Veggie Victorians: how Britain responded to the rise of the meat-free movement

In the 1840s, the press began reporting on the rise of an odd new movement whose adherents championed the benefits of a flesh-free diet. James Gregory explores how vegetarianism was greeted by a population used to munching mutton chops, mincemeat and jugged hare

Intellectuals, dieting businessmen, Indian students and fitness fanatics were among those to exhort the benefits of a meat-free diet in the 19th century, as shown in our illustration. (Illustration by Femke de Jong for BBC History Magazine)

On 30 September 1848, the satirical magazine Punch regaled its readers with reports of a peculiar new society that had started holding meetings across Manchester. The society, Punch revealed with thinly veiled incredulity, “devotes its entire energies to the eating of vegetables, and the members meet occasionally for the purpose of masticating mashed potatoes and munching cabbage-leaves. ‘Sweets to the sweet’ is a popular maxim, and ‘greens to the green’ may fairly be applied to the vegetarians.”

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Victorians were well versed in the Bible, so many would have read how the ancient Babylonian king Nebuchadnezza ate a diet of grass instead of meat. Others may too have been aware that the eccentric poet Lord Byron once attempted to lose weight via a ‘vegetable diet’. Nevertheless, back in 1848, comparatively few would have heard the term ‘vegetarian’. So why did a small but significant number of our Victorian forebears choose to abstain from eating flesh? And where should we look to find the roots of the vegetarian movement? The answer lies in the the target of Punch‘s faintly mocking report.

Formed in September 1847, the Vegetarian Society was the brainchild of a collection of social reformers, philanthropists and devout Christians who sought to woo the population away from the “fleshpots” of meat, just as the temperance movement had promoted abstention from alcohol.

It was a formidable challenge – after all, many Britons, especially those who were too poor to afford all but the most meagre servings of beef, pork and lamb, sought to eat more meat, not less. But it was a challenge that vegetarian activists attacked with gusto, spreading the word through the classic Victorian strategies of staging public meetings and attempting to win the press around to their cause.

And it worked. The late Victorian satirical press and newspapers were fascinated by the new cohort of youthful clerks, intellectuals, dieting businessmen and Indian students converging on the vegetarian restaurants that were popping up across Britain’s biggest cities. In August 1851, the Illustrated London News told its readers how, at an event at the Freemasons‘ Tavern in London, “the vegetarian course consisted of savoury pies, bread and parsley fritters, moulded ground rice, blancmange, cheesecakes, and fruit, all of which dishes were consumed with an evident relish by the company… whose healthy appearance betokened the benefits to be derived from the innocent regimen”.

The Vegetarian Society sought to woo the population away from the 'fleshpots' of meat, just as the temperance movement had promoted abstention from alcohol

Media coverage wasn’t always so glowing, of course. But even dismissive jibes in the press helped turn the meat-free diet into an ‘ism’. And if they couldn’t attract positive coverage, vegetarian activists attempted to craft their own, hoping that tracts sent to self-improving organisations such as mechanics’ institutes, which promoted adult education, would encourage wider interest.

In addition, high-profile vegetarians such as the playwright and Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw, and Isaac Pitman of shorthand fame – who addressed the Vegetarian Society’s second annual meeting, and proudly announced that he hadn’t eaten meat for 11 years – gave the movement some much-needed celebrity endorsement.

A 19th-century butcher's shop. Many Victorians – especially the poorest, who could barely afford pork, beef and lamb – sought to eat more meat, not less. (Photo by Alamy)
A 19th-century butcher’s shop. Many Victorians – especially the poorest, who could barely afford pork, beef and lamb – sought to eat more meat, not less. (Photo by Alamy)

Health considerations

Vegetarians gave up eating flesh for all kinds of reasons. Some did so because they believed it conferred health benefits. In 1858, the Vegetarian Messenger optimistically declared that: “No vegetarian in this country has ever been attacked with cholera.” Others claimed that vegetarianism offered protection from tuberculosis. Vegetarian Victorians opened several hospitals, including institutions for cancer patients. Some of Britain’s most prominent anti-vaccinationists – who opposed the state-inflicted ‘pollution’ of their families – were vegetarians in the Victorian era.

Others rejected meat out of compassion, shocked by the cruelty in cities, where animals were brought to market, and where slaughterhouses and butchers’ displays of carcasses were unavoidable. Early vegetarians tried, unsuccessfully, to get the RSPCA’s support.

“Flinging maudlin sentimentality to the winds,” they acknowledged that “killing must be done”, was how one essayist in the magazine All the Year Round described the RSPCA’s attitude in 1876.

Later in the century, vegetarians opposed vivisection, and the slaughter of birds and seals for fashionable clothing. They also campaigned against cruelty to people: the Humanitarian League’s first general meeting was in a vegetarian restaurant in London.

For some, vegetarianism wasn’t a choice, it was a religious calling. This was certainly the case for the Bible Christians, whose leader, William Cowherd, had advocated rejecting meat on health and humanitarian grounds as far back as 1809. They remained influential within the vegetarian movement for much of the century. In fact, one of their number, the industrialist James Simpson, was elected the Vegetarian Society’s first president in 1847.

Vegetarians opposed fashion featuring slaughtered animals, like this outfit worn by the actress Amy Roselle in 1887. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Vegetarians opposed fashion featuring slaughtered animals, like this outfit worn by the actress Amy Roselle in 1887. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Others were attracted to the diet by political considerations, rather than spiritual ones. There was significant crossover between the social reform movement and meat avoidance throughout the 19th century and beyond – from the followers of the Welsh socialist Robert Owen right through to the suffragettes who congregated in vegetarian restaurants following their release from prison. George Orwell liked to characterise the vegetarian socialist as nudist, be-sandalled, fruit-juice drinking and sexually unorthodox. It was a stereotype with a long and colourful history.

Another important factor driving the uptake of vegetarianism was cost. “How is it possible that an agricultural labourer, earning nine shillings a week, can pay rent, clothe a family, and feed them upon flesh?”, wrote one correspondent to the Hereford Times in 1863, verbalising the belief that vegetarianism offered a path out of poverty. Throughout the late 19th century, vegetarian propagandists lectured working people on the economic benefits of going meat-free. They also offered cheap or free meals through bodies such as the National Food Reform Society and, as was the wont of Victorian moralists, they linked thrift to self-improvement.

Manufactured substitutes such as ‘nut’ meats were now on sale in the growing number of vegetarian restaurants and cafes

The forge labourer George Perkin of Bramley exemplified this attitude, writing in the Vegetarian Advocate in June 1850: “I now devote the money heretofore spent on those pernicious things, to the purchase of books and otherwise, towards the cultivation of my mind, until very recently much neglected.”

But the economy could prove dangerous territory for advocates of vegetarianism. Critics argued that wage levels were determined by the standard of living, and if that standard was ‘cheapened’ by a fall in household expenditure on products such as meat, then wages would fall too. They also associated the vegetarian movement’s asceticism with the punitively spare diets offered in institutions such as prisons and workhouses.

A merciful diet

Vegetarians also ran into resistance from defenders of empire and military adventure, who warned that a meat-free diet robbed people of stamina and force. They linked meat to virility and racial strength, and were suspicious of a ‘merciful’ diet. The “labourer who toiled in the field, or on the railroad wanted something better than cabbages to keep up his strength”, suggested one correspondent to the Brighton Gazette in 1849.

Such resistance provides one of the many reasons why we need to be careful about characterising the Victorian era as a golden age for vegetarianism. The numbers of people eating meat-free diets rose from the low hundreds at the start of Victoria’s reign, to a total, by 1899, of almost 7,000 members and associates of the Vegetarian Society and its London-based rival. However, vast swathes of the population remained entirely unmoved by the phenomenon – no more inclined to give up beef, pork and lamb than they were water. Compared with today’s widespread, high-profile lifestyle choice, Victorian vegetarianism was distinctly marginal.

For all that, by the end of the 19th century, vegetarianism was making serious waves. Members of the intelligentsia such as philanthropist John Passmore Edwards and Annie Besant, a famous supporter of Indian nationalism, threw their weight behind the movement. Manufactured substitutes such as ‘nut’ meats were on sale in the growing number of vegetarian restaurants and cafes. Advice on how to reduce meat consumption and entertain your meat-avoiding friends was now available in a glut of vegetarian journals and books – and more mainstream works.

But perhaps the ultimate endorsement came with the fact that the 1880 edition of Beeton’s Household Management dedicated an entire chapter to “vegetarian recipes”. No one flicking through the pages of the bible of culinary guidebooks – and reading the recipes for fried bananas and curried beans contained within – could have been in any doubt that vegetarianism was here to stay.

James Gregory is associate professor of modern British history at the University of Plymouth. His books include Of Victorians and Vegetarians (IB Tauris, 2007)

Listen to Dr Annie Gray interview James Gregory about Victorian Vegetarians on BBC Radio 4

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This article was first published in the September 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine