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.

Introducing ‘Radical Victorians’

Ever heard of Florence Nightingale or Charles Darwin? Of course you have, or you would not have started reading this, but my book is not about them, or many other famous radical thinkers. Many succeeded in convincing people in their lifetime. This book will introduce you to people who were equally as radical but were less successful in their own lifetime, and only became important post mortem.

Publisher’s details

Our first chapter is a case in point- the subject is Britain’s most famous vegetarian Anna Kingsford. Her life was varied and interesting, and her refusal to conform went much further than not eating meat. She was a founder of British theosophy, an anti-vaxxer and a believer in equal marriage. Readers of this chapter might understand way vegetarianism retains its slightly unorthodox tint in the present century.

Chapter two features another campaign against cruelty, in the form of the most famous Anglo-Irish campaigner against vivisection Frances Power Cobbe. She was a socially well placed journalist (and a member of Conservative Party) who used gruesome words and pictures to condemn animal cruelty. She was also a campaigner for woman’s rights in the area of domestic violence, property rights and the vote and openly lived in a same-sex relationship for much of her life.

Our next woman was definitely a radical, despite being the wife of an Irish Presbyterian minister who would have been very angry indeed with the ideas of Kingsford or Cobb. This is Ann Jane Carlile, who fought against the demon drink in Britain and Ireland. She fought against the hugely powerful drinks industry, tried to empower working class woman by removing the debilitating effect of alcohol from their lives and diets. Even if she does not sound like you kind of person, if you read the chapter you may at least come to admire her.

Florence Cook

Temperance was radical in itself because it gave a voice to women. Spiritualism was the same, and our Victorian radical in this area is Florence Cook. It does not matter is she was a fraud, and her radicalism was unconnected with the truth of her beliefs. Spiritualism was a radical movement; it defied traditional religion and was organised largely by women. Florence’s story shows a woman who was well aware what she could achieve with the tool of spiritualism.

Talking about the dead (rather than merely talking to them) we come to our first double chapter on Sir Henry Thompson and Isabelle Holmes.  Henry Thompson was about as ‘establishment’ as you could be, and somebody like that was needed to achieve what he did; he brought cremation to Britain. He did not make it popular; by 1902, 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 in the UK. Cremation only overtook traditional burial in 1967. Isabelle Holmes is by far the most obscure of our Radical Victorians; she campaigned for new open spaces for the poor of London, and was one of the first to point out that the dead were hogging all the available land. She supported cremation, and went on to have a career in local government, which although unremarkable in our time, was a trailblazing effort for the middle class females of the time. This was the part of the book I liked writing the most; I had brought her back from total obscurity!

Our next double chapter is on woman’s legal rights, including the right to vote; the twentieth century suffragette movement has deep roots in Victorian times. The chapter features a Pankhurst- Richard Pankhurst , and Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy. Richard has been overshadowed by his wife and daughters, probably rightly, but he was as committed as they were, if not so well organised. Wolstenholme-Elmy was a feminist campaigner who has been saved from obscurity by a successful campaign to erect a statue in Congleton, where she lived in sin with her partner Ben Elmy until her woman’s rights ‘friends’ pressurized the pair into marriage.

Birth control is the subject of the next double chapter, containing a name you might know and a name you probably do not; Annie Besant and George Drysdale.  Drysdale’s views on sex, sexuality and birth control where utterly shocking in mid-Victorian Britain; at the time he did not put his name to the book because she was afraid of his mother’s reaction. As part of his belief in free love her advocated free and shameless contraception; the more famous Besant did so with slightly different motives in mind, and the book tells the story about how she came to her freethinking and radical conclusions.

Edward Truelove will be a new name to almost everybody. He was a printer and book seller in London and fought all of his life for a free press, fighting laws against sedition, blasphemy and obscenity. He published and distributed the work of Drysdale and worked with Annie Besant. He knew every radical in London and he was perhaps the only person who was on speaking terms with both Florence Nightingale and Karl Marx. He was imprisoned for four months in the fight for a free press. He wore prison uniform, pick oakum and sleep on a hard plank bed. He was sixty-eight.

Our central figure, the man who holds the book together, is Charles Bradlaugh, Britain’s most famous atheist. He was part of a radical free speech movement and knew Drysdale, Truelove, Besant and Wolstenholme-Elmy. He made atheism an acceptable intellectual conclusion for future citizens, at considerable personal effort and cost, which is described in the chapter.

Refusing to take a religious oath..

Our next radical Josephine Butler was a campaigner for the rights of woman and is well known for her organised opposition to the Contagious Diseases Acts. The Acts themselves were the most egregious example of the sexual double standard of the Victorian era. It was an anti-prostitution action in the major military towns which focused only on woman, regulating theirs action and punishing only them when apprehended.

A man who worked with Butler on her radical campaigning was William Thomas Stead, known as W.T.  As well as being a famous victim of the Titanic accident in 1912, he was Britain’s first campaigning ‘tabloid’ journalists who made his name exposing the sexual mistreatment of women and children. He had other interests too; spiritualism, Esperanto and world peace being only three of them.

Members of the Church of England could be radical, but could not be successful. Our Christian socialist radical is Stuart Headlam. He was a curate who liked actresses and dancers, believed that the kingdom of heaven belonged as much to them as the rich and powerful, and started one of the first socialist groups of any kind in Britain. He was a believer in free speech; when Charles Bradlaugh was in trouble with the authorities for refusing to swear an oath to God, Headlam wrote and offered him the blessings of Christ.

If you are interested or supportive of the British Labour Party (full disclosure; I am an active member) then the chapter on Socialism will ring a bell. It contains a common and an uncommon name. James Kier Hardie was a child coal miner and trade unionist who is the first name in Labour party History; Henry Hyndman was a rich and privileged lawyer who converted to Marxism and represented another strand in the development of socialism. If you wonder why the Labour Party is such a ‘broad church’ today, it is because it still has to accommodate the different views of these two people.

The next chapter busts the myth that Queen Victoria and the monarchy were a fixed a popular point in the era named after her. Republicanism did exist – Bradlaugh, inevitably, was a republican but the most famous one of the era was the wealthy liberal Charles Dilke, and he spearheaded, rather reluctantly, a brief frenzy of mass republicanism which only lasted a few years but left a lingering republican sentiment in Britain which has existed but not rarely thrived since. Dilke had other radical inclinations, but it was his brief republicanism and a messy divorce case which ruined his prospects. He is our only radical Cabinet Minister, and the only one who was ever talked about as Prime Minister.

Finally, a man who actively disliked today, rather than forgotten or celebrated. This is the eugenicist  Francis Galton; indeed he invented the word, from the Greek meaning ‘to live well’, which sounds uncontroversial and even positive, but this is not  the case. His name is linked with racism and genocide, a proto-Nazi; but the whole story is much more complicated than that. The number of people who shared his views is remarkable; while people today may think they completely reject ‘selective breeding’ of humans, the truth is more complicated, and therefore more interesting.

Please suggest the book to your library.

You can buy at all the usually places online such as Amazon but they are not always the cheapest.

Kindle and Kobo also available

Books by James Hobson