Eat Your Vegetables: the vegetarians of Victorian England

Image from the Punch magazine – really taking ‘you are what you eat’ to the extreme.

While we ourselves are the living graves of murdered beasts, how can we expect any ideal conditions on this earth? – George Bernard Shaw

Vegetarianism is not a fashionable new lifestyle trend or hippy fad; it has been around for thousands of years and many religion practice it in some form or another. People become vegetarian for moral, religious, health, and ethical reasons … even for a matter of taste if they don’t like meaty flavours and textures. People who practice vegetarianism may be vegans, or still eat animals-based proteins like eggs and dairy, or even eat seafood and chicken (though I would count these last as omnivores). It is easy to be a vegetarian where I live, as there is a wide range of fresh fruits and vegetables available all the year around. It wasn’t so easy in Victorian Britain.

It wasn’t just that fresh fruit and vegetables were seasonal and often hard to obtain. For some, being a vegetarian was a political statement and for others, it was an attempt to avoid many of the fatal diseases that plagued the population. The word ‘vegetarianism’ was coined in the 1850s, but the practice was well documented much earlier in the 19th century.

There is a Dickensian irony in the names of the vegetarian leaders of the early 1800s – Cowherd, Metcalfe, and Lambe all conjuring up visions of chops and roasts. – The Cambridge World History of Food

Reverend William Metacalfe

The three mentioned above were all christened with the personal name of William. Doctor William Lambe was the forefather of veganism. In the Victorian era, the word ‘vegetable’ in those days included all types of vegetation such as fruits, grains, nuts, beans and so on. Doctor Lambe became a vegan at 41 for health reasons and kept to his strictly vegetable/vegan diet for the rest of life. He was in his eighties when he died, so the diet worked for him. Reverend William Cowherd one of the philosophical forerunners of the Vegetarian Society founded in 1847, even though he had died in 1816. Cowherd advocated and encouraged members of his followers to abstain from the eating of meat as a form of temperance. The Reverend William Metcalfe took up his cause and carried it to America, when his family migrated in 1817. Metcalfe and his wife tried to teach their neighbours in Philadelphia about pacifism, temperance, abolitionism and vegetarianism. All three Williams gained attention and the practice of vegetarianism spread.

However, a bit like today, committed vegetarians were seen by crackpots by those people who ate meat. Punch was particularly fond of targeting vegetarians in their humour. This isn’t stop the opening of vegetarian restaurants, nor did it discourage famous followers of a vegetarian diet, such as the wrtiers and poets, Leo Tolstoy, George Bernard Shaw and Percy Shelley. Henry Stephens Salt is probably the most famous vegetarian as he was also an animal rights activist, writer, socialist, pacifist, and so much more (I will be dedicating a post all to Henry Salt in the near future).

My protagonist in my Steampunk novel is a botanist and inventor, but she still eats meat. But her interest in plants means that she eats a broader range of plant-based foods than the average Victorian who wasn’t a vegetarian. And when she does encounter a true vegan, she isn’t judgemental of their diet. In fact, she wants to discuss nutrition and the health benefits with her…



Filed under Historical Personage, History, Steampunk Genre, Steampunk Work-in-Progress

5 responses to “Eat Your Vegetables: the vegetarians of Victorian England

  1. I’m an ovo-lacto herbivore who, over a dozen years later, still craves fried chicken. Of course there was no sympathy from my Facebook buddies when I posted something to that effect. Not even from folks who would *know* what it’s like to constantly crave something that they should not partake of (ie, recovering alcoholics).
    Anyway, glad to see that it’s been a “thing” for much longer than many realize. And this was long before veggie burger patties!

  2. Vegetarianism is another “ism”! We are born with “dog teeth”, which are means we are born to eat meat, to tear at the flesh of a dead animal. If we were meant to be vegetarians, we would have been born with multiple stomachs!

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