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The Difficult and Argumentative Birth of the Vegan Social Movement

The Difficult and Argumentative Birth of the Vegan Social Movement

| by Roger Yates | Posted in Vegan News

Part 1 of ‘And if you know your history...

In this series of essays, Dr. Roger Yates of the Dublin-based Vegan Information Project looks at how veganism as a social movement emerged and developed with the focus on accounts of the individual pioneers of the vegan movement.

In an interview in 2004, co-founder of The Vegan Society, Donald Watson, said that the birth of the society had been “difficult,” and it had “never been rich.”

Not only a difficult birth, but the vegan movement struggled somewhat with its relationship with a fairly sympathetic vegetarian movement and, in 1944, finally broke free from “the lactos,” as Watson would sometimes call vegetarians. Watson saw lacto-vegetarianism as weird and made possible only by humanity’s “capacity to exploit the reproductive functions of other species.” Although critical of vegetarianism, Donald Watson sought to maintain a respectful stance towards vegetarians, seeing “no need for animosity” between vegans and vegetarians. In this first of a series of blog entries for VegfestUK, I trace the beginnings of a radical vegan social movement that has focused on our relations with other animals but which maintained a scope much wider than that, for example, by including serious concerns for human animals too. Another of the initial co-founders, Elsie Shrigley, would declare that the vegan movement could be described as “idealistic” in nature, whereas historians have noted a strong “anti-establishment” feeling among the vegan pioneers.


Watson says that it was the “milk issue” that caused the formation of the Vegan Society. In August 1944, six months after Watson had delivered a talk about dairy products to a meeting of the Vegetarian Society, Shrigley and Watson proposed the formation a “non-dairy section” within the organisation. In the first issue of The Vegan in November 1944, Watson reports that “the lactos’” committee was sympathetic to the plan but ultimately rejected a non-dairy section because they wanted to concentrate on the abolition of flesh as human food. The Vegetarian Society committee, probably fearing some dissent from rank and file members, told Shrigley and Watson that they would be “freer” operating independently.


Two years later, in the Spring 1946 edition of The Vegan, Watson claimed that, “for ninety years vegetarian literature contained nothing to question either morally or physiologically the use of animal foods other than flesh.” Leah Leneman, in a 1999 paper entitled, “No Animal Food: The Road to Veganism in Britain, 1909-1944,” says that Watson is plain wrong about this. For example, in the Summer 1988 issue of The Vegan, under the title, “Out of the Past: A founding father takes us on a walk down Memory Lane,” Watson says that the first vegan cookbook was Fay K. Henderson’s Vegan Recipes, published in 1947, whereas Leneman states that Rupert Wheldon’s 1910 publication, No Animal Food, “must be counted as the first British vegan cookery book.” Split into three sections, with the first two being essays on, “why eating animal food was not a good idea,” and covering heath, ethical, esthetic, and economic arguments, the book contained one hundred vegan recipes. The book’s publisher, C.W. Daniel, understood how oppressions are entangled, publishing texts on radical feminism as well as plant-based cooking.


From 1909-1912, and then again after “World War I,” the Vegetarian Society’s journal, The Vegetarian Messenger and Health Review (TVMHR), featured “vigorous correspondence” on non-flesh animal products, revealing, according to Leneman, that the Vegetarian Society had some members avoiding such products in these early years. This led to the editor of TVMHR asserting in 1912 that there were two types of vegetarians, those eating dairy and eggs and those who were not. He went as far as declaring that the minority of non-dairy and non-egg vegetarians had a strong case, while the arguments for eating dairy and eggs, at least those offered in the society’s journal, were “not satisfactory.”


The debate that took place between 1909 and 1912 features the type of claims-making we still see in the 21st century. For example, in his 1910 cookery book, Rupert Wheldon states that: “It is quite impossible to consume dairy produce without slaughter as it is to eat flesh without slaughter.” A year earlier, in TVMHR of 1909, one correspondent claimed that, “Vegetarians, so-called, are responsible for their share of the numbers of cows, calves, and fowls killed.” Another writer in 1910 noted that once cows became too old or too diseased to be milked, they become “the butcher’s property.” Some vegetarians fought back, making what we would probably regard nowadays as largely welfarist claims. For example, in 1911, someone holding a diploma from a Scottish dairy school, said that cows can be used for milk with “no need for cruelty,” that few cows fret over their removed calf, “provided they are not allowed to see or lick it, or if it is placed so far away that they cannot hear it.” Another TVMHR correspondent in 1912 was on the opinion that he didn’t think mother and calf “suffer much” from separation provided, again, that they do not see each other. TVMHR itself, in 1942, offered some thoughts on “consistency” that present-day vegans will surely recognise, saying that, “few vegetarians, however strict they may be, would claim the impossible, namely, absolute consistency,” and suggesting that, if the public were encouraged to proceed “step by step,” that would be the better, more successful, ask. 

Some of the correspondence to the pages of TVMHR in 1909 focused on the plight of “poultry,” with one writer stating that, “you cannot have eggs without also having on your hands a number of male birds, which you must kill.” However, it appears that it was the dairy issue that remained a central concern, although John Davis, former manager and historian of the International Vegetarian Union, suggests that the discussions about “non-dairy” in those days was a “catch-all” phrase meaning non-dairy, non-eggs, and (mostly) non-honey.


By the 1930s and into the 1940s, the arguments that were to prompt the foundation of the vegan social movement were in full swing. In 1935, for example, a Muriel Davies noted that, “cattle must suffer abuse, captivity and ultimate slaughter” in order for humans to consume calf food. In 1943, Leslie Cross, who would play a huge role in the early years of the British Vegan Society, and described by Leneman as “a purist,” asserted that: “Milk and its derivatives are products of pain, suffering and abominable interference with the law of love.” In 1944, Dugald Semple made a very modern-day sounding claim: that, if cruelty is the criteria, then dairy products are likely to cause more of it than flesh products, while Donald Watson, writing in TVMHR in the same year, said that, “the cow feels the loss of her calf in much the same way as a human mother would feel the loss of her child,” adding: “Sometimes she will cry for days.”

And so, the stage is set for the suggestion of a non-dairy section of the Vegetarian Society, its rejection, and the foundation (sometime in 1944 - the Vegan Society are not certain when) of the organised vegan social movement. I say “organised” but by today’s standards and widespread access to the internet and instant global communications, it was barely that. Watson, in his 1988 article, notes that, “We were few in number and widely dispersed… We had no funds, no private transport - apart from bicycles, no precedents to work on, no office, little experience in public speaking, and none in publishing.” Significantly, and this would shape the radicalism of the vegan pioneers, they were witnessing the end of the second “World War” the experience of which Watson would call “sickening,” and were still constrained by rationing, which would go on several years after the end of the war. “Despite all this we went ahead and formed the society. It was indeed a difficult birth,” Watson writes.

We’ll pick up the story of Donald Watson in particular - what he did (and didn’t do) next time.


The Vegan News. (No 1. 1944).

The Vegan. (Spring 1946).

The Vegan. (Summer 1988).

“No Animal Food: the Road to Veganism in Britain, 1909-1944.” Leah Leneman, Society and Animals, 1999, Vol 7, number 3.

“Ripened by Human Determination: Seventy Years of The Vegan Society.” Samantha Calvert. The Vegan Society. 2014.

“Vegetarianism: The Story So Far. A Radio History.” The Vegan Option with Ian McDonald. 15 parts, particularly, “Liberation – on veganism, hippies, and the animal rights movement.”


Other parts of the “And if you know your history...” series

Introduction – "And If You Know Your History..." a new series looking at the History of the Vegan Movement

Part 2 – The Best Known of the Co-Founders of the Greatest Cause on Earth, Donald Watson

Part 3 – The Focus, the Scope, and the Dream of a Vegan Future. The Vision of Leslie Cross


VegfestUK London

Returning to Olympia London for the 7th year running on the weekend October 26-27, this eagerly anticipated event includes 320 stalls packed with the latest vegan products, a Vegan Food Village with 25 caterers, a New Vegan Support area for beginners to veganism, a Foodies Stage with live music, the Art of Compassion Exhibition, two Fitness areas, a Holistic Health Hub, Cookery Demos, talks on Plant Based Health, a Natural Therapy Zone, Lifestyle presentations, a Yoga Zone, a Kids Yoga area, talks on Veganic Growing, a Mature Zone, a Kids Area, plus talks on Animal Rights and Activism, Vegan Activists Support, VGN, VGN Climate Change Summit and Movement Building.

Advance tickets for this event will be on sale from August 1st at 

Each entry ticket includes free access to all talks, cookery demos, panels and live music sessions at the show.

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Plant Powered Expo – February 1st 2nd 2020 @ Olympia London

The organisers of VegfestUK are running a new show Plant Powered Expo next February in the National Hall of Olympia London. This new event celebrates the best of a plant-based way of life with 235 stalls, 12 features and 100 speakers. For more information, visit 

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