International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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The Origins of the 'Vegetarians'
by John Davis, IVU Historian

The word 'vegetarian' is first known to have been used in print in 1842, but in a way which suggested it was laready in use, at least amongst a small group, by that time. It was followed by the formation of the Vegetarian Society in 1847. The idea of living food derived from plants had been around for thousands of years, it was just the word that was new, along with the idea of a secular organisation to promote it.

To understand how this came about we first have to go back to 1809 when the Rev. William Cowherd broke away from other non-conformist churches to form his own - the Bible Christian Church, based in Salford, near Manchester in the north of England. The idea of religions abstaining from flesh-eating was also not new, and again had been around for thousands of years, as practised by Hindus, Jains and some Buddhists. There had even been Christian examples, such as the medieval monasteries, various 'heretical' sects and individuals such as John Wesley, founder of the Methodists, But their abstention was a form of self-denial, they avoided meat because they thought it was good, just as they avoided sex for the same reason. Cowherd developed his ideas from earlier Christian theologians and became the leader of the first known congregation of Christians to avoid eating flesh (but not eggs and dairy products) because they considered it bad - for human health, and out of compassion for the animals.

A few years later Cowherd died but his church continued to flourish, complete with an offshoot in Philadelphia, USA, started by William Metcalfe who left Salford with 41 followers in 1817. Whilst these two churches did have some influential and wealthy members they were essentially local affairs, largely unknown and ignored by the rest of their respective countries. They continued in their own fairly quiet way for the next 40 years, but meanwhile others were stirring.

During the 1830s and 40s the most creative and dynamic forces in the meat-free world were in the USA. By 1847 the British magazine, the Truth-Tester clearly had a high regard for leaders such as Dr. William Alcott, whose book was well-known in Britain; his cousin Bronson Alcott who had visited London in 1842 and had a school named after him; and Sylvester Graham, perhaps the most charismatic of the group. In 1847 the editor of the Truth-Tester proposed raising funds to pay Graham's expenses to travel to London to give lectures, which he never achieved, though he did eventually succeed in re-printing Graham's two volume book in England. In the summer of the same year there was even a letter from a British resident of Calcutta, India, stating that the he was a vegetarian and followed the Grahamite principles.

The Concordium, on Ham Common, Richmond, Surrey, near London, was a school following what we now call a vegan diet for all its pupils, and following the teaching ideas of Pestalozzi, which Bronson Alcott had also promoted in Boston, USA. In 1842 Alcott visited the school which had been named Alcott House in his honour.

Shortly after this a new 'Hydropathic Institution' opened in Ramsgate, Kent, also not far from London, in the extreme south east of the country. This was based on ideas from Germany where 'Nature Cure' clinics were catching on. It was run by a Surgeon, but the 'Governor' was one William Horsell and in 1846 he took over as editor of the Truth-Tester. This had been purely a temperance - anti-alcohol - magazine, but Horsell steered it towards promoting the 'Vegetable Diet' as well. There were letters from readers both for and against this change of direction, but it seems to have rapidly become the focal point for 'vegetarians' as they were now becoming known.

But where did the word come from?

Certainly not from the Bible Christians, they had been around for forty years and, whilst they may have been revolutionary in 1809, religious groups tend to stick to their traditions once established. All the records show them referring to 'the vegetable diet' until 1847.

Alcott House School was founded in 1838 as a very revolutionary idea, full of enthusiastic idealistic people - just the sort to indulge in linguistic experiments. Alcott's visit in 1842 was a time of particularly high excitement and must have been anticipated for some time in advance. The word first appeared between 1838-42 just when Alcott House was at its most enthusiastic revolutionary peak. We have now proved Alcott House as the source:

  • Vegetarian equals Vegan! - 'The first people who called themselves 'vegetarian' were in fact vegan. This has now been established conclusively with resources not previously available'. (blog from July 2010)

Americans have always tended towards a more flexible use of the English language, certainly much more than most people in Victorian England. However, there is no evidence that the Americans were using the word themselves - on the contrary, in December 1849 Sylvester Graham wrote a letter to a the successor of the Truth-Tester referring to: the "Vegetarian" cause, as you in England are pleased to call it. (the quotes were his). This makes it quite clear that he saw the word as a British invention.

There has been a long-standing claim that the word was derived from the latin 'vegetus' - apparently meaning 'whole, fresh, lively', but as far back as 1906 a writer in the Manchester-based Vegetarian Society's own magazine knew this was myth, and also suggested Alcott House as the probable real origin. The survival of the 'vegetus' myth is probably due to the need to get round the eggs/dairy problem, and a way of claiming that 'vegetarian' was not just about eating vegetation,

The foundations of the Vegetarian Society

By 1847 there were three main vegetarian groups in England, the Bible Christians in Salford; Alcott House in Surrey; and Northwood Villa - the Hydropathic Institute - in Ramsgate. The focal point became the Truth-Tester magazine, edited by William Horsell in Ramsgate.

Early in 1847 a letter to this journal proposed forming a Vegetarian Society, and William Oldham, of Alcott House, called a gathering of all vegetarians on July 8th at his establishment. He called it a 'Physiological Conference' and it was a great success with up to 130 persons present. The only mention of anyone from the Manchester area was James Simpson, a wealthy member of the Bible Christian Church. His speech was noted, but he appears to have played no part in the organisation. The Conference passed several resolutions, all published in the Truth-Tester, one of which was:

That this meeting do now adjourn till the LAST WEEK OF SEPTEMBER NEXT (the day, time, and place, to be announced in the Truth-Tester), for the further interchange of opinion upon the above important subject, and with a view to the FORMATION OF A SOCIETY for promoting the objects set forth, and so extensively affecting the future progress and elevation of their fellow-men's moral and religious advancement.

The emphasis was that of the editor. The details later announced were that the meeting would be held at Northwood Villa in Ramsgate, and it was already being mentioned that this would be the formation of a 'Society of Vegetarians'.

On September 30 the meeting of at least 150 people invited Joseph Brotherton, a Bible Christian and the Member of Parliament for Salford, to take the chair. The Society was duly formed and elected James Simpson, another Bible Christian, as its first President. The Salford/Manchester connections were clear enough - but they also elected William Oldham of Alcott House as Treasurer, and more crucially, William Horsell of Ramsgate as Secretary.

The rules, printed in full in the Truth-Tester, handed over the full running of the Society to these three officers, but with the Secretary taking the leading role - to the extent that 25% of all the Society's income automatically went to the Secretary as reimbursement for his work. As he was still editor of the Truth-Tester this effectively became the Society's official journal and for at least the first year of its existence the Vegetarian Society was based very firmly in Ramsgate, Kent.

In 1848 William Horsell used the Truth-Tester to announce the first Annual General Meeting of the Society to be held in Manchester. Over the next few years the AGMs were held in Salford, Liverpool and Leeds, all in the north of England as this region apparently had highest proportion of the Society's members. At that first AGM William Oldham stood down as treasurer, being replaced by a man from Birmingham, effectively ending the involvement of Alcott House. The institution closed that same year.

Meanwhile William Horsell moved to London, opened his own printing press and re-launched his magazine as the Vegetarian Advocate, in an almost identical format to the Truth-Tester, but now moved clearly away from its Temperance roots. He was re-elected as Secretary of the Vegetarian Society and continued to run its affairs from London.

In May 1850 the Americans held a Convention in New York to launch the American Vegetarian Society and reports mentioned a letter of support from Mr. W. Horsell, London, Secretary of the English Vegetarian Society.

Joseph Brotherton, Member of Parliament for Salford.

James Simpson, first President of the Vegetarian Society

In 1849 the Society President, James Simpson, began publishing the Vegetarian Messenger, edited from Manchester. There were differences between London and Manchester, primarily around the question of the use of eggs and dairy products.

Mr. Horsell stepped down as Secretary around the same time that his journal ceased in 1850, but he continued to be active in his local branch, the London Vegetarian Association (which was what we now call vegan).

In 1850 the President moved the Vegetarian Society office to Manchester, where it is still based today. The Vegetarian Messenger continued with the same name for the next hundred years.

In conclusion

There can be no doubt that the inspiration for establishing the Vegetarian Society - and the word 'Vegetarian' - came from the dynamic enthusiasm of Alcott House and Northwood Villa. Without them the Bible Christians would have simply continued as they had for the previous 40 years, content to run their Church. But that sort of energy rarely lasts and both institutions faded away within a few years. Fortunately they had the foresight to elect one of the heavyweight Bible Christians as their President, and what that Church could offer was long term stability. This proved crucial in ensuring that the Society survived and prospered.

As the Society grew it became increasingly independent of the Church which itself eventually ended in the early years of the 20th century.

The contrast with the American Vegetarian Society is significant. Their secular founders also soon faded away, and some died. Again it was left to the Bible Christians, this time in Philadelphia, to keep it going, but they were relatively small and weak, and in such a vast country they had little hope of success. The Society died, was re-started with a name change, and then continued in a very small way for many years, but it never expanded beyond the Bible Christian Church and ended when they did.