A brief history of veganism in Britain

Soysage roll, anyone? Writing for BBC History Magazine, historian Julian Humphrys looks at the distant origins and modern rise of British veganism

A fruit and vegetable market, painted by Joachim Beuckelaer.

When was veganism born?

The choice to avoid animal products for spiritual or ethical reasons has a long history. For many years, vegetarians in Europe were known as ‘Pythagoreans’ after the Greek philosopher whose followers refused to eat slaughtered meat. Vegetarian societies in Britain date from the 19th century: the first was launched in 1809 by the interestingly named William Cowherd. But the first organisation for those seeking a lifestyle totally free from animal products – the Vegan Society – was founded in November 1944 in London by a small group led by Donald Watson.

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Watson was a Yorkshire-born woodwork teacher, conscientious objector and teetotaller living in Leicester. He had stopped eating meat at 14 after seeing a pig being slaughtered on his uncle’s farm, and gave up dairy in his early thirties as he believed cows were exploited in the milk production process.

Where did the name ‘vegan’ come from?

Watson and his friends wanted a name for their movement. As ‘non-dairy vegetarians’ seemed a bit of a mouthful, it was agreed that something shorter was needed. ‘Vitans’, ‘dairybans’,‘benevores’ and ‘allvegans’ were considered before they settled on ‘vegans’. They are said to have created the name by taking the beginning and the end of the word ‘vegetarian’, but may also have been influenced by the fact that one of London’s foremost vegetarian restaurants was called the Vega.

What happened to Donald Watson?

He later moved to Cumbria, where he guided hikers and grew crops in his garden, avoiding animal manure and digging with a fork instead of a spade to minimise the risk to earthworms. Watson, who also refused to take medicines because of their links to animal testing, always argued that his long life was evidence of the benefits of his lifestyle. He died in 2005 aged 95.

How many vegans are there in the UK?

The numbers are rising, but despite recent publicity it’s still a small minority. Research carried out by the Vegan Society in 2018 suggested that around one person in a hundred was a committed vegan.

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This article was first published in the March 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine