Skip to main content

London Vegetarian Association, 1850s - the world's first 'vegan society'

There are always two main problems in researching vegan history in the 19th century – the word ‘vegan’ did not exist, and most of the records were published by ovo-lacto-vegetarians who avoided the contentious issue of eggs/dairy. So we have to do a lot of careful reading, especially between the lines…

The first secretary of the Vegetarian Society in 1847 was William Horsell who was a prominent ‘vegan’ running the Society from his London office. He came into inevitable conflict with the strongly ‘ovo-lacto’ president, James Simpson in Manchester.

In September 1849 Simpson began publishing the Vegetarian Messenger, in direct competition with Horsell’s Vegetarian Advocate, and in the summer of 1850 Simpson won. Horsell stepped down as secretary and his journal ceased.

But wasn’t the end of Mr. Horsell… the new Society had been encouraging members in towns and cities across the UK to form local committees, and London duly responded. The extract below is from Fifty Years of Food Reform, by Charles Forward in 1897, p.32:

“On November 6th, 1849, a meeting of London Vegetarians was convened at Aldine Chambers . . . . The meeting was adjourned to November 12th, at Aurora Villa, Hampstead, when Mr. Turley occupied the chair, and it was resolved that a local committee should be formed in the Metropolis, consisting of Messrs. Viettinghoff, Wiles, Hodgson, G. Dornbusch, Turley, Edwards, Umpleby, King, Evans, Pratt, Reed, Viessieux, and James Salsbury ; Mr. Horsell being treasurer, and Mr. J. Shirley Hibberd, secretary.

“. . . Mr. Dornbusch had adopted Vegetarianism about 1843, and was an abstainer from tea, coffee, alcohol, tobacco, and drugs of every kind. Mr. Dornbusch’s daughter was married to Mr. W. L. Beurle, an active Vegetarian, and one of the prominent workers in the movement against compulsory vaccination.”

Getting precise details is never easy, but we do know that several of the committee, and other leading members, had been connected with the Alcott House Academy which ran from 1838 to 1848 close to London, and which had been responsible for all known uses of the word ‘vegetarian’ before 1847. And in Alcott House ‘vegetarian’ was in all respects what we now call ‘vegan’. The above references to abstention from tea and coffee were typical of Alcott House (anti-vaccination was partly because of the egg whites used in the vaccine).

With the local committees underway the national Vegetarian Society began encouraging local groups to use the term ‘Association’ to avoid confusion. So in 1852 the London group announced that they were now the ‘London Vegetarian Association’. But these were branches of the national society, not independent groups.

The Vegetarian Messenger (VM) began printing extensive reports from these Associations, usually running to many pages of speeches, and often mentioning the meals. At the end of 1854 we have some contrasting accounts, all from VM, Volume 5:

p.81: “The monthly meeting of the [London] Association was held on Thursday, September 7th, at the Vegetarian Depôt, 492, New Oxford Street. A crowded assembly of ladies and gentlemen enjoyed a repast of the fruits of the season, consisting of pears, apples, grapes, etc., and a supply of wheat-meal bread, oat-cakes, and buns.” [The Vegetarian Depôt was run by William Horsell and his partner as a book, journal and pamphlet publishing and distribution base.]

p.84: [a further comment about the same meeting] “Indeed the fruits of the earth have something so pleasant in them that they must be acceptable, and if they were used more, the beauty of the Vegetarian diet would sooner be appreciated.” [this was a thinly veiled sideswipe at the egg/dairy eaters  – if the comment had been too obvious it would never have been printed in the VM]

p.113 [the meeting of October 5th] : “. . . almond, currant, and lemon syrups in iced water, formed very agreeable beverages.” [they never used tea or coffee]

All these reports from London are in stark contrast with the Associations in the cities of the north of England. This one from the Leeds Vegetarian Association meeting of October 17 is typical:

p.116 : “…a delightful repast consisting of tea, milk, brown and white bread, biscuits, plum-cake, moulded rice, with preserves, barley, pudding, apples and pears.” [the limited ‘fruits of the earth’ seemingly something of an afterthought]

The activities of the London Vegetarian Association were not going down at all well with the President in Manchester. It has to be taken into account that the majority of the Vegetarian Society members were in the north of England, and most of the leaders were closely connected with the Bible Christian Church. They did not merely accept the use of eggs/dairy/honey, they actively promoted it as God’s given food – as in ‘the promised land flowing with milk and honey’ (Exodus 3:8). We still see something similar today from some Hindus in India who regard cow’s milk as sacred, and therefore see vegans as ‘heretics’, treating them with some hostility.

The differences came to a head in early 1856, when William Horsell was elected secretary of LVA. James Simpson responded by replacing Horsell with a ‘local secretary’ of his own choice, more loyal to the Manchester viewpoint.

In a letter dated 5th May 1856, Simpson expressed his concerns that Horsell would bring the vegetarian movement: “. . . under the imputations and objections which ought carefully to be avoided.”  Referring to his action of replacing Horsell: “. . . any steps taken by the association at all unfavourable to the general interest of the movement being thus somewhat modified, as far as our control of the public influence of Vegetarianism in London will permit.” [quoted from ‘Of Victorians and Vegetarians’ by James Gregory, 2007, p.48]

Exactly what happened after that does not appear to have been recorded by anyone, but the London Vegetarian (i.e. vegan) Association seems to have soon fizzled out in disarray. A few years later a new London group opted out completely, but that’s another story…

Further notes from VM: In its first five volumes, the Vegetarian Messenger only twice commented directly on the eggs/dairy issue. The works of the American Sylvester Graham (right) were being published in England by William Horsell from his Vegetarian Depôt in London.

In the very first article of the first issue of VM (Vol.1, p.2, Sept. 1849) there was a mention of Sylvester Graham with an oblique reference to his ‘simple’ diet. The two-page article went on to make it clear the VM saw eggs/dairy as an integral part of vegetarianism. The following summer saw the final issue of Horsell’s Vegetarian Advocate, which included a two page article by Graham, arguing against butter and cheese.

VM made no further comment until late 1854 -  Vol.V., p.4:

“Mr. Graham, in his Science of Human Life, has been the leading advocate of the adoption of the Vegetarian system in dependence upon fruits, farinaceous [starchy] substances, and vegetable products alone, without the addition of animal substances, such as milk, butter, eggs, or cheese . . .” [they don't seem to have been aware that Graham was heavily influenced in this by Dr. William Lambe from London, in his book of 1815.]

The VM claimed the Vegetarian Society took no view either way, leaving it for individuals to decide,  ‘however…’ and they followed with a two page article by John Smith from Yorkshire (northern England), author of the most popular vegetarian diet book of the day. He warned against eliminating all animal products on various health grounds, ultimately seeing it as a risk of “ . . . Vegetarian principles brought into disrepute.”

On page 76 of the same volume (later in 1854) the VM printed an article on ‘The Designation of the Society’. This acknowledged the confusion around the word ‘vegetarian’, without being very specific, and threw out the idea of replacing the word with ‘Dietetic Reform’, so potentially becoming the ‘Dietetic Reform Society’. This appears to have received no response at the time, but 20 years later it was London that took up that idea. But that is also part of the next story….

For vegan history, see my free e-book: ‘World Veganism – past, present and future.” You can download it for free, or replace your existing copy at: (6mb)

IVU on Facebook:

  • Created on .