Manchester: the unlikely birthplace of vegetarianism

by Instant Noodle

The Vegetarians in the North.

The Vegetarians have been consuming a quantity of green stuff in public at the Town Hall of Salford. We shall expect soon to hear of a variety of Extraordinary Feats performed by geniuses of the Vegetarian class, such as swallowing turnips whole, demolishing spinach by the sieve, onions by the rope, and cabbages by the cartload.

Here’s an interesting fact. There were more vegetarian restaurants in Manchester in 1880 than 1980. Unlikely as it seems, industrial Manchester, and particularly Salford, were host to the birth of the modern vegetarian movement.

It started in 1809, when a charismatic preacher, reading Genesis 9.3 (“And God said, Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you: even as the green herb I have given you all things, but the flesh, with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.”) encouraged his congregation to abstain from meat. “Meat-eating is unnatural. If God had meant us to eat meat, then it would have come to us in edible form, as is the ripened fruit”.

The next year, he published this poem, arguing that God is in all moving things.

Hold, daring man! thy hand restrain –
God is the life in all;
To smite at God, when flesh is slain –
Can crime like this be small?

His influential successors came to found the vegetarian society. All of the founding members came from Salford.

Why Salford? Who can tell. Perhaps it was a reaction against the dark satanic mills; a need for purity amongst the grime. Perhaps it was Manchester’s position as far from the reaches of the established church in London that lead to the flourishing of these fringe beliefs. Or perhaps it was simply a very charismatic individual.

Nonetheless, the movement was popular and successful. In Fountain Street in the heart of Manchester there was a vegetarian establishment which boasted two dining halls, a lecture theatre, and billiard, smoke and reading rooms. It had a full-time staff of 21 and spawned a satellite restaurant nearby. There were also the Smallman’s Restaurants, founded by Frederick Smallman a health food pioneer and vegetarian. He set up business in 1876 and his establishment grew to eight in the city.

For more info, see this great article by Derek Antrobus.