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Early Australian Vegetarian Societies

[for a much more detailed account see Edgar's book, right. Click on the cover for details from]

The first Australian Vegetarian Society was formed on June 16, 1886. The inaugural meeting was held at 41 Little Collins Street, Melbourne at Thistle Company’s Luncheon Rooms - the city’s first vegetarian restaurant. It was hosted by Mrs Harvie and presided over by the Rev. John Higgins. About 50 men and women were present for the historic occasion, according to a sympathetic report that appeared in the Melbourne Age the following day.  According to an equally flattering - but different - report by William Terry it ended with a hearty vegetarian feast:

“After the address a very excellent Vegetarian repast was served, consisting of vegetable broth, peas patties, omelette and potatoes, and sandwiches. The dishes were highly approved of, not only by the Vegetarians but by several carnivorous bipeds who were present, and who were surprised at the tastiness and satisfying nature of the various dishes.”

The newly-formed Society published a constitution and manifesto but, sadly, both have been lost. The object of founding the Society was to provide information on vegetarianism and to 'induce habits of abstinence from the use of fish, flesh, and fowl’, as food. From what we know of the constitution it was extremely close to that of the British Vegetarian society (of which some of the founders had previously been members). Members were expected to abstain completely from flesh food, while those who were supportive but who felt they could not abstain completely, could join as associates. One of the first associates was the South Australian doctor and parliamentarian, the Hon Dr Allan Campbell.

The founding members of the Vegetarian Society were an active and well-connected group of individuals. Both the leadership and general membership were mainly made up of religious and teetotal men. There were female members, but they do not appear to have taken up any leadership positions at the Society’s inception. Given that the membership included many of the most ‘advanced’ thinkers of Melbourne society - and who generally advocated female emancipation - it is unlikely that women would have been denied positions if they had sought them.

The first president of the Society was the Rev. John Higgins (1819-1895) a Wesleyan Methodist minister who arrived in Melbourne from Ireland in 1875. Higgins was a tireless campaigner for vegetarianism and total abstinence from alcohol, actively promoting the diet from the moment he arrived. He was for many years chaplain to Melbourne Gaol, local hospitals and benevolent asylums. His letters advocating vegetarianism often appeared in the letters pages of local newspapers such as The Age and he was also a regular contributor to journals such as The Spectator and Methodist Chronicle. So well respected was Higgins within the wider vegetarian community that not only was he President of the Australian Society but in 1889 was also elected Vice-President of the British Vegetarian Society in Manchester.

The first Secretary of the Society was Thomas Lang, another long-time vegetarian. Like many Melbourne vegetarians, he was also an active member of the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists. He was a successful businessman and proprietor of Thomas Lang and Companies, nurserymen, seedsmen, and florists. Given the need at that time for many vegetarians to grow their own fruit and vegetables, Lang’s contribution to providing fresh produce was invaluable as he introduced many varieties of vegetables onto the Australian market. Lang was also an early associate of the leading British vegetarian and inventor of shorthand, Sir Isaac Pitman, with whom he shared many views (including that of spelling reform).

Lang’s vegetarianism was strongly supported by his wife, also a vegetarian. When doubt was cast on the nutritional adequacy of the diet, she was known to proclaim that she had raised their children as vegetarians and that her son was broad, strong and 6’2” while her daughter had passed all her teaching examinations.

Robert Jones, the Society's second President, was principal of a small Anglican boys’ school, Carlton Grammar, in Royal Park, Melbourne. He was also a journalist, publisher and writer of educational text books. Melbourne born, Jones described his childhood diet as consisting of “the usual colonial diet, eating flesh every day, often twice, sometimes three times a day.” From those beginnings he eventually became a vegan, having become a vegetarian only a couple of years before the formation of the Society. Like Lang and Higgins, he was an active propagandist for the cause and a deeply religious man. Being also a member of total abstention societies, he was able to bring an awareness of vegetarianism and its benefits to those organisations. His speeches on the subject were printed by the British Vegetarian Society as well as in Australia. His vegetarianism being heavily inspired by his love for animals, he stated that humans should:

“Cease their consumption of that grossest of all foods, dead flesh, to obtain which, nameless cruelties and barbarities, to our eternal disgrace, are inflicted on the defenceless dumb - barbarities which will not bear naming, much less looking at, so hideous are they. The sufferings of gentle, domestic animals by land and sea, in railway-trucks and cattle-steamers, from thirst, hunger, cold, heat, overcrowding, fatigue, blows, terror, and sickness, not to mention their death-agonies, and the other unspeakable horrors of the slaughterhouses, are such as no pen can describe; they are horrors, comparable only to the worst brutalities of the infamous slave trade.” [ii]

The suffering of animals in the meat trade was viewed by many early animal rights advocates as being akin to that of slaves in the slave trade (which had only relatively recently ended in the United States). The arguments that had been used by abolitionists of slavery were applied in support of animals, while many leading figures - such as Britain’s William Wilberforce - who had been active for the freedom of human beings, transferred some of their energies to the cause of animals.

The Vegetarian Society met regularly on the last Wednesday of each month. The meetings where primarily to promote the vegetarian diet, consisting of testimonies by vegetarians as to their health and longevity which they attributed to their diet. One such testimony was that of a Mr G. S. Bowden, given at the second annual meeting in February, 1888, in which he stated that he had worked at sheep shearing for three months on a diet simply of cabbage and potatoes and was not inconvenienced in any way, remaining hale and strong. He also reported a similarly healthy friend who had worked at a sawmill on a diet of only rice, peas and porridge.

Many meetings also featured speakers and open discussions chaired by luminaries such as the Rev. Charles Strong of the Australian Church. For entertainment there were song recitals by Fanny E. Samuel and Miss Harvie, daughter of the meeting rooms hosts, while a number of Robert Jones’ school pupils - including the young Louis Esson - performed theatrical pieces at Society functions. Esson later became one of Australia’s pre-eminent playwrights.

Unfortunately, we do not know the actual number of the Society’s members as no record of the membership list or other administrative documents exist. In 1891 the Society sought and was granted affiliation with the Vegetarian Federal Union (extant 1889-1911), the precursor of the current International Vegetarian Union, at its meeting in Portsmouth, England.

In September 1889 a Vegetarian Society branch was founded in Ballarat with an Indian-born gentleman by the name of Aurelius Muller as its Secretary.  It was also in Ballarat, that William Bramwell Withers (1823-1913), who had been a leading figure in the drive to create the first Vegetarian Society in the UK, settled in 1855. Withers remained in contact with the leading British vegetarian advocate Lewis Gompertz and later published a pamphlet on their discourses entitled Philosophical Necessities. Withers promoted many reform movements whilst in Ballarat and as a journalist and editor on the newspapers The Ballarat Courier and Ballarat Star made both papers supportive of the diet. In 1889, Withers even went so far as to use the paper to advise the royal family to adopt the diet as it would, he suggested, cure Queen Victoria’s rheumatism and her son Prince Edward’s varicose veins and obesity. [iii]

In Mildura, which was developing apace as a result of being one of Australia’s Irrigation Colonies there were also a number of active Vegetarian Society members. Using the Murray as a water source, the Colony in Mildura was started by two entrepreneurial Canadian-born brothers by the name of George and Ben Chaffey, who had had experience running similar ventures in the United States. They were supported politically in their enterprise by Alfred Deakin and economically by his State Government as part of a drive to bring in more settlers and to open up more land suitable for agriculture. The assistance given by the Chaffey’s organisation in starting up farms made the area particularly attractive to new and aspiring farmers so that many migrants (especially from English cities) flocked to the region. The crops produced here were mainly fruits and the area was also completely free of alcohol, the Colony not allowing any public houses to open on its land. Many vegetarians, including Mr J. Newton Wood from London, settled there to farm. In fact, so happily ensconced in Mildura was Newton Wood that, in March 1891, he began writing a series of articles for The Vegetarian (London) depicting life in Australia - and especially in the Colony - as being an earthly paradise. As he reported in The Vegetarian:

“In the working out of the grand scheme of this great food reform and temperance colony, we shall have virtually neither more nor less than ‘Vegetarianism in Practice’, and its development will make all the conditions of the new and natural and perfect life - not hard and almost impossible of attainment, as in your great towns and cities, where the extremes of civilisation and barbarism unite to perpetuate vice and misery of the foulest description, and place innumerable stumbling-blocks in the way of the man who would lead a pure and natural life ... Mildura will be a home for vegetarianism!” [iv]

In Mildura Newton Wood found the companionship of many fellow vegetarians - so many, in fact, that he thought that they should establish their own society with its own publication and affiliate with the Vegetarian Federal Union. But his dream that the area was “destined to form perhaps the mightiest stronghold of Vegetarianism the world has yet seen” [v] never eventuated. Problems with debt and the water supply ended the Chaffey’s control of the great scheme, while the rescission of the alcohol ban made the Colony become like any other area of regional Australia with its concomitant social problems.

Apart from its regional Victorian members, the Australian Vegetarian Society also supported a number of corresponding members in Adelaide such as Mr W. Holden, who took it upon himself to lecture to South Australians about the “ghastly rows of corpses in the butchers shops”.

In 1900, Robert Jones, John Dun and Mrs Harvie were still leading the organisation and were joined by new members, Mr and Mrs MacDonald, who held the respective positions of Vice President and Honorary Secretary.

In March, 1895, Robert Jones told the annual general meeting that “the good being done by the Society could not be measured by the number of members who joined it but by the progress of opinion on the subject.” From this statement it may be inferred that the Society’s membership may not have been growing as much as he would have liked. In 1896, Ellen White reported that the members were ‘comparatively few’, yet the Society seems to have been flourishing in 1900 as it even had a children’s group called the ‘Wattle Blossoms’ -  the Antipodean version of the British Society’s children’s group, the ‘Daisy Society’.

In 1901, Mr Macdonald printed a 30 page booklet entitled, Rational Food for the Vegetarian Society of Victoria (presumably the same society with a change of name). The book expounded the spiritual and medical arguments of the day for vegetarianism from mainly foreign dietary advocates. It was written to convert meat-eating readers concerned for their own well-being to vegetarianism.

The NSW Society, based in Sydney, was founded on July 20, 1891. Its stated functions were:

To provide facilities for the meeting together of Vegetarians and inquirers interested in Food Reform.

To promote as far as opportunities offer, the knowledge and practice of improved principles in diet -

(a) by an interchange of thought and information on the subject.

(b) by cultivating the acquaintance of fellow thinkers on Food Reform, and endeavouring to encourage any public efforts in this direction.

(c) by assisting inquirers to a knowledge of the literature advocating Vegetarian principles and circulating such useful printed matter as may be practicable.

The driving force behind the NSW Society was James W. Lawton who took on the role of Honorary Secretary and carried it into the next century. Among the other leading figures was the Chairman, William Dugald Campbell, a Fellow of the Geological Society and a Government Surveyor in Sydney during the 1880s and - from around 1900 - for the Geological Survey of Western Australia. Also on the committee was a Mr F. H. Satchell of Waverley.

James Lawton lost no time in notifying the United Kingdom journal, The Vegetarian, of the existence of this new Society:

“... in the hopes that if any of your readers should come to the Colony, or if they know of others here who practise Vegetarianism they will inform me, for I should be pleased to hear from such with the view of their becoming members of our newly formed New South Wales Vegetarian Society.”

The Society’s only known published work was the journal, The Vegetarian: the Organ of the New South Wales Vegetarian Society of which only the first issue (dated March, 1896) is available. In this issue it states that the Society is planning to produce a list of members and a history of the Society but, if this ever eventuated, it is now unfortunately lost. Irrespective of the paucity of its printed record, the NSW Society was quite successful and later established regional branches. As with the Victorian branch, there were frequent and well-attended meetings which were generally held in temperance halls. One meeting was presided over by Francis Edward McLean, Member of Parliament for Marrickville, and featured a lecture by Dr Merritt Kellogg on ‘Food elements and their relation to health and longevity.’

In 1893 a Queensland Vegetarian Society was operating, which may have been because Queensland had a proportionally large number of active Theosophists. However, apart from a report of a speech in the Vegetarian Messenger there does not appear to be any substantive record of activity or membership. The driving force behind the Society seems to have been a Mr Percy Proctor, a pacifist who would later come to attention for his opposition to conscription during WW1.

As most vegetarians in Australia during the Victorian period had originally come from Britain, and often still considered themselves British, they were happy to continue to subscribe and correspond with the existing British vegetarian journals such as The Vegetarian (London), Herald of the Golden Age (Ilfracombe)and the Vegetarian Messenger (Manchester) rather than produce and maintain their own journals. These British publications printed regular reports by former members as to how they were faring in Australia, as well as official reports from the Australian Societies. In the Vegetarian Messenger there was a regular column which ran from the early 1900s entitled, ‘Foreign and Colonial’, in which news from overseas (predominately Germany) would be found and in which Australia was mentioned relatively frequently. Because of these strong connections to the motherland, more Australian vegetarian history is now available in the British Library and the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom archives in Manchester, England, than in all the Australian libraries.

Apart from Australian news published in British vegetarian journals being the primary source of information on vegetarianism for Australians, there was one short-lived Australian journal that did cover vegetarianism extensively - primarily because it was published by two leading members of the Australian Vegetarian Society, Robert Jones and John Dun. The publication was entitled, Progress: for the promotion of all reforms and its banner stood for, ‘Political Equality, Social Freedom and Self Restraint’. It covered all the currently fashionable reforms, including women’s rights and suffrage, taxation reform (according to the American Henry George’s theories) and - in consideration of its publisher’s opinions - a large amount of vegetarian propaganda. Only ten issues published between 1889 and 1890 still exist but they contain a wealth of vegetarian recipes, copious amounts of dietary advice (extolling in particular the virtues of a diet of fruit and nuts), accounts of Vegetarian Society functions (mainly chaired, or featuring speeches, by the publishers) and reports from British and American vegetarian publications. The Vegetarian saw the publication as a sister paper and greeted its appearance thus:

“The third number of our little Melbourne contemporary, Progress, is just to hand and merits our warmest congratulations. Its pages are instinct with the broad and fraternal spirit that inspires the recently established Vegetarian Federal Union, into whose embrace we look confidently to welcome the Australian Societies; and in the fact that the new paper stands pledged, not only to the first principles of Vegetarianism so-called, but to those great and progressive movements which are in vital union with it, we recognise the development of a powerful advocacy in the near future which shall join hands with us in lifting Vegetarianism out of the narrow ruts into which it had got well-nigh fixed, on to the broad road of progressive reform.”

The Vegetarian was probably pleased to have an ally to help take vegetarianism further into the wider reformist movement being, itself, an emanation from the split within the British Vegetarian Society of 1888. In that year, the London Vegetarian Society (under the leadership of Arnold Hills) broke with the United Kingdom Vegetarian Society. The London Vegetarian Society (of which The Vegetarian was its mouthpiece) was formed ostensibly because the London members wanted to pursue a more active, reformist and internationalist agenda which involved promoting organisations such as the Vegetarian Federal Union (of which Arnold Hills was also the President).

A rare Australian report of the Australian Vegetarian Society from 1905 appeared when Mrs Annie MacDonald, Honorary Secretary of the Australian Vegetarian Society, was interviewed about the diet by New Idea: a women’s home journal for Australasia. In the (generally supportive) article, Mrs MacDonald states that the society then consisted of 120 members.

The last known British report of the early Australian vegetarian movement occurred in 1910 when The Vegetarian carried a depressing report from a recent migrant to Australia who stated that the Society “had no good speakers and funds were low” [vi]

No published evidence of any Australian vegetarian society existing between 1910 and 1948 has yet been found. The British vegetarian journals (which had mentioned Australia relatively frequently in the 1890s) ceased to carry any mention. Also, there was no Australian Society found to take part in the formation of the International Vegetarian Union in 1908.

There was some Australian vegetarian activity - and popular acceptance of the diet - during the First World War because of a national drive to cut down meat consumption. However, this was only in order to make more meat available for export to Australian troops and the meat-deprived British population. A result of this was that vegetarian recipes were promoted in the mainstream press and it was an ideal opportunity for the promotion of the diet. Unfortunately, without a fully functioning vegetarian society to capitalise on this unique situation, the expansion of vegetarianism proved negligible.

It is not until 1948 when the Vegetarian Society re-founded under the presidency of W. E. Roberts, a naturopath and owner of a health farm, that the record of vegetarianism improves. Roberts had his consultancy at 17A Pitt Street, Sydney, and this is where the first meetings of the resurrected society were held. The other positions were held by John Boyd Steel, Vice President (a vegetarian for over 50 years) and Sten von Krusenstierna (formerly President of the Singaporean Vegetarian Society) who became Honorary Secretary and editor of their publication, The Australian Vegetarian.

The Society progressed quickly and soon formed branches in Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide. This reincarnation of the Vegetarian Society was apparently ignorant of its Australian antecedents, as it stated, “The first vegetarian society in Australia was formed on April 8 in Sydney.’ It was not until 1949 that a female member from Victoria rectified this error by stating that the earlier Vegetarian Society had been founded in Melbourne by a Mrs Harvey (sic).

[i] Harbinger of Light, July 1886, p. 3244

[ii] Jones, Robert, Vegetarianism, with special reference to its connection with temperance in drinking : lecture (enlarged) delivered before the Melbourne Total Abstinence Society at the Temperance Hall, Russell-St., on the 10th April, 1888, 2nd ed. / ed. by Joseph Knight,  Melbourne : Manchester : George Robertson ; The Vegetarian Society, 1889, p.18

[iii] Ballarat Courier, Oct. 12, 1889

[iv] Newton Wood, J., Under the Southern Cross, Paper II, The Vegetarian, London, Sept. 12, 1891, p.475

[v] Newton Wood, J., Under the Southern Cross, The Vegetarian, London, March 21, 1891, p.179

[vi] Vegetarian, London, 17 April, 1910, p.6

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