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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 also interested in the ideas of the radical educationalist Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi in Switzerland and published a book documenting his work.

Based on the ideas of both Lambe and Pestalozzi, Greaves went on to set up the Alcott House Academy, a boarding school in Richmond, Surrey in 1838, a school which preached a simple and ascetic approach to life, including what we call today ethical veganism. But why call it the ‘Alcott’ House Academy? Here the story takes on a distinctly transatlantic dimension.

The development and naming of the Alcott House Academy was inspired by the American Amos Bronson Alcott, an educationalist, abolitionist, advocate for women’s suffrage and adopter of the vegetable diet. The development of Alcott’s own vegetarianism was influenced by none other than Salford’s Bible Christian Church. In 1817 a mission of forty people, led by the congregation’s William Metcalfe, migrated to the US and established a Bible Christian Church in Pennsylvania and began to preach the virtues of the vegetable diet. The Reverend Sylvester Graham, Presbyterian minister and later famous for the Graham cracker – a staple US favourite today and the equivalent of our UK digestive biscuit – visited the Bible Christians, adopted the vegetable diet and in turn influenced Amos Bronson Alcott up in Boston, Massachusetts.

In addition to diet, Alcott was also interested in education and, inspired by Greaves’ book on the ideas of Pestalozzi, in 1835 set up a school that supported creative thinking rather than rote learning. He later founded Fruitlands in Harvard, Massachusetts, a short-lived but inspirational experiment in simple vegan living.

Back across the Atlantic in the UK, two books about Alcott’s Boston school found their way back to Greaves. With a wonderful transatlantic circularity, Greaves then set up his own school, none other than the Alcott House Academy, which operated as a boarding school near Richmond, Surrey and later housed the UK’s first hydrotherapy centre, a concept which became all the rage in the mid-19th century. The Healthian Journal was published by the Alcott House Academy team and was responsible for the first known printed use of the word ‘vegetarian’ in one of its 1842 editions. The word was used in a way which suggested the 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 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, for his help with this article.

Note: this article was originally published in 2022, and was updated in September 2023.

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