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.