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The Roots of Vegetarianism

Derek Antrobus uncovers the origins of the Vegetarian Society.

The Vegetarian Society celebrated its 150th anniversary last year. ‘Veggies’ are often thought of as sandalled, bearded, middle-class and mainly southerners. But the modern vegetarian movement in Britain had its origins in the gritty industrial north and among working-class radicals. The Society was set up by a group of Salford activists.

Salford’s links with vegetarianism go back to 1809 when the Reverend William Cowherd established the Bible Christian Church as a breakaway from the Swedenborgian New Church in King Street, his congregation had to take a vow not to eat meat. Chapels were also established in Manchester at Ancoats and Hulme.

The central idea of vegetarianism – that there is a kinship of all nature – stretches back 2,500 years to the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. But Cowherd was in the right place at the right time to make it into a popular movement.

Nineteenth-century Salford was ripe for vegetarianism for a number of reasons. The rapid growth of the Manchester-Salford conurbation threw like-minded people together. A reaction to the industrial revolution was leading some to a more romantic view of animals and nature. A series of coincidental personal ties among the local clergy led to a theology emphasising the kinship of nature taking root. And the area was receptive to religious innovation because the established church never really had a firm hold on the hearts and minds of Lancastrians.

When Cowherd died in 1816, his ideals – which linked his belief in the kinship of nature with a general liberal, egalitarian and democratic position – were pursued by his followers, led by his successor as pastor, Joseph Brotherton, who became Salford’s first MP in 1832.

Brotherton presided over the meeting held to create the Society. It elected James Simpson, a deacon of the Bible Christian Church, as its first president. Simpson’s son was for many years clerk to the Salford Hundred Court. When Simpson died in 1859, his father-in-law, William Harvey, then mayor of Salford, took over as president until his own death in 1870. (Harvey’s sister, Martha, was married to Brotherton and wrote the first vegetarian cookery book.)

The Church continued to provide the Vegetarian Society with its leadership, notably in the person of Reverend James Clark, who was pastor for nearly fifty years following Brotherton’s death in 1857. Clark not only served as secretary of the Society but also helped to found the International Vegetarian Union. This mainly involved links with the American Vegetarian Society, established in 1861.

The founding father of the American movement was also a Bible Christian. The Reverend William Metcalfe left Salford in 1817 with a group of pilgrims from the Bible Christian Church and set up a branch in Philadelphia. Among his converts to vegetarianism was Sylvester Graham, whose ‘Graham bread’ is still to be found in the United States and who influenced the development of the Kellogg range of foods.

The Salford Church later moved to new premises in Cross Lane, where it continued until 1930. Unable by then to attract enough vegetarians, it merged with the Pendleton Unitarians.

The origins of the Vegetarian Society are recorded in A Guiltless Feast by Derek Antrobus, published by Salford Education and Leisure, Vulcan House, The Crescent, Salford M5 4NL. ISBN 0 901952 57 5.

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