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Vegetarian Federal Union 1889-1911

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In 1887 the Vegetarian Society, based in Manchester in the North West of England, celebrated its 40th anniversary. During that time it had built up many local branches and affiliated societies around Britain.

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Mr. Arnold F. Hills, from The Vegetarian, December 21, 1889

In 1888 the London branch broke away to become the London Vegetarian Society (LVS) and quickly attracted its own local affiliates, mostly in the London Boroughs and around South East England. The Society was dominated by Mr. Arnold F. Hills, a wealthy, and deeply religious, man who was the director of the Thames Iron Works, a shipbuilding yard in East London.

In June 1889 the LVS proposed that instead of the system of local affiliates, all British vegetarian societies should form a 'Vegetarian Union', with each Society having votes according to the number of its own members. The intention was that LVS would be just one of the member societies. Following the International Congress in Cologne, Germany, in September, the idea was expanded to the whole world and renamed the 'Vegetarian Federal Union'. Mr. Hills was elected Chairman, and even the original Vegetarian Society joined, but it never worked out quite as Mr. Hills had planned . . .

Meanwhile there were a couple of other attempts at bringing Societies together:

  • The International Aspect of Vegetarianism - a paper at the 1885 Annual Meeting of the British Vegetarian Society - includes a specific plea for the formation of an 'International Vegetarian Union', though intended to be a union of individuals rather than societies. Nothing seems to have come from it.
  • The International Union for a Humane Mode of Life, 1889- a similar attempt at an international union of individual members, this time from Germany. Nothing further was heard of it.

The following commentary is based on reports in The Vegetarian (London, from 1888) and The Vegetarian Messenger (Manchester, from 1848), courtesy of the library of The Vegetarian Society UK, Manchester, England.

During 1890 The Vegetarian, which was a weekly newspaper published in London by Mr. Hills, independently of any Society, started giving regular space to the VFU Secretary for reports on the activities of members, and notices of 'VFU Coming Events'. All of these reports were about local societies in England and Ireland. There was no mention of any groups from other countries. At the same time The Vegetarian, rather confusingly, carried many other items about local societies without making any reference to VFU. At the meeting in September Mr. O'Callaghan had resigned as Secretary of LVS in order to work as 'permanent secretary' for VFU.

He spent a lot of time travelling and visiting most of the local societies in England and wrote about this in his reports. For the next few months the VFU section of 'Coming Events' in The Vegetarian consisted entirely of details of lectures by Mr. O'Callaghan in various parts of the country.

At this point it is apparent that there were very blurred distinctions between the Vegetarian Federal Union (Chairman Mr.A.F. Hills), the London Vegetarian Society (President Mr.A.F. Hills), and the independent weekly newspaper The Vegetarian (proprietor Mr.A.F.Hills). Reading the originals of the above items it is obvious that some were written to the editor of the newspaper, and some to the Secretary of LVS. Nevertheless they all appeared on the VFU page of the newspaper because they were from overseas. Dr. Josiah Oldfield was Treasurer of both LVS/VFU as well as editor of The Vegetarian and Mr. O'Callaghan was Secretary of VFU (with his salary paid by Mr. Hills) and, until recently, had been Secretary of LVS.

In June 1892, the two main Vegetarian Societies in Germany met in Leipzig, and ageed to form the Deutscher Vegetarier-Bund (German Vegetarian Federation), and 12 other German speaking societies, including two in Switzerland, joined within a year. This event was not reported in The Vegetarian.

At the above annual meeting there was discussion of a VFU 'Political Programme' which caused some controversy as it contained a lot of issues not directly related to Vegetarianism. At a special meeting on July 23rd, this programme was dropped, mainly at the instigation of the Manchester Society, and Mr. Hills offered his resignation (obviously not accepted as he was still in the chair for the meeting below).

The front page of The Vegetarian, August 27, 1892, stated: "The Autumn Congress of the Vegetarian Federal Union will be held this year in Birmingham in October . . . There seems every prospect that year by year this Congress will become more and more important. . ." It was cancelled and replaced by:

This meeting recorded the attendance of a Miss Wilson as a representative of the American Vegetarian Society, presumably in conjuction with the planned Congress in Chicago. However, there was a new system of people who were present being able to act as delegates for societies which were not otherwise present (e.g. Mr. Doremus was the official delegate for Brighton, Exeter and Sheffield) so it is not clear whether Miss Wilson was actually American - no special mention was made of her presence.

By this time it was increasingly evident that members and readers of VFU/LVS/The Vegetarian were becoming very confused about the relative roles of the three. The regular VFU pages in The Vegetarian had gone and local groups were sending reports to the editor which were printed without any reference to VFU. The organising of the Chicago Congress was clearly being done by LVS in the name of VFU (as was the London Congress in 1890). VFU was still holding six-monthly meetings, now all at the LVS offices.

In the September 9, 1893, issue of The Vegetarian, Mr. O'Callaghan returned to reporting on his tours of the VFU member societies around England. Now as the VFU 'agent'. There was one further report in a later issue sub-titled the 'Southern Province' - ie the south of England.

During 1895, further confusion was caused by the creation of the 'London Vegetarian Association' - this was a 'local union' of the societies in the various London districts (which were all members of VFU as well). The initial suggestion was to close the London Vegetarian Society completely, but it appears to have been assigned a smaller area, presumably central London and districts not covered by local societies, though this was never clearly reported in The Vegetarian. Naturally the new association was based in the same offices, with the same president, as all the others. The members and readers were by now so confused that clarifications were needed at meetings, and one letter to the editor referred to the 'London Vegetarian Federal Union' - a rather Freudian slip which even the editor failed to correct.

On February 15, 1896, The Vegetarian published a letter from Rev. H. S. Clubb, president of the American Vegetarian Society, thanking them for the reports of the above meeting but noting ". . .to appoint Miss Yates, Mr. Hanson or others as delegates does not, I think, accomplish anything, as they cannot really represent us or our views unless they were with us." - this was a recurring issue, even for those parts of England further from London. It never seems to have been resolved as all the annual and semi-annual meetings continued to be held in London. Even the International Congress for 1897 was proposed for London.

1905 - VFU held an 'International' Congress in June, but with very little non-British input and combined with the annual dinner of the London Vegetarian Association..

1906/07 - all issues of The Vegetarian missing.

1908 - the 'annual meeting' of the VFU (no longer being described as 'international') took place in June. An entirely British, mostly London, affair. The VFU annual report makes no mention of anything outside of Britain except:

"The Manchester Society have now a movement on foot, entitled "International Federation of Vegetarian Societies," when it is proposed to hold the first Conference of representatives of Vegetarian Societies at Dresden from August 16th to 23rd, and we hope to attend and bring about what we have always desired - united effort. We have to thank many friends for a great deal of kindly assistance and hospitality, especially Mr. A. Broadbent, who has on many occasions put in a word for our work or placed our name on various publications.
The first Congress in Dresden agreed on the name 'International Vegetarian Union'. The VFU and LVA were unable to send a delegate but did send a letter of support. The Vegetarian (London) gave no reports of the proceedings."

1909 - The Vegetarian continued to be published as 'The Organ of the Vegetarian Federal Union'. The annual congress in June was all British as usual. The report of the annual meeting included:

"Mrs. McDouall, in a brief speech, offered a suggestion respecting the future of the V.F.U., which the meeting was not prepared to accept. The Chairman, in his closing remarks, justified his rejection of the idea by affirming that the Union was in a more healthy condition than it had ever been before."

The Vegetarian reported on the 62nd Anniversary of the Vegetarian Society (Manchester), including talks given by 'foreign delegates' - but made no mention at all of the 2nd IVU Congress which was being held at the same time in Manchester.

1910 -1913 - all issues of The Vegetarian missing.

1914 - The Vegetarian now published as 'Organ of the London Vegetarian Association'. The January issue refers to 'The Hague International Congress' (1913) but no specific mention of IVU organising it. There is no mention of VFU, which appear to have closed, the Manchester publication mentions VFU up to 1911.

Any further issues of The Vegetarian, after Dec. 1914, are lost. In 1921 the London Vegetarian Society began a new publication 'Vegetarian News'. It appears that the 'London Vegetarian Association' (a Federation of groups in the London area) had also closed in the meantime.

In order to understand more about the origins of the VFU, and how it eventually related to IVU, it is necessary to understand the background of the London Vegetarian Society (1888-1969) and how that related to the original Vegetarian Society in Manchester.

The VFU continued holding annual 'Congresses' until at least 1911, possibly later, but they had long since become just a local gathering in London. In 1908 the IVU had been launched in Dresden, Germany, with the Manchester based Vegetarian Society taking the initiative in contacting vegetarian societies around the world, and in creating a genuinely democratic and international organisation. IVU is still coordinating International Congresses today.

In 1969 the London Vegetarian Society merged with the Manchester based Vegetarian Society to form The Vegetarian Society of the UK. That National society now has a 'Local Network' with a very large number of local affiliates.


Compiled by John Davis