Read transcript of Ep 12: Radicals & Romantics

Printed text in English about God and truth

Follow this link to hear the episode & read the show notes. Transcription by Amy Carpenter.

Tim Newman:

This is out of its sheath, so it’s just a long thin sword, with a handle that’s wrapped with twine.

Ian McDonald [as narrator]:

The owner has replaced the usual leather grip with something more animal friendly.

We start in an 18th Century school building, turned museum, in Deerfield Massachusetts, USA – near the border with Vermont. This vegetarian sword has been handed down from the school’s original cabinet of curiosities.

It’s the turn of the 19th Century. The leading figures of the European Enlightenment have openly doubted the morality of eating animals. Republics have risen in America and France, cracking open the West’s old certainties. The so-called “vegetable men” aren’t lone curiosities anymore.

Newman:

This is an interesting handle compared to the … sort of traditional… See all those had the loop on it to hold… to be around your hand and actually protect your hand. This one does not.

Ian [as narrator]:

As well as our swordsman here, we’ll meet the puritanical preaching of Sylvester Graham, encounter the frustrations of the young Louisa May Alcott, a vegetarian church with hymns against animal cruelty, the bohemians of Paris, and the first meat-free hotel franchise.

This episode is how they come together, as a coherent movement, under the name we still use today – vegetarianism.

[Theme starts – music with sound of gongs]

Vegetarianism, the story so far, with me Ian McDonald. Episode 12, Radicals and Romantics.

[Theme Ends]

Ian [as narrator]:

The sword belongs to William Dorrell, the messiah of a 1790s religious cult that hits this corner of New England with vegetarianism, socialism (kind of), and, orgies.

Newman:

I’m Tim Newman, I’m executive director of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association. The real emphasis was that they didn’t use any animal product that resulted in the death of an animal. They never explained why.

Ian [narrating]:

We’re in Tim’s office, with another Dorrelite curiosity on the table between us.

Newman:

Well, it is a pair of wooden-soled shoes. The heels are about an inch and a half, and the upper part of the shoe is canvas that has been tacked on. There’s no lining, so your foot would be… the foot of the owner was resting on wood. There’s a lot of wear on that. The man who owned this was over six feet tall and is reported to have been very heavy-set, muscular. So I’m sure these shoes carried a lot of weight.

Ian [to Newman]:

And the reason these shoes are so unusual is he’s abstaining not just from eating animals, but from using animals in clothing, in footwear.

Newman:

They were also not to use animals for farming. So you had to use shovel and rake, and that was… really strike the New Englanders as odd, because the soil really needs a strong back to pull a plow through it.

Ian:

Who was this tall, thick-set, quite impressive sounding man who wore these very unusual shoes?

Newman:

Well he had been impressed into the British army to fight in the revolution against the ‘rebelling’ American colonies, and he stayed.

Ian [narrating]:

The New World offers William Dorrell better prospects than the old. He’s illiterate but smart. His wife reads the Bible for him, and in the 1790s, Dorrell starts preaching his own interpretation; no miracles, no resurrection, no day of judgement. Tim Newman.

Newman:

Prominent people liked what he was preaching about freedom. It was that whole period after the revolution. So there’d been all this talk about freedom and happiness. Those were new ideas when you’ve lived in a society that was about salvation and obligation.

Ian [narrating]:

Dorrell probably got some ideas from the local Shakers – a movement whose biggest legacy today is well-made furniture. They are monastic, communal, celibate, ascetic.

Both Shakers and Dorrelites hold wealth in common. But where Shakers believe in spiritual perfection in this life, Dorrell tells followers they are raised to a state beyond sin, beyond law, beyond marriage vows, and that this life is the only one we’ve got.

And where the Shakers dance, the Dorrelites, well…

[to Newman] What were services like? They were somewhat riotous?

Newman:

They would meet sometimes outdoors. But they would meet in someone’s home. Accounts that have survived are, you arrive, and you sit in the parlour, and he gives a little talk, and you do a little singing, and then it’s rolling around on the floor time [laughs].

Ian [narrating]:

Stories have been passed down at the Dorrelites’ expense – like a husband shamed out of the cult when his wife yoked the cattle to the plough. But most of all, how William Dorrell is undone by his own boasts.

Newman:

People remember him saying that “no human hand shall touch me”. This guy gets up, and knocks him to the ground. And he tries to get up and the guy knocks him to the ground again. And so Dorrell backs off, and the guy says, “only if you will recant your teachings”. And so that was sort of the beginning of the end.

Ian [narrating]:

And William Dorrell fades away into alcoholism, poverty, and the tall tales of New England. Across the Atlantic, in Napoleonic Paris, there’s another fascinating little cult that leans towards vegetarianism.

Pierre Serna:

Sect des Barbus. The sect of the Bearded Men.

Ian [narrating]:

That’s Pierre Serna, head of the Institute for the French Revolution at Paris Sorbonne University.

Gentlemen are expected to shave; but the sect of the bearded men are young rebellious artists, unconventional, from the school of the leading painter of Paris, and out to make an impression. Charles Nodier was one, and lived to tell the tale.

Charles Nodier [actor reading]:

You must have often heard of these young men, who took pride in having resurrected amongst themselves the beautiful forms, the beautiful customs, and the beautiful clothes of the first centuries.

Serna:

They were dressed as Attic men.

Ian [to Serna]:

They dressed like Greeks.

Serna:

They dressed like Greeks. Their lived together…

Ian [narrating]:

In a squatted abandoned convent…

Serna:

They say that they practice ‘free love’. So there were women were billed to the club, and were in equality with men.

Ian [as narrator]:

They also embraced mystical Christianity and a phoney piece of ancient Celtic poetry called the Song of Ossian.

Nodier [actor reading]:

Of these artists who wore the costume of Phrygia, who ate nothing but vegetables, who lived in common, and whose pure and hospitable life was of the golden age.

Serna:

So we return to a primitivism way of life. We return to the perfection of the antiquity, and the perfection of the harmony between men and animals.

Ian [narrating]:

Our chronicler Nodier returns after a year’s absence in 1803 to find the squat abandoned, the leaders dead in their youth from tuberculosis or suicide.

But the most evangelically vegetarian bearded man lives on.

Serna:

Antoine Du Gleizes was an important vegetarian.

Ian [as narrator]:

He writes at length on how the true message of Christianity is compassion to animals. And also, reincarnation. The poet Alphonse Lamartine, himself the product of vegetarian upbringing, will eventually write his epitaph:

Alphonse Lamartine [actor reading]:

There was the soul of a Brahmin in the body of a Frenchman!

Ian [narrating]:

But across the channel, vegetarians are slowly becoming connecting up into circles and networks.

[sound of traffic]

Ian [narrating at Newgate prison]:

I’m on the junction of Old Bailey and Newgate. This is Roman London’s west gate, and the site of a Medieval prison where the British government threw a bunch of radicals in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

And it becomes an unofficial publishing house. One of the people here starts distributing for the first time, anthologies of pro-vegetarian writing, bringing together some of the people we’ve had in previous shows, like Thomas Tryon, Geroge Cheyne, or Rousseau.

One frequent visitor is William Godwin, a pioneering anarchist. You might have heard of his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft the feminist. Godwin only dabbles with a vegetable diet himself, but he networks, he spreads it by network. For example he knows the angry antiquarian Joseph Ritson.

Now you might not have heard of him, but you’ve heard of his work.

Male singer, to music:

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen!
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men!
Feared by the bad, loved by the good, [fades]

Ian [narrating]:

It’s Ritson who synthesis all the old stories of Robin Hood into a single history. That inspires, amongst others, his novelist friend Walter Scott, creating the modern legend. The friendly radical who lives outside the law, and robs the rich for the poor.

Male singer:

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood!

Ian:

His book…

Joseph Ritson [actor reading]:

An Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food as a Moral Duty.

Ian:

…recruits a merry band of earlier pro-vegetarian writers into a radical atheist republican rant against elites, human exceptionalism and meat eating.

Ritson:

The lamb is no more “intended” to be devoured by the wolf, than the man by the tiger or other beast of prey, which experiences equally “the agreeable flavour of his flesh” and “the wholesome nutriment it administers to their stomachs”. Such reasoning is perfectly ridiculous!

Ian:

When his young nephew kills the neighbour’s cat to avenge a mouse, Joseph Ritson privately commends the act! No wonder critics cite him, along with John Oswald from last show, the Scot who died fighting for the French Revolution, as reasons to doubt that a vegetable diet makes you peaceful.

And they consider themselves vindicated when Ritson’s essay is followed by a violent insanity, and his death.

[Classical piano music begins]

Godwin is also friends with circle of radicals who are vegetarian, going on vegan, as well as abstaining from alcohol and – by some accounts – clothes. It’s their interpretation of the Romantic ideal of a natural authentic life.

For example Godwin’s a frequent visitor to the house in the village of Bracknell, near London, of Harriet de Boinville. She’s a self-declared child of the French Revolution (and a Napoleonic war widow – on Napoleon’s side, naturally).

Her brother-in-law is John Frank Newton, the decade’s biggest writer on the vegetable diet. He’s extremely “age of Aquarius”. He’s a religious eccentric who thinks that star signs are symbols of vegetarianism.

He inspired by his physician, Dr William Lambe, who prescribes distilled water and a diet that’s not just vegetarian, but vegan.

William Lambe [actor reading]:

This applies then with the same force to eggs, milk, cheese, and fish, as to flesh meat.

Ian:

Far from being derided, Dr Lambe is at the top of his profession. He’s a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. He hobnobs with statesmen. He’s going to live a long influential life. And he’s so core to the Bracknell set that his daughter will marry Harriet’s son.

[Classical music fades in and continues in background]

Ian:

But probably their biggest impact comes in 1812, when Godwin sends his acolyte, a talented 20 year old poet, their way. One Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The Bracknell circle might inspire some intellectuals, but Shelley knows how to move the heart.

So he goes to live in Bracknell, he takes up their vegan diet.

But, as tends to happen with Romantic poets, it’s all run ashore on the rocks of the heart. Talking about free love, he abandons his pregnant wife in favour of William Godwin’s daughter, Mary. The Bracknell circle feel betrayed.

But Shelley is writing the idealistic poetry that will be the emotional soundtrack of opposition to eating animals for the rest of the century.

He offers an invitation to a wondrous utopia where, abandoning meat-eating, humans recover their peaceful nature and live long healthy lives. Where predators lose the habit, and prey forget fear. Shelley backs this up with naturalist accounts of remote islands where animals haven’t learnt to fear predators, as if they still live in Eden.

Percy Bysshe Shelley [actor reading]:

Immortal upon earth; No longer now
He slays the lamb that looks him in the face,
And horribly devours his mangled flesh;
Which, still avenging nature’s broken law,
Kindled all putrid humours in his frame,
The germs of misery, death, disease, and crime.

All things are void of terror: man has lost
His terrible prerogative, and stands
An equal amidst equals: happiness
And science dawn though late, upon the earth.

Ian:

Shelley’s circle pitch themselves as kindler and gentler than that nasty “militant” Joseph Ritson, he of Robin Hood fame, even as they re-use his work.

Mary Shelley gets the idea for her novel Frankenstein in 1816. Frankenstein’s famous creature is a factory reset of human nature, begging to be allowed to live in peace in the Amazon.

Mary Shelley’s character, Frankenstein’s creature [actor reading]:

My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to gut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment.

Ian:

Percy Shelley himself would sometimes eat meat when travelling, or when pushed into it by concerned friends, who blamed his constant ill-health on his vegetarianism and, quote, “immoderate use of Laudanam”.

Despite that, despite his reckless death in 1822, he becomes synonymous with the vegetable diet.

A caustic health magazine even refers to…

Magazine contributor [actor reading]:

The disciples of Mr Shelley.

Ian:

It prints a parody of the picnic of the vegetable men. The figures I’ve talked about for the last few minutes, like Ritson, Newton, Lambe, and Shelley, are well-known enough to parody in print.

Anonymous writer [in “Guide to Health and Long Life”, actor reading]:

Sixty persons, who had lived for more than three years on vegetables and pure water, met for the purpose of felicitating each other on the circumstance of their still being alive.

Ian:

These persons are mocked as pale, skinny, and patronising. So little changes over the centuries. But the writer doesn’t seem to know about the few hundred vegetarians up north in Salford.

[Noise of wind and rain]

Ian [in Salford]:

We’re standing in front of some steps leading into what’s now a carpark, next to some old stone walls in, well, you can hear the wind and the rain.

Derek Antrobus:

I’m Derek Antrobus, a local historian, based in Salford.

Ian [to Antrobus]:

What are we looking at, or rather, what would we have been looking at in the early 19th Century?

Antrobus:

In 1800 the Reverend William Cowherd constructed here the Christ Church Chapel. And here in 1809 he preached a sermon which effectively establishes his own Bible Christian church, which was a vegetarian church.

Ian:

So let’s go in. [sound of footsteps] The old stone steps, the only bits of the structure that are still left.

[as narrator] The Reverend Cowherd is leading a breakaway from the followers of 18th Century enlightenment mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg’s best known for detailed visions of heaven and hell, and an openness to panentheism – seeing God in the universe, including ourselves.

Samantha Calvert:

I’m Doctor Samantha Calvert, and my PhD was about Christianity and vegetarianism in the 19th Century.

Well it’s a very simple chapel really. I suppose it was the observatory that might stand out in terms of what you’re physically looking at from the outside. But inside, quite a plain chapel really. There was an organ that was said to have a, you know, a very sweet sound. There was a gallery.

Antrobus:

Although this was a church it was very much a social institution aimed at supporting and improving the prospects of the working class of the district. The church attracts a lot of people because it gave free burials.

But it also provided basic social and medical facilities. There was a library here. There wasn’t really a doctor but he was known as Doctor Cowherd because he dispensed medicine from here. There was a free lending library. And a school, the academy was based here.

Ian [to Calvert]:

So what about the people, who would we have seen here? What walks of life?

Calvert:

Quite a lot of the congregation were coming from, sort of artisan backgrounds. So people who would have a trade or occupation. People who wanted to improve their lives in some way.

Similarly Cowherd was known for distributing Cowherd’s vegetable soup to the poor, which seems to be mostly an onion soup looking at the recipe.

Ian [narrating]:

The Bible Christian hymn books included vegetarian songs like this one, based on a poem by Cowherd. [Organ music starts]

Choir of St. Mary’s Nottingham, singing:

“Eaters of flesh!” could you decry
Our food and sacred laws,
Did you behold the lambkin die
and feel yourself the cause?

[Fades and continues in background]

Ian:

So why vegetarian? Swedenborg, writing sixty years before, hadn’t backed vegetarianism, but he’d put meat-eating at the heart of man’s fall from Eden.

Emmanuel Swedenborg [actor reading]:

When humans became cruel like wild beasts, even crueller, then they first began to kill animals and eat their flesh.

Antrobus:

One of his poems, Cowherd is depicting this scene where a butcher is about to kill a sheep. “Hold, daring man by hand restrain.” He urges the sheep not to be killed, because God is the life in all.

[Choir continues then fades out]

Antrobus:

And this idea that animals had a bit of God in them, was, I think, very different.

Calvert:

It’s the idea of the kinship of nature, isn’t it.

Antrobus:

Exactly, yes.

Ian [as narrator]:

The Bible Christians abstain from alcohol – but not milk or eggs – and are politically active – anti-poverty, anti-slavery, anti-war.

Antrobus:

It was almost respect for the dignity of life, that whether it was killing people, or killing animals, that was an offense against their concept of God.

Ian:

As everyone can hear, it’s raining again, let’s move somewhere warmer [laughs].

[Choir music begins again]

[as narrator] The year after Reverend Cowherd’s death, 1817, two clergy, twenty parishioners, and children set sail for America.

Adam Shprintzen:

The impact of the Bible Christians in Philadelphia is massive on the organised vegetarian movement, and even just the spread of vegetarian ideals in America.

Ian [as narrator]:

Dr Adam Shprintzen, author of The Vegetarian Crusade, and history lecturer at Marywood University, spoke to me from the studios of VMFM, Pennsylvania.

Shprintzen:

The city has a reputation for being a hotbed of reform movements. The anti-slavery movement has certainly taken hold in Philadelphia.

So I think that on their voyage across the Atlantic from Liverpool that some of Metcalfe’s followers actually eat meat on the ship because the journey is difficult, there’s few resources. And once they arrive some of these individuals just go off on their own and don’t actually stay part of Metcalfe’s flock.

Ian [narrating]:

And then the other priest takes two families to settle the West.

So William Metcalfe’s first service in America is for just four grown-ups – and one of them is his wife. And yet that is the kernel of organised vegetarianism in America.

Shprintzen:

For some people the Bible Christians are seen as really threatening. They’re preaching that scientific study is fundamentally important to understanding Revelation. They kind of doubt the Godliness of Christ, they see Christ as kind of a more human figure, rather than also the son of God. There’s reports of Bible Christians being shouted down in the streets. There are cries of heresy.

Ian [as narrator]:

If God is in all, then Jesus being the son of God, particularly for the Philadelphian Bible Christians, isn’t quite as special.

Shprintzen:

On the flip side though, for some people it’s certainly appealing. And the church membership grows pretty significantly within about 5 years of establishment in Philadelphia.

They use the technology of the time, start using the newspapers. They start to gain attention in Philadelphia by otherwise interested reformers.

Sylvester Graham, who at the time was more focussed on an anti-alcohol crusade, hears about the message of the Bible Christians, starts a letter-writing relationship with Metcalfe.

Ian [as narrator]:

And that is how Sylvester Graham – whose name is still attached in America to wholewheat crackers – turns his evangelical zeal against meat and other quote “dangerous stimulants”.

[to Shprintzen] And of course Sylvester Graham wants to avoid stimulation in general.

Shprintzen:

Absolutely. The Grahamite diet, which would have been obviously a vegetable-based diet, but also emphasising, sort or basic preparations of vegetables, without spices. Cold water, simple diet.

But also about sort of bodily control, and this sort of large anti-masturbation crusade that he goes on.

Ian [narrating]:

Previous shows covered the long history of the idea that you can cool or calm or starve a fever. But Graham takes it to its logical conclusion.

Sylvester Graham [actor reading]:

But when we yield to an excess of indulgence and make sensual gratifications a principal object of our pursuits, they will inevitably become the agents of disease and suffering to us.

Shprintzen:

He starts preaching during the height of a cholera epidemic in the United States, that kills people especially in sort of the urban slums by the tens of thousands.

And there’s no response from the medical establishment, other than to prescribe purgatives. Right, so, a fairly lethal cocktail of laudanum, opium and alcohol mixed together, and literally the idea was you just kind of vomit out what was causing your difficulties.

Well, of course this is only going to make people more dehydrated and probably contributed to far more deaths than if people just tried to ride it out.

Graham:

Accordingly, in the whole career of the Epidemic Cholera, dietetic intemperance and lewdness have been the grand purveyors to its devastating rage.

Shprintzen:

The fact that Graham prescribes not drinking, the fact that Graham actually prescribes taking multiple baths a week, actually means that people in Grahamite boarding houses actually survive at higher rates than those who aren’t Grahamites.

Graham:

In every country, the drunken and the lewd have fallen almost by the hundreds and by the thousands before this terrible destroyer!

Shprintzen:

So it ends up being sort of proof to these people that Graham was right all along.

Ian [narrating]:

Yes, Grahamites. By now, his followers are a community who seek each other out, without necessarily going through Graham. And that’s largely due to the intrepid New Yorker, Mrs Asenath Nicholson.

Shprintzen:

And she claims that after hearing Graham speak, that she goes through this almost, like rapturous transformation. She’s just so moved by his words that immediately she decides to stop drinking coffee, stop drinking tea, and stop eating meat. And she sees immediate results. And she decides to open up a boarding house in lower Manhattan in New York City.

Ian [as narrator]:

She announces…

Asenath Nicholson [actor reading]:

The Temperance House, 21 Beekman Street, is opened for the reception of such persons from abroad, as prefer a vegetable diet, and such as wish to make the experiment.

Shprintzen:

Where meals would only serve Graham-approved bread. There’d be no meat allowed in the boarding house.

Nicholson:

The only fitting drink for mankind is pure soft water.

Shprintzen:

So Nicholson becomes really important to the formation of this as a real community and movement in these urban centres. And these boarding houses end up popping up throughout urban areas in the United States.

Ian:

So she’s the first.

Shprintzen:

Yeah, she opens up the first Grahamite boarding house. And her…

The longer arc of her career is actually really interesting because she ends up heading to Ireland in the mid 1840s to basically observe the potato famine. Ends up writing a fairly significant memoir about her life travelling throughout the Irish countryside, just observing the utter despair and destruction going on during the potato famine.

But for, in terms of her connections to the vegetarian movement in the United States she is a key figure in creating a more formalised community.

Ian:

Who are the people who take up Grahamism?

Shprintzen:

Generally speaking, they were urbanites. It’s both men and women. They’re individuals who are already inclined to be interested in reform movements.

There’s one description of a Grahamite boarding house in New York that basically says, that the individuals that I observe in this boarding house were not just Grahamites, but they are also abolitionists, they were also interested in women’s rights.

Ian [as narrator]:

Latin professor William Tyler, says of his stay:

William Tyler [actor reading]:

[Sighs] Slavery, Colonization, et cetera constitute the unvarying monotonous theme of their conversations.

Ian [to Shprintzen]:

What’s the establishment medical attitude to the vegetable diet in the 1830s?

Shprintzen:

They claim that Graham is a faddist, that his ideas are wild. They believe that eating meat is fundamentally important to building strength. But part of this is revealing the fact that the medical profession feels somewhat threatened.

Ian [as narrator]:

Sylvester Graham has medical supporters. He’s in touch with Dr William Lambe in England; and in 1836, Dr William Alcott, a Yale-educated physician, joins in the fray.

Shprintzen:

And in his story is the typical one of, sort of, the conversion, that through his youth he was sickly. Somewhere around when he was in his early 20s he began adhering to an all-vegetable diet.

Ian [as narrator]:

When a surgeon claims in a prestigious medical journal that Graham’s advice risks people’s sanity, Dr Alcott springs to Sylvester Graham’s defence.

William Alcott [read by actor]:

I would like to inquire whether the vegetable eating millions of northern and middle Europe – saying nothing of those hot climates – are particularly subject to “insanity”.

I’ve seen great numbers of vegetable eaters, and watched their progress from childhood to middle age. I have seen sudden changes from animal to vegetable food exclusively, and watched the effects for two, four, and six years.

Ian:

In the 1840s, Graham’s health fails. But there is a broader movement ready to take the baton.

Shprintzen:

And that opens up possibilities for these other ideas and other figures to take more prominence. And I think William Alcott is probably the most important out of all of them.

Ian:

Back in England, the Bible Christian church is being led by a full-on local hero.

[Sound of wind and rain] So vast, you can hear the wind. Victorian cemetery. Next to an over 10 metre high Gothic memorial right in the middle of it that is clearly the most important monument in the cemetery. Derek Antrobus.

Antrobus:

Joseph Brotherton was a champion of every progressive cause you can imagine. His final campaign was to have the right for local authorities to build public cemeteries. And he became the first person to be buried in Weaste Cemetery. We’ve come here by bus and it’s been a 10 minute ride from the centre of Salford.

When Brotherton died his hearse started off from the centre of Salford. The horse-drawn carriage, it would have taken, at least I would have thought half an hour to get here. And every street along the way was thronged with Salford people wanting to pay their last respects to him.

Ian [narrating]:

Respects will be paid in 1857 – for a life spent putting the principles of his church into political action.

The northwest of England is the industrial engine of radical politics. When his friends launch the Guardian Newspaper in 1821, the top of the first page advertises a Bible Christian cookbook. The author is Joseph’s wife, Martha.

Martha Brotherton [actor reading]:

A new system of Vegetable Cookery, with an introduction recommending abstinence from animal food and intoxicating liquors.

Ian:

The introduction, by Joseph, pulls together the health, religious, and ethical case against meat.

Joseph Brotherton [actor reading]:

It is in opposition to a practice manifestly brutal and savage; a practice which cannot answer any ends but those of luxury, disease, cruelty, and oppression — ends of all others the most opposed to the true principles of Christianity.

Ian:

And we’ve retired from the cold and wet of the graveyard, to… in a way another one of Joseph Brotherton’s monuments. We’re in the art gallery of Salford Art Gallery Museum, which, when if first opened, thanks to Brotherton, was a public library. So please Derek, tell me more about Joseph Brotherton.

Antrobus:

The Joseph Brotherton from an early age was a radical. In 1832 he became the member of parliament for Salford, the first member of parliament for the borough after the 1832 Reform Act.

And he was the first member of parliament to have spoken against capital punishment. And he helped to steer through parliament the legislation which enabled local authorities to establish public libraries and museums.

And the building that we’re in at the moment was the first public free municipal lending library which was opened in 1850. Actually just before the legislation was enacted.

Ian [narrating]:

The saying that many feel sums Joseph Brotherton up was a riposte when accused of avarice in the House of Commons.

Joseph Brotherton:

My riches consist not so much in the largeness of my means, as in the fewness of my wants.

Ian:

Samantha Calvert

Calvert:

I think that word “public” is very important because what Cowherd and later Brotherton were involved in was making something that formerly might only have been available to the middle or upper classes, available to everyone.

Those were facilities that Cowherd had provided in his own church by having a library and by providing education and so on and a free burial ground. Now Brotherton later I suppose is trying to provide those things in a more public setting.

Ian [narrating]:

But if Joseph Brotherton’s Bible Christians are almost respectable liberal establishment, the last of our circles is the fringe of the fringe.

Calvert:

He often described himself as a sacred socialist. James Pierrepont Greaves. And he founded a, I suppose a whole movement that was vegan as we would see it today. They ate mostly a raw food diet.

Ian [narrating]:

A few miles out of London, on Ham Common, in 1838, you’d find a commune that is pretty much a monastery – cold baths and celibacy. These are Greaves followers. They run a school, mostly for the children of other radicals.

Greaves is a fan of John Frank Newton, if you remember him from the Bracknell circle. And so Greaves is a teetotal vegan who is also against tea. And coffee.

Greaves also wants to reform education – abolishing boring old rote learning in rows of desks. He’s particularly impressed by an American reformer who is also just as mystical and spiritual as he is.

[Sound of birdsong]

Mike Volmar:

And we know from the Alcott’s accounts that they described it as being sort of a dilapidated structure, which is kind of odd, considering that it was less than 20 years old.

Ian [as narrator]:

Not Dr Alcott, but his second cousin – Amos Bronson Alcott.

Volmar:

We interpret that as meaning that it was a rustic farmhouse with not a lot of finishing. And potentially the exterior may not even have been painted. Though Louisa May I think somewhere says that it was red, which of course is why it’s red today.

Ian [as narrator]:

In New England, curator Mike Volmar is showing me around the site of Amos Bronson Alcott’s utopian vegan commune, Fruitlands.

Volmar:

So if we go this way, this is what they call the unplastered room. And this is where we focus the discussions and interpretation on the temple school, and Alcott’s dedication to African Americans.

Ian [as narrator]:

The school in Boston that so impresses Greaves.

Volmar:

Every kid in America should know Alcott’s name because he basically invented recess. But none of them do.

Ian [as narrator]:

There’s a tiny paper receipt for school fees in angled handwriting.

Volmar:

You know, Alcott was one of the first people to educate black children with white children. And he’d lost his temple school because of that.

This is a girl named Susan Robinson. She was the daughter of fugitive slave. He knew, I think, through conversations with William Lloyd Garrison and others that if he tried to educate her with other, um, white kids, that all the parents, even in somewhat tolerant Boston, would, kind of, not support it. And they didn’t.

And that’s what led him ultimately to England.

Ian [as narrator]:

And Greaves is so enthusiastic about reports of Temple School, that he renames his commune: Alcott House.

Volmar:

And almost sort of within a few weeks of the school’s failure he received an unsolicited letter from James Pierrepont Greaves, that invited him to come to Alcott house.

And Alcott, who always had no money, was given, you know, passage by Emerson, who was his great friend all throughout his whole life.

Ian [as narrator]:

Ralph Waldo Emerson is the best known of the American transcendentalists.

Volmar:

And Alcott went over, and unfortunately Greaves died as Alcott was going to England, as he was making the trans-Atlantic passage. But he still met Charles Lane, Henry Wright and all the other people over there.

Ian [as narrator]:

Alcott brings those two leaders back with him as a vanguard, hoping to move the whole London commune to America.

But one Englishman, Wright, finding all this abstention a bit too much, falls by the wayside – and into the arms of a radical follower of Sylvester Graham, called Mary Gove. We’ll meet her next episode.

The other, Charles Lane, has the resolve, and also the money for a farm where they will build their rural utopia: Fruitlands.

Volmar:

Today as you look around, you are looking at basically a vast forest. But the Alcotts when they were here would have been looking at something that looked a bit more like Ireland. Farmed fields, hedgerows, stone walls. Open space.

Ian [as narrator]:

Charles Lane, Bronson & Mrs Alcott, and their children live in the main farm building. American comrades are spread around the grounds. One daughter, Louisa May Alcott will one day immortalise her sisters in her book Little Women. But at the moment she’s ten.

[sound of bell ringing on opening door]

Volmar:

We walked in through the side entrance, into what we call the long kitchen, which is the whole width of the house, the main house, and there’s a big central chimney, which would be used for cooking, and there’s a beehive oven.

Ian [to Volmar]:

So, red brick hearth.

Volmar:

This was probably the main place where Mrs Alcott cooked for the community.

Ian [narrating]:

Compared to the Dorrelites, the Fruitlanders are strict about milk and eggs, but they compromise with practicality a bit more in other ways – animals for ploughing, leather shoes, things like that.

William Dorrell himself is still alive, by the way, just a few days walk to the west.

Volmar:

They wore linen on … just about everything else. They were very distinctive.

Ian:

How so?

Volmar:

They all wore linen. You know, there wasn’t a lot of variation and I think it was unbleached.

So you had Charles Lane and Bronson Alcott for example going to Providence, wearing basically a uniform. And they would have looked different than their contemporaries.

Ian:

They’d have looked like monks.

Volmar:

Somewhat, yeah, mm-hmm.

Ian [as narrator]:

Louisa May writes in her diary that Charles Lane and her father head off even at harvest time.

Volmar:

They left Mrs Alcott and the girls to manage the farm, as they wandered around looking for financial support and other participants. And when they were here…

Charles Lane describes Alcott as sort of a despot, really, enforcing strict adherence to all the tenets of the lifestyle that they wanted to try to achieve here.

Ian [as narrator]:

Louisa May Alcott’s diary describes days with work as well as play:

Louisa May Alcott [read by actor]:

I rose at five, and after breakfast washed the dishes, and then helped mother work. I took care of Abby in the afternoon.

Ian [as narrator]:

Abby is her baby sister. The commune began in the blissful days of summer, but even that could be a trial.

[to Volmar] There’s not much protection here from the elements.

[Sound of creaking floorboards]

Volmar:

If you can just take a peak up there,

Ian:

This is…

Volmar:

This is the attic. So the girls, at least Louisa May and one of her sisters lived in the attic.

Today is September 19th, and it’s, ah, not a particularly hot day, but it is kind of sunny. So that’ll give you a bit of a sense of what it might have been like in June and July and August.

Ian:

Hmm.

Volmar:

Probably quite hot. It’s quite buggy. And by December, it would have been quite cold as well.

We’re looking at the side of a window, and you can see the wall studs, and then on the other side of the sheeting would be the clap boards. So there’s no insulation at all.

Ian:

So this is… [knocks on wall]

Volmar:

That’s the side of the house.

Ian:

That’s the side of the house. It’s a very thin wall. It’s going to get very… very cold, very hot.

[as narrator] By November, little Louisa May is privy to discussions about ending Fruitlands.

Louisa May Alcott [read by actor]:

Father and Mr. Lane had a talk, and father asked us if we saw any reason for us to separate. Mother wanted to, she is so tired. I like it, but not the school part or Mister Lane.

Ian:

The last straw for Mrs Abigail Alcott was – well, do you remember how Greaves’ London commune was celibate?

Volmar:

Over the course of the Summer and into the Fall, they started to discuss, you know, celibacy more, and dissolving families. And that’s really where Mrs Alcott kind of put the, you know, she kind of put her foot down.

Ian:

Adam Shprintzen.

Shprintzen:

I think the impact of Fruitlands was to show that during this time period, that there is a political impact to your food choices, but that it’s also possible to connect your ideology as a meat-abstainer with all the other reform movements of the time. And that’s really going to coalesce once vegetarians form a national organisation.

Volmar:

And ultimately, Lane and his son William ended up at the Harvard Shaker village. And Lane didn’t really like communal living too much, and ended up leaving, and took several years for him to extract William out of the Shakers.

Ian [as narrator]:

Charles Lane returns to London, where his commune isn’t called Alcott House any more. It’s the Concordium. Their magazine becomes part of the Truth Tester, owned by a sympathetic fellow traveller, William Horsell.

Antrobus:

Somebody wrote to the magazine The Truth Tester to say, you know, why isn’t there a vegetarian society, basically. The Bible Christians said, well, you know, let’s get involved with that.

Ian [as narrator]:

So, July 1847. Fifty people attend a conference at the Concordium; and then in September, a hundred and fifty gather at William Horsell’s water cure institute. Water cure is a system of precise washes and enemas, an alternative remedy of the era whose followers overlap with vegetarians.

In the chair, is the Reverend Joseph Brotherton MP.

Joseph Brotherton [read by actor]:

It will be found, that abstinence from the flesh of animals is in accordance with every right principle, with justice, mercy, temperance, and health; whilst it will prevent cruelty, disease, and misery.

Ian:

And they adopt a name, one that’s been circulating amongst the Concordites for a few years. For the first time, I can say it without being anachronistic: vegetarianism.

It finally stands as its own cause, separate from religious sect or health fad. They start holding talks and banquets that gather public attention.

This is how the satirical magazine Punch mocks the allegedly stodgy food at their first annual banquet.

Punch [read by actor]:

There is something very infantile in the pretended simplicity of this fare, for none but a parcel of overgrown children would sit down seriously to make a meal upon sweetstuff.

We look upon the Vegetarian humbug as mere pretext for indulging a juvenile appetite for something nice, and we are really ashamed of those old boys who continue, at their time of life, to display such a puerile taste for pies and puddings.

Ian:

In the States, Dr William Alcott and the Reverend Metcalfe follow suit, organising the American Vegetarian Society in 1851.

But what of the Concordium? That collapses in 1848. The final straw is perhaps when the manager, Oldham, discovers that Charles Lane, who destroyed Fruitlands in his quest for celibacy, has found true love with the celibate matron, Hannah Bond. They marry in 1850 and have another five children.

The next show, we discover how organised vegetarianism fares.

With the voices of Jeremy Hancock, Guillaume Blanchard, Amy Saul, Matthew Arenson, Orna Klement, and Ian Russell; and the music of Robb Masters, Beethoven performed by Paul Pitman and Stefano Ligoratti, and – as the Bible Christians – the Choir of St. Mary’s Nottingham, directed by John Keys.

[Theme starts – music with sound of gongs]

Thank you very much for listening, and find out more, including pictures of interviewees, go to the vegan option dot org.

Thank you particularly to Gemma Cassels and Vegan Beast, and other folk with less pronounceable usernames for reviewing the show on iTunes or your podcast provider. It really does let other people know who might enjoy it. So thanks.

[Theme ends]

END OF EPISODE 12.

This transcript was posted August 2 2019, but dated so that it appears after the show itself in listings. Featured image is a detail of “Nature’s Own Book” by Asenath Nicholson, 1835. Many thanks to Amy Carpenter.

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About Ian McD

I'm a British new media person with a passion for radio, and interested in the kind of stories best told when we see humans as part of the world of animal minds. I blogged about why I'm producing The Vegan Option.

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"The Vegan Option Vegetarianism: The Story So Far - A Radio History