The cost of adultery in Regency Britain

Your wife, Mary, has been unfaithful. If you are not prepared to ignore it, either from principle or because the affair was so blatant, then your main recourse is to sue the perpetrator in court for criminal conversation (crim con).

The defendant is the man, not your wife. She has no official standing in the process; the Georgian marriage contract means that husband and wife are legally one person, and that person is you. She will not speak in the trial; she will not even be present, perhaps a good thing considering what she has been saying about you.  

You, let’s call you John Smith, will be suing the rascal, James Johnson, It will be Smith v Johnson, as you will be suing him in a civil case for damages. The state is not interested. It will cost you a lot of money.  You would only risk it if you could prove adultery, and you can.

‘Get out of my house you Hussey! I hired you to do your own business, not mine’

How much compensation will you ask for? Well, like the answer to any other question in the Regency; it depends on who you are.  You are a Liverpool merchant, suing another Liverpool merchant who last year inherited £10,000 a year and a lovely house in Shropshire. The money came from the West Indian slave trade, but that is not a big issue; it will not be mentioned in court by either side, because neither side considers it a moral problem. You will ask for £30,000!

Only once in recent history was this amount awarded, and they were aristocrats. Their marriage is worth more than yours; you do not mind because your marriage is worth more than a Wolverhampton grocer. Claims by superior provincial shopkeepers or skilled London artisans is the lower end of the Crim Con game. They would demand £1000 and get £100; you will not get £30,000; you know this, as does Johnson’s defence. Half of that would be a great result, and a third would be a good one. You have to ask for this sum because you are claiming that your marriage was wonderful, so the compensation must reflect this; however, you know in your heart that it was not wonderful, that there is evidence for this, and the defence will use it. In your corner is William Garrow, and in the defendant’s Vicary Gibbs. They will cost you both a fortune; lawyers always win, even when you lose.

Ellenborough- Law first, your feelings nowhere

Your day in court at the King’s Bench division at the Guildhall, presided over by the grumpy, reactionary and traditional Lord Ellenborough. You are happy with this; he hates adultery slightly more than the average judge, and he has the habit of telling the jury what he thinks. However, Ellenborough is interested in law as much as morality, and has put on his wig and endured his gout to defend the marriage contract first of all. At this point your mind goes back to the Crim Com case of Flower v Lewes.  In that case Charlie Flowers sued Mr Lewes for criminal conversation with his wife while he was imprisoned on a hulk at Greenwich. Lewes claimed, the wife confirmed, that he did not even know she was married. Ellenborough still asked the jury to award £1!   in damages for the violation of the marriage.

Everybody else’s reputation will be trashed, if necessary, to defend the status quo, and that includes yours, and you haven’t done anything wrong. Or have you?  What you fear most is that your case will become a popular pamphlet, and the amount of your compensation will also have an exclamation mark in front of it.

At this point you remembered that you family begged you not to do this. Johnson pleads not guilty, despite everybody knowing that he is; if he pleads guilty it would cost him £30,000. A trial like this lasts no more than seven hours, including a lunch so liquid that a modern judge would be drunk, incapable and sacked on the spot.

Two initial points; there is no adultery without a marriage, so you have to prove you have been married. So you call as your first witness the vicar that married you; he confirms the fact. Then, adultery needs to be proved. This does not always happen at the beginning of the trial. The bar for evidence is reasonable.  Some trials fail because the only evidence is that the couple were seen together on the public street – ‘this is England, not Turkey’, sniffed Ellenborough in another trial where this type of evidence was offered.

There does not even need to be witnesses to an act in flagrante, but there often is. Servants will be believed, especially if there is other evidence. Your wife’s servants will report back to you, as you pay them. Your evidence is sound; the evening in your house when Johnson’s   hand moved upwards from her knee at the dining table; the night they shared the same room in the White Lion, Shrewsbury, and one of the beds was not occupied. Servants were expert at spotting whether a bed was slept in, how many people slept there and could spot the tell-tail signs of sexual activity by describing the state of the sheets. No wonder the court was crammed.

In any case, they moved in together as man and wife in 1807. So you have won already. So why all the other evidence as well? You have to prove that Johnson destroyed your marriage will malice aforethought, and that it his totally his fault. It is not in your interest to destroy your wife’s reputation, as this would prove that the union was never worth anything

So, your personal life is under discussion.  You married in 1798, your wife Mary was twenty and you were thirty-nine.   That works well for you; if she had been 15, then Lord Ellenborough would have said that she was too young to know their mind, and that marriage that age was a form of seduction. Johnson was about your age; that works well for you too. If the defendant had been young, as in the case of Pitt v Hunt, where Hunt was a 15-year-old boy who had sex with his bosses’ wife, Ellenborough would assume that the woman was the seductress- ‘he had been seduced by the entangling snares of an experienced woman’. Pitt’s compensation was £2!

Mary, your wife, was from a good merchant family; the father approved the marriage, and the dowry was large enough to be respectable but small enough not to be seen as treasure hunting. It was a harmonious union. The consequence of such harmony was children; four in five years. This was conjugal bliss, and you had done your duty. Sex within marriage was seen as a decent, indeed necessary thing. Women were entitled to love, protection and married sexual relations. If you had failed to love her, and she had turned to others in distress, then it would have been partly your fault.

If you were 79 marrying a twenty-year old, this would be a defacto less valuable marriage.

Your counsel has also described your wife as beautiful and engaging; ‘she was a divinity under whose feet roses bloomed’. She provided solace and society for you and moral instruction for children. James Johnson was a brute who damaged your peace of mind, your fortune and your future.

You have to prove that you were a good husband. Your counsel goes on the attack, proving you were a good father to five lovely children, now robbed of their mother by the callous Johnson. Mr Carrass, a local merchant opined that you appeared uncommonly kind towards his children. However, it turned out that he did not know your extended family at all, merely exchanged cards at the doorstep, aping their aristocratic betters. Equally unhelpfully, he added that he had attended Parr’s evening parties and seen nothing between Johnson and Mrs Smith. The next witness said the same, and had the advantage of being an attorney, but the greater disadvantage of being Parr’s brother.

Compensation would increase if the offence was aggravated.  Johnson was a regular visitor to your house, and often spent drunken evenings there with your wife. He was your friend; you trusted him; and then he betrayed you. Your counsel proves this, after a hard day’s counting of money made from the trade in people and materials; you invited many friends over to get excessively drunk.

Then the problems started. At this drunken parties, why didn’t you notice that Johnson always sat by your wife?, says the defendant’s council. Why when the ladies retired, why did Johnson disappear as well? And what about the witness who’s wore that when he asked you were Mary was, you said, ‘she’s only with Jesse’.


Good god man! Some people’s wives go bit mad when taking the air at Ramsgate or Brighton, but this was happening under your own nose. Either you saw it and didn’t care, or failed to see it because you were not keeping control of your wife. You were instrumental in your own dishonour. You did not value your jewel, so why should the jury?

The next stage was the blame game. The defence would try to blame your wife, and your people would try to blame Johnson. You have the advantage; it will be assumed that the man was devious, clever and determined and the woman, the weaker vessel , ‘the frail fair one‘  ( said Ellenborough) who would easily be seduced. If seduction was easy, the marriage was not worth much.

Seduction happens once; after that the woman is fallen.  In the case of Gregson v Theaker, Jesse Gregson tried to obtain £10,000 from Thomas Theaker for criminal conversation with his wife. Theaker was his coachman, so the shame was seen to be greater because of the class disparity. The case was proven conclusively by a servant who knew when a bed had been hastily covered over, how many people had slept in it and what activities it suggested. It was looking good for much of the £10,000, when the defence produced evidence on earlier adultery. In Ellenborough’s eyes, this made Mr Theaker not very responsible for the end of the marriage- the responsibility lay with the first seducer. ‘Her actions did prove that she had no affection for her husband, as her wanton lusts meant that her embraces were available to all’. There had been no first seducer in his case, but the danger was still there; if his wife could be proved immoral or flighty, then compensation would fall.

Your wife had not always been discrete; indeed the defending counsel called her ‘ the interesting Mrs Smith’ , this is by no means a compliment, nor the main prong of the attack.

At the end of the day, Ellenborough describes Johnson as a beast and your wife clearly susceptible to him because of your culpable negligence. You are laughed at in the street at home in Liverpool ( crim con reports are syndicated) , you are still married, your wife is gone and you have the five children.  

Your compensation, after a jury discussion of five minutes during which they did not even leave the room, was £1000!

I have written three books on this period. If you liked this blog, you can find more of the same in The Dark Days of Georgian Britain. The are more details here. Now available in paperback.

 Passengers– is a social history of transport and hospitality. More details here.

Voices of the Georgian Age is out in January 2023. Amazon link here

All of my books on Radical Britain here


The slow progress of cremation in Victorian Britain

By 1850, there was no more room to bury the dead in the traditional English village churchyard. There was even less room in the cities and a public health emergency in London. A few voices suggested that cremation was the answer. The Victorians mostly disagreed, and this reluctance persisted into the next century, so cremation, or any change in the treatment of the dead, remained  a radical view in the nineteenth century, and most of the twentieth.

By 1901, there were only six crematoria in the United Kingdom, and only 427 cremations took place out of 551,585 deaths – less than 0.1%. By 1902, when there had only ever been 4,409 cremations, 2,653 of which had taken place in one crematorium in Woking. Cremation represented barely 5% of interments even as late as the 1930s and was impermissible to Roman Catholics until 1963. Cremation overtook traditional burial in the United Kingdom as late as 1967. It now represents 75% of all internments in the UK.

What was the Victorian objection? They were varied and different, and some had credibility. The Bible was the first port of call, naturally. Burial is in the Bible.  In Genesis, Abraham bought a piece of ground to bury the dead out of his sight. In Joshua, the bones of Joseph were preserved for many years, and then buried.  And, of course, Jesus was resurrected with his body intact. The promise of eternal life did not begin with the urn.

The argument was less clear in the cold light of human experience. Gruesome historical events had meant that the internment of an intact corpse was not always possible, and the consequences were worrying. What about the Christian martyrs in the Coliseum, their bodies ripped apart by wild animals? What about the Oxford Martyrs of the Reformation whose punishment for holding on to the truth was to be cremated before they were dead?  The body decayed naturally, albeit in God’s time and not man’s – ‘dust to dust’, said The Book of Common Prayer and even more clearly – ‘ashes to ashes’, inspired by Ecclesiastes Verse 3 Chapter 20, ‘All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return’.

Clearly, the spirit was everything and the body just a container. As one Bishop of Manchester put it, ‘No intelligent faith can suppose that any Christian doctrine is affected by the manner in which this mortal body of ours crumbles into dust’. And, on a practical level, the Bishop would have seen the overstuffed and insanitary graveyards of rapidly expanding Manchester every single day.

By 1880, Cremation was technically possible and not illegal, but this did not make it popular. It was a permissive act, so most people choose not to. There was also the small matter of building and maintaining suitable places to perform the function. Local government discussed the issue in the 1890’s onwards but it was never the right time to spend taxpayer’s money on something so unappealing.

The strongest argument was practical; cremation was a poisoner’s charter. This was an unregulated era where deadly chemical concoctions where available over the counter, and there were well documented cases of murderers being brought to justice by timely exhumations of their victims. The only solution would be to have post-mortems for all deaths, which would be the cremation tail wagging the internment dog. In 1879, the government briefly threatened to outlaw the practice, and it stayed in legal limbo for the next two decades, which hindered its growth.

The other argument against it was the people who were in favour of it.  They did not feel very representative of the average respectable Victorian. They were often rich, radical, bohemian or the opposite, cold calculated rationalists with a hint of atheism about them. Many people, perhaps rightly, could not see the safe passage of their loved ones to eternity was a sanitary issue. It felt cold; the cremationists argued that it was less appalling that the damp vault, the darkness and the worm.

William Price

The people who thought that cremation was pagan had their opinion justified   in 1883 when a William Price cremated his five-month-old child on a mountain top with petroleum. Price was a self-identifying druid. His favoured costume was green trousers, white smock coat, and fox-skin head-covering. He was also a vegetarian, nudist and anti-vivisectionist who had a son with his housekeeper and called him Jesus Christ in a (successful) attempt to outrage the local churchgoers. The radical feminist vegetarian Anna Kingsford also considered cremation, despite her husband being a Church of England vicar.

Sir Henry Thompson

The cold rational doctor that was most associated with cremation was Sir Henry Thompson, a physician and member of the British Medical Association. (So was the Druid Price, and some people saw this is as part of a scientists plot destroy cherished traditions). He became a qualified doctor later than normal for members of his social class. His father was opposed to it; ‘all doctors become infidels’ he was reputed to have said, and in this case, he was not far wrong. Thompson rejected traditional Christianity and replaced it with a general Deist philosophy, but kept this relatively quiet as he pushed for cremation.

In 1874, he became the first president of the British Cremation Society. This was their high-handed resolution:

We disapprove the present custom of burying the dead, and desire to substitute some mode which shall rapidly resolve the body into its component elements by a process which cannot offend the living and render the remains perfectly innocuous.

Thompson had already seen and conducted experiments to prove that it cremation could be done in an hour and ashes could be transported respectfully and unobtrusively.   Coke was used successfully as a smokeless fuel; the atmosphere was tested for pollution; it was about experiment not emotion. Thompson even suggested that disposal of ashes at sea would increase the fish population; this was a step too far for many people and proved so unhelpful and so counter-productive that anti-cremationists gave it publicity.

Thompson pointed out that deaths caused by the putrefaction of overcrowded graveyards were a greater killer than occasional murder by poison, but when that did not cut through, he turned their argument on its head and argued that it was the actual availability of the body after death that made the system of post mortem registration and finding foul play so lax. In the 1890s, Thompson was lobbying for a law that would improve the quality of the death certificate and oblige physicians to look for signs of decomposition before issuing any paperwork. Thompson was never ready to spare a grieving relative’s feelings. He courted more unpopularity when he suggested that compulsory cremation of victims of smallpox, scarlet fever, or diphtheria. He would never have prospered as the charming doctor of modern morning television.

Golders Green Crematorium

The enemies of cremation need not have worried. By 1890 there had been 138 at the Cremation Societies purpose-built crematorium in Woking. Thompson died on 18 April 1904; two days before he had been driving his motor car, which he did almost daily. His body was disposed of in a sanitary manner at Golders Green Crematorium, the first in London, which he had opened in 1902.

He had not convinced the nation.

Further reading –  Dorset Houses – A burning question | Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine

My blog on Victorian vegetarianism here.

Henry Thompson is one of the of the Victorian Radicals featured in my book. More details here.

My other books on Radical Britain here

Guest Post- Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy: becoming a feminist and a secularist

By Dr Mary Holmes (Twitter -@MaryHolmes4)

Elizabeth grew up in Roe Green, near Manchester, in a family for whom religion was central; and yet, as an adult she moved away from religion. Looking at her life and work as an early feminist, there are clear indications of why she made the move to become a secularist.

Family life

Although her mother died three days after her birth, she grew up in a close family with strong links to the Independent Methodist Church. Her grandmother ran the Sunday School and her father was the Minister. Roe Green in the 1830s had no church and so he preached from a stone that still stands in the Church grounds today. The family was part of a strong network of Radicals and Elizabeth grew up among debates about the social and political challenges of the time – working conditions, low pay, the high price of bread.

      Preaching stone. This stone was where Elizabeth’s father would stand to preach. Today it is still visible in the church grounds.

So where were the turning points to question religion? During a discussion with her father she challenged him about eternal punishment and received a severe beating for questioning her father and religion.  At the time it was difficult for a girl to get a good education. She was lucky that her grandfather provided her with two years at Fulneck Moravian School. That gave her a broad education that also exposed her to the principles of equality, fundamental to the Moravian religion.

The school records show that she was intelligent and she had a great desire to continue her education. At the time females were not allowed to go to University.  Hence, she had to witness her brother gain the higher education denied to her simply because she was a girl. Also, her brother had to become a member of the Church of England, as the law required all students to be members of the State Church: Elizabeth would have resented this connection between education and the Church.

Elizabeth influences education

From an early age Elizabeth wanted to have a job and live independently, which certainly challenged social norms of the time. Her education at Fulneck, followed by some personal study, equipped her to work as a governess. During this time she will have witnessed how most middle class mothers focused their daughters’ education on skills making them attractive to an eligible, and hopefully wealthy, husband. One can imagine this did not sit comfortably with Elizabeth.

Her statute in Congleton

Thanks to a small inheritance from her grandfather, she was able to move back to Manchester to set up her own school: she later opened a school in Congleton where she became a renowned headmistress. Not only did she influence her own students, she took on national roles to improve girls’ education and teacher training. While working as a governess and teacher, the law required her to teach religion. By 1871 she could no longer teach something she did not believe in and left education.

Religion and marriage

The Victorian bride was walked down the aisle by her father who then gave her to the man she was to marry – literally. As a married woman legally she owned nothing, not any money she earned or inherited, not even the clothes she wore. Not surprisingly, this was abhorrent to Elizabeth who spent years fighting for the Married Women’s Property Act. Many MPs, all men of course, resisted this law as it would allow their wives to gain some independence.

Elizabeth was determined to live by her beliefs. When her brother, Joseph, got engaged she was thrilled and invited him and Theresa Kraus to Congleton to marry. They happily accepted only to find that Elizabeth stayed at her home on Buxton Road, refusing to attend the service at St Peter’s Church: even for her brother’s wedding, she refused to hear the bride say ‘I do.’

The same dilemma had faced her when she met the man who was to become her life long partner. Ben Elmy held the same views as Elizabeth and so for a number of years they lived together happily in Congleton as an unmarried couple: I will leave you to imagine the reaction of many locals. When Elizabeth became pregnant with her son Frank, this matter came to a head. Several of her friends were worried that being an unmarried mother would harm their many feminist campaigns. Ben and Elizabeth unwillingly responded and in the spring of 1874 they held a simple non-religious ceremony that spoke of equality, freedom and shared love. Sadly, this was not enough: in October they gave in to pressure and held a civil marriage ceremony.

Feminists and religion

Numerous Victorian feminists faced the dilemma of how formal religion demanded women to uphold religion both in the home and church, and yet denied women equality. Some managed to balance the two, while others refused to accept religious beliefs.

Both her brother and Ben were close friends of Charles Bradlaugh: in 1866 he founded the National Secularist Society, by bringing together many local secularist groups. Elizabeth will have keenly learned about the concept of separating state institutions from religious institutions. She became committed to human rights that guaranteed no discrimination based on religious beliefs.

Suffragette Colours

Elizabeth was a passionate feminist who lived by her radical beliefs. By denouncing religion she placed herself outside the accepted norms of the day. Her tireless efforts resulted in many significant changes to women’s rights, both during her life and well into the late twentieth century – she was truly visionary.

Image: book cover My book ‘Elizabeth: the feisty feminist’ uncovers her tireless efforts for women’s rights and explores how her achievements influence our lives today.              

Mary Holmes

hank you Mary for writing this introduction to this neglected feminist and secularist voice

Elizabeth is one of the Radical Victorians featured in my book. You can see her on the cover.

Victorian Vegetarianism-a laughing stock?

Vegetarianism was not quite normal, opined the 1880’s Victorian newspapers. It was cranky and faddy, never likely to disappear but only temporarily popular. Its adherents were odd, insistent and preachy; not dangerous, but not normal either.  It was too harmless to be horrible about, but too ridiculous to be taken seriously.

Vegetarians had open meetings and conferences- ‘we live in an age of conferences’, sniffed the Sheffield Telegraph, prophetically. When it reported on a joint Manchester/ Sheffield conference in March 1889, it speculated that they could not have their own separate gatherings because people who advocated a diet of constant vegetables could never be very popular. In the eyes of the newspapers, the vegetables of choice were always parsnips and lentils. Most newspapers, in the spirit of freedom, did not mind a life of vegetables for others but could not abide the proselytising.  To borrow a modern expression that is usually employed with libertarians- the newspapers implied that you would never need to ask if somebody was a vegetarian, as they would certainly tell you.

Vegetarians could be intelligent, but they were still simple and naïve. The clear preponderance of the better sort of people in leadership positions muted the criticism, but it was still apparent. The keynote speaker at Manchester/ Sheffield conference, and hundreds of other meetings and conferences, was John Mayor, President of the Vegetarian Society and a Cambridge professor.

Mayor; frugal, sober, vegetarian, articulate and preachy.

Professor Mayor was famous for not forcing his views on people, but this is not how the Telegraph saw it; his hectoring tone reminded him the newspaper that he was an expert in theology and literature. The Bible could be used to prove anything, it scoffed (Sheffield was a centre of British Freethought) and the paper recorded Mayor’s assertion that doctor’s were merely distributors of drugs. In an age of science, this was a Professor of Latin speaking, and it sounded old fashioned rather than modern.

Vegetarianism was certainly a fad, but an ancient fad from the Greeks, and from the same age as Professor Mayor’s other interests. Vegetarianism was often the opposite of science, as many Vegetarianism were anti vivisection and anti vaccination, and would make outrageous claims about the health benefits, even claiming that it could protect you against diseases caused by environmental and public health failures. In age where Victorians were turning away from quack medicine, Vegetarian claims about the miraculous health giving consequences of not eating meat were dismissed. Its enemies had lots of material; a diets of celery could not fight the ills of the flesh. amd anybody who said otherwise was being silly. It was merely the hobby horse of the neurotic rich, the anxious upper class ladies, the morally upright clergymen, the self important board school teacher and the softer sex generally. It was a religion, said another newspaper;

Vegetarianism is made a kind of cult, its professors feel the inward self-satisfaction which is characteristic of new converts, and are eager to save the souls of the unconverted world around them.

Both sides used the language of religion; one to emphasis the intensity of their feelings, and the other to mock them. It was at worst a silly hobby, at best a self-satisfied pseudo-religion.

They could not be ignored though. All the newspapers of the 1880s had reports of vegetarians meetings.  Vegetarian meetings and conferences were usually single paragraph, one- paragraph news. There were too many bishops, aristocratic ladies, temperance societies and church members present to ignore them. The Belfast Morning News (08.01.1881), tucked into a single paragraph on an inside page, reported that the Vegetarian meeting was poorly attended – ‘the lecture being of the usual class’- with a ‘repetition of the usual vegetarian arguments. Lady Georgina Temple Mount, delicate soul and friend with Oscar Wilde’s wife, was a prominent member and gave speeches that could not be ignored. She hated cruelty and that was enough, and her speeches said little more than humans were cruel; most people knew that already.

A fun evening
Shields Daily Gazette  29 April 1887

Many saw non-meat eating as a luxury only the rich could afford. In a report of the 1882 London Congress, the Ballymena Observer (10.06.82) made the point that ‘the Vegetarian lives in a paradise of his own’. It was pleasant to live in a world where violence had been abolished; ordinary mortals could not live up to it’.  The annual Congresses was the only time the vegetarians made Page One, but the implication was that all the cranks had shown their crankiness by all descending on the same place.

The next suggestion was hat vegetarian food was boring. This argument had its limitations, as the food of the poor had always been boring, so it was hard to see what the problem was. On the last day on 1887, the London Daily Graphic reported that the Vegetarian Society   had provided 20,000 children’s meals for the increasing desperate poor of London. The paper’s gratitude was caveated, and faint praise was pressed into service; the meals were ‘fairly nourishing’. There was nothing wrong with peas, bread, lentils and rice, the newspaper said, but didn’t it leave ‘an aching void’ after half an hour?  But there was more; even the poor needed a hint of meat!

But it may not be denied that this is improved by a basis of stock made from bones or meat. In one case, of which the details are given by the Chairman of the Society, the lady in charge strayed so far into heresy as to lay out 12 shillings and 6d bones for this purpose?

Even the British poor, deserved bones, offal and, if they were working very hard, a little bacon.

In the same year, the papers grumbled mildly about the Vegetarian Society providing meals for the mostly desperately poor of the London dockland board schools. They attacked the idea of feeding the poor on lentil soup and bread-‘it was not the idea food for growing children in the winter’, said one, suddenly growing a social conscience about the diet of the poor when the non-meat eaters were doing the cooking. When the poor were being feed, the lentil replaced the parsnip and the cabbage as the joke food of the media carnivores; lentils worked well in soups, so it became the hot food of the poor.

The wealthy vegetarians were in a difficult position. Some adopted the lentil, parsnip and oatmeal as a diet of choice in order to mimic the poor for whom it was a requirement, and were called pompous or patronising or plain silly for doing so. Sometimes it was pointed out that the rich vegetarians complemented their diet with winter asparagus and hot house grapes which made roast beef and pudding look cheap by comparison, yet condemned the poor to plain food. Some vegetarian speakers made enemies of the poor by lecturing them on how to live on 3 pence a day; Professor Mayor was said to live on 2 pence a day, and liked to lecture the poor about buying and cooking food well. A century earlier, the poor had been told to live on bread and potatoes, but at least they were spared the lectures of the new middle class elite.

Temperance was also a problem.  Denying yourself alcohol and denying yourself slain nature went hand in hand. John Eyton Bickersteth Mayor, our Cambridge professor, was a teetotaller and his most famous book had the spirit crushing title of Plain Living and High Thinking.  Vegetarianism and Temperance attracted the top of society but not the middle or the bottom.  You were more likely to see a vegetarian café in the Strand or Oxford Street than central Manchester; it would not serve alcohol, but there would be no blue bottles in the kitchen on a hot July day either. It was all safe and earnest; as the joke goes, healthy living does not make you live longer, it just feels like it.

The importance of lentils (British Museum)

Britain’s most famous Victorian vegetarian, Anna Kingsford, died in 1888 and there were many obituaries. Many were highly complementary, as befitted her achievements. The liberal Pall Mall Gazette noted that she qualified as a doctor in 1880, wrote key texts on vegetarianism and was a leading light in the Hermetic Society ‘whose members occupy themselves with the investigation of psychology and occult science from the point view illuminated by religious interpretation’, and that she was a brilliant and impassioned speaker. 

She was unusual- a vegetarian, a trained doctor (the 18th British woman to qualify in Paris) and a spiritual mystic as well.  All of these things made her remarkable, but none of them made her normal, and the obituaries said so. The same one was copied by newspapers through the country; ‘a remarkable figure in certain sections of metropolitan society is removed from the world’ (my italics)

In many ways she was a typical vegetarian, and the newspapers pointed this out.  Despite her medical qualifications, she had not faith in doctors and went to Paris in the pouring rain to try to threaten Louis Pasteur. She also opposed vivisection as yet another example of doctor’s cruelty and arrogance. She said that it was her diet that added to her life, and held back her lung diseases. The World newspaper disagreed, and mansplained, post mortem.

She had the most perfectly bloodless complexion and was under forty. Delicate vegetarian women had better take warning by her death.

There is more about Ann Kingsford and eighteen other Victorian Radicals in my book. Publishers details here and my introduction here. My other books on Radical Britain here.