Of the more than twenty leaders and interim leaders of the Labour Party, just two have been firm vegetarians: George Lansbury and Jeremy Corbyn. Keir Hardie waivered, but he was vegetarian for at least part of his life. Although there have been other high-profile vegetarians in the Labour Party, not least Sir Stafford Cripps, chancellor of the exchequer during the latter part of Clement Attlee’s administration in the 1940s, Tony Benn, Ellen Wilkinson (for the most part) and maverick MPs such as Newport’s Peter Freeman, this particular aspect of the Left’s history, along with other elements of the environmental movement, is comparatively less well explored by historians. The singular exception is James Gregory’s impressive study Of Victorians and Vegetarians published in 2007. Gregory successfully challenged the popular perception that vegetarianism in Britain was a feature of twentieth century society and illustrates the much longer Victorian lineage of the ethical food movement. This invariably links into changing ideas about public health, the body, and the environment. But equally, the transition from what was essentially a Christian mode of ethics to one that was also informed by political belief is of some interest when seeking to write a fuller account of the development of the Left which is not merely ‘red’ and ‘yellow’ (labour and liberal-progressive) but ‘green’ as well.
Gregory, in common with other scholars of early vegetarianism, has relatively little to say about the movement’s activities in Wales. Although the movement was strongest in England, with key centres in Manchester and London, and to a lesser extent in Bristol, it did have a presence in South Wales. Certainly well-known individuals such as Dr William Price of Llantrisant tend to overshadow those others, more anonymous to history, who adopted vegetarianism. A flourish of organised vegetarian activity began in the late-1890s with the arrival of G. Cholwick Wade to Newport. Wade was an activist and local organiser with the Vegetarian Federal Union and had been dispatched to the region from London in order to build local ranks. Upon arrival he found a certain reluctance, as he confessed in a letter to the South Wales Echo:
It has been a matter of constant wonder and surprise, that the South Wales towns, especially one of the size of Cardiff should be behind the rest of the world [in supporting vegetarian restaurants] […] I think Cardiff could easily support three […] one in St Mary Street, one near the Taff Vale Station, and one at the Docks. Swansea should have two, Newport one, and Merthyr one.
He went on to lament the difficulties of being a vegetarian in a city of omnivores:
It is indeed a work of art to get a mid-day meal in Cardiff. I save myself by filling my pockets first at a fruit shop before facing the wretched bun or pastry that is on sale at most places.
Perhaps he didn’t mean the bread and cakes available at the city’s ILP bakery. In any case, to press the cause, Wade delivered a series of public lectures in places as diverse as St Fagans, Cardiff YMCA, and Cwmbran, often to a slightly sceptical audience. At Barry, to assist with promoting vegetarianism, the Vegetarian Society provided four volumes of recipes and information to the public library. Wade was not appealing to a completely antagonistic audience, however. The Echo’s man about town column had already enthusiastically suggested that ‘there is money to be made’ from a vegetarian restaurant and that this would be the ideal environment for the thrifty citizen – ‘a three course dinner, with biscuit, cheese, and coffee, cost[ing] less than a shilling’. By 1898, Wade was beginning to find more enthusiasm for his ideas. In March, having moved to Cardiff, he addressed the city’s Central Liberal Club on the subject of ‘Vegetarianism and Food Reform’. There he found ready allies including Edward Thomas (Cochfarf) who was himself a vegetarian and Mr and Mrs Ebenezer Beavan. Beavan was a prominent Liberal councillor and the local organiser of the United Kingdom Alliance (a temperance organisation). The following month he spoke to Barry YMCA in a debate on ‘is vegetarianism right?’. The debate was countered by the local YMCA secretary, T. W. Medhurst, who used scripture to make the case that vegetarianism was not appropriate. Wade prevailed.
It was not until 15 July 1898 that the first local vegetarian society branch was formed, in Cardiff. They met at the Railway Temperance Hotel near the GWR station. The meeting was chaired by Anderson Hansen, the Vegetarian Federal Union’s national treasurer, and addressed by G. C. Wade. The founding committee included a Mr Wither as branch chairman, Wade as branch secretary, G. H. Davies as treasurer, and Ebenezer Beavan, Mr and Mrs Harrison (of 97 Cwrys Road), Mr Purcell, W. E. Roberts, Mr Stephens, Mr Rowberry (of Newport, and Mr H. J. Bee. By the end of the year a branch had also been formed in Barry, Swansea and Newport followed in 1899. Who were the individuals who came together in July 1898 to form Cardiff’s vegetarian society?
Besides the Beavans, whom I’ve also discussed, of those also identifiable it is clear that several were active in other habit-reform and abstinence societies. H. J. Bee, for example, was secretary of the local branch of the Manchester-based Anti-Narcotic League, an anti-smoking campaign group. He was also very active with the YMCA in the city, being secretary of the cycling club. For Bee, abstinence from meat, alcohol, and tobacco, was about asserting a particular form of masculinity. In a letter to the press he insisted that ‘it has been said by temperance reformers that any fool can drink, but it takes a man to abstain. The same remark applies to tobacco-smoking. Drinking and tobacco-smoking usually go together’. To that end, in May 1899, Bee went to speak to the local ILP branch on giving up smoking. The Western Mail took great delight in depicting the take as a complete failure: Word went round from the secretary that every member ought to do the lecturer honour by having in his possession a full supply of the grateful weed on that occasion’. Rowberry would go on to form the Newport branch.
This activism worked, to some extent. By 1899, Cardiff had its own vegetarian café: Maskell’s, situated at 60 Bute Road. It was a curious kind of place, alongside being a pioneer. When advertising for a waitress, its requirements were that she be ‘tall and of good appearance’. She also had to be aged between 14 and 16. Apparently being short, less pretty, and born before the Third Reform Act was not encouraging to the vegetarian movement. In addition to the café, an intrepid Mrs Churchill ran her own vegetarian stores at 8 Salisbury Road in Cathays. The latter, perhaps ironically given the abstinence enthusiasms of Cardiff’s vegetarians in the 1890s, had been home to a brothel just a few years earlier – albeit run by someone other than the Churchills! Before that it had been a bake house. Towards the First World War a fully-fledged vegetarian restaurant opened in Frederick Street.
What made the difference in 1898 was the outbreak of the miners’ dispute. Promoters of vegetarianism faced by miners and their families during the strike might encourage take up and members of the various societies spoke regularly in the Rhondda and elsewhere. The focus was on the difficulties of families in meeting the weekly food bills without wages coming in. A butcher’s bill, observed one vegetarian activist, was a considerable item for family budgets, and to help vegetarians provided recipes to miners’ wives to help them make the most of the fruits and vegetables they could afford. This would be a regular recurrence, with vegetarians from Cardiff acting in a similar manner between 1910 and 1912 and again in the disputes of the 1920s and in the period of mass unemployment in the 1930s. But vegetarianism never set down organisational roots in the coalfield, as it did in the coastal ports. Materials still housed in the local studies department at Cardiff show that organised vegetarian activism in the city carried on until at least the 1930s and a special vegetarian library was even kept at the central library for the curious or confirmed.
In 1899, the Cardiff vegetarian society branch remodelled itself as the Cardiff and District Food Reform League, taking a somewhat different approach to activism around food, and its production and consumption. For a period they met at Mrs Churchill’s stores before eventually meeting at the Friends Meeting House in Charles Street. Time and again when watching these ‘re-enactment’ or ‘living history’ programmes on television, beloved as they are by the BBC, we’re confronted with the Victorian habit of doctoring food. Many of these shortcuts taken by producers either to maximise profits, minimise the physical labour involved in production, or because they were unscrupulous. But food reform was a matter which particularly engaged the labour movement, since workers and their families were the most common victims of poor quality food, and the co-operative societies which stressed the ethical nature of their produce. Vegetarianism was (and is) a personal choice, one that presented certain ideas about personal character, but in recognising that ethical consumption of food was about a wider issue, activists in Cardiff were able to move the arguments beyond their own lifestyle choices.
But how do we connect all of this to political activism? This is perhaps a little more difficult. Certainly, the vegetarian and other temperance movements in Cardiff in the 1890s were strongly linked to the Liberal Party, as well as to the YMCA and the Society of Friends. But the most significant Welsh vegetarian of the early twentieth century was undoubtedly Peter Freeman, Labour MP for Brecon and Radnor (1929-1931) and Newport (1945-1956), who served as president of the Vegetarian Society from 1937 to 1942. First elected as a Labour councillor for Penarth Urban District Council in 1924, Freeman was a prominent animal rights activist for decades – in the early 1920s he was the Welsh organiser of ‘Animals Welfare Week’ – and became a vegetarian as a teenager. He even ran his own vegetarian guest house in Penarth. During his period in parliament he even hosted vegan dinners there. When he was not leading the vegetarian charge, he was a leading tennis player – holding the Welsh title – and was good enough as a soccer player that Tom Farquaharson, Cardiff City’s Irish goalkeeper, thought he would make a professional. Freeman, like the earlier generation of vegetarians, looked upon a meat-free diet as a means of combatting poor diet, poor quality of food, and believed it would overcome what he regarded as widespread industrial fatigue and sickness.
Freeman also turned his attention to vegetarianism as a form of humanitarianism – an especially common theme amongst socialist-vegetarians such as Stafford Cripps. He believed that vegetarianism would resolve the world’s growing food supply difficulties and would ease the burden on countries that were not able to feed themselves from their own resources. His Great Britain and the World’s Food Supply and The World Food Crisis Solved by a Vegetarian, both published in the 1950s, the later posthumously following Freeman’s early death from cancer, set out his ideas in clear ways. In other words, then, what began as a movement focused on moderated living, entirely in keeping with nineteenth century liberalism with all its ties to the temperance movement and rational recreation, became something much more universal and idealist. More in keeping with socialist progressivism and internationalism. What is curious, to bring today’s post to a conclusion, is not that ethical consumption of food produced first a liberal and then a socialist response, but that so many of those who advocated a vegetarian lifestyle believed it to be the best route to physical prowess. H. J. Bee and his bicycles, Peter Freeman and his tennis rackets and soccer boots, and countless others besides. With that in mind, let me end with this appeal from G. C. Wade, made in Newport in 1897:
It is all very well for a Llanelly Football player to sing the praises of y sospan fach yn berwi ar y tan but we vegetarians in many cases agree with the proverb A thing boiled is a thing spoiled.
Carrot stick, anyone?