide array of societal issues including education, abolitionism and women’s suffrage (notably his daughter, Louisa May Alcott, was the author of the classic feminist novel ‘Little Women’).

Inspired by the writings of Greaves and Pestalozzi, Amos Bronson Alcott set up his own day school in 1835 with a curriculum based on their ideas.

James Greaves subsequently acquired two books about Alcott’s school and its radical teaching methods. Suitably inspired, Greaves launched his own school based on these principles and named it ‘Alcott House’, in honour of his US counterpart. But of course Greaves went one step further and also introduced the Dr William Lambe inspired plant-food only diet for the boarding pupils.

Interestingly, Amos Bronson Alcott was not himself vegetarian at the time of setting up his school in 1835 but adopted the diet after attending a lecture by the Reverend Sylvester Graham, Presbyterian minister and famous for the creation of the Graham cracker – a staple US favourite today. Reverend Graham was himself influenced to adopt a meat-free diet, after reading the works of none other than Dr William Lambe. There is also some evidence to suggest Reverend Syvester Graham visited Reverend William Metcalfe’s Philadelphia Bible Christian Church, perhaps no surprise given their shared Christian faith and dedication to meat-free diets.

Sadly, the two men responsible for both schools in the US and UK never met, Amos Bronson Alcott only visiting the school in the UK named for him, after James Pierrepoint Greaves had died. But inspired by his visit he too adopted a plant-based only diet.

And so it is that the early foundations for the Vegetarian Society have a distinctly transatlantic air. Crucially, the ideas being expounded in the early 19th century arise from religious, philosophical and scientific thinking, in many ways no different to the themes which underpin today’s debates around animal welfare, health and the environment.

But we should pause here to note that as is often the case with social movements, progressive ideas need to be carried forward by energetic and passionate individuals, without whom the status quo often persists. Hence, we must give a nod to the bravery and resolve of the two principal individuals Reverend William Cowherd in Salford and Dr William Lambe in London, both expounding and putting into print ideas beyond the norm for their time.

But now our story continues.

The team at Alcott House Academy expanded the operation to include the UK’s first hydrotherapy centre, a concept which became all the rage in mid-19th century Victorian England and very much the precursor to today’s health spas. They also went on to publish the Healthian Journal , within which was printed the first known use of the word ‘vegetarian’ in an 1842 edition, although the word was used in a way which suggested their readers had become familiar with it since the school opened in 1838.

Also living in Richmond at the time was a certain William Horsell. He became interested in vegetarianism and when the hydrotherapy centre moved down to the Northwood Villa Hydropathic Institute, in Ramsgate, he moved with it as manager, establishing it as a vegetarian, but in fact what we now call vegan, venue.

The Vegetarian Society is formed

Horsell edited another journal The Truth Tester, published from Ramsgate. Originally developed to promote the temperance movement, Horsell increasingly used it to promote what they were now calling vegetarianism. It was to this journal that a reader from Hampshire submitted a letter in April of 1847 suggesting the idea of a society for the promotion of vegetarianism. This idea was developed further at a meeting of 130 people in July 1847 at Alcott House, at which James Simpson from the Bible Christian Church attended and spoke.

And so it was that on 30 September 1847, the various strands of this story coalesce at Northwood Villa in Ramsgate, with the movers and shakers from the North and South coming together to agree to the formation of a society. None other than Joseph Brotherton, MP for Salford, chaired the very first meeting; William Horsell became its Secretary; James Simpson, from Salford, its President and William Oldham, the manager of Alcott House, its Treasurer.

Influencing historical figures

Over the next 175 years, the path of vegetarianism and veganism was not always smooth. Funds to support the Society were a constant issue and a reliance on wealthy benefactors was often required. In 1887, The London Vegetarian Society was formed as a breakaway from the main society, funded by Arnold Hills, a wealthy ironworks owner and founder of Thames Ironworks United, a totally vegetarian football team, which later turned professional and changed their name to West Ham United.

The London Society counted Mahatma Gandhi among its members, who became a member of the Executive Committee and wrote several journal articles. Indeed, it has been argued that the society was responsible for Gandhi coming to see a vegetarian diet as one not just central to his Hindu religion, but also a moral imperative and component part of his philosophy of non-violent struggle.

The issue of vegetarianism with or without eggs and dairy has been a topic of regular debate throughout the Society’s history. But in 1944, Society member Donald Watson proposed that a separate group be set up for members following the dairy and egg free diet, which resulted in the formation of the Vegan Society. See Origins-of-the-vegans.pdf (vegsoc.org) for more information. Despite the formation of this new society, Donald himself remained a life-long member of the Vegetarian Society, recognising its ground-breaking work and influence, and today’s Society remains a broad-church of both vegetarians and vegans (including those with an ambition to be vegetarian or vegan!).

The Manchester and London societies co-existed for many years, but in 1958 their respective magazines were brought together in one publication and in 1969 they unified as one Vegetarian Society for the whole of the UK, established at the headquarters in Parkdale, Altrincham. In 2023, the Vegetarian Society sold Parkdale, and moved offices to a central Manchester location. And so, we are now bang up to date.

Above: A young Gandhi

Driving change for the future

Our history is of course important. But it is only important if we retain that reforming spirit of our founders and strive for a non-violent world where animals are no longer viewed as food. Our founders were concerned with mankind’s spiritual development, our health and the welfare of our fellow animals. In the 21st century we can now add our rapidly changing climate to that list of concerns, and adoption of vegetarian or vegan diets is perhaps the easiest change any individual can make in attempting to tackle this global threat to our planet.

There remains much to do, but here at the Vegetarian Society we are determined to be at the heart of these issues, driving change, winning hearts and minds and ensuring people, animals and the wider biodiversity on which we all depend are valued and flourish in future years to come.

If anyone is interested in viewing the minutes of our first meeting, or indeed any of the subsequent publications through to the present day, the original journals are all held by the Vegetarian Society. Although the archive is not currently available for people to visit, please email hello@vegsoc.org or write to us at the Vegetarian Society and we will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Many thanks to life member and former trustee of the Vegetarian Society, John Davis, Fellow of the Vegetarian Society, for his help with this article.

Note: this article was originally published in 2022, and was updated in April 2024.

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