Tuesday 1 October 2013

Vegetarianism in World War One

Before finding these documents, I had never considered the difficulties of rationing for vegetarians. Of course, we are all familiar with the fact of rationing in this country during the Second World War, but careful management of the country's food supply was also necessary during World War One.

After the country was effectively blockaded by German U-boats, formal rationing was introduced in February 1918. But long before that, there was de facto rationing to ensure food supplies remained stable and to prevent food hoarding. In the archive of the Retreat psychiatric hospital in York, there survives a file of correspondence (RET 4/3/4/1) which illustrate the difficulties in obtaining food for such a large institution (around 300 people). Large amounts of locally-grown fruit was requisitioned for the war effort and although the Retreat grew its own vegetables it was not possible to supply all of its own needs on the land it held. They also experienced difficulties in preserving what food was successfully grown. In 1916 practically the whole year's crop of peas was lost because no-one knew how to can them successfully.

In this file, I found a circular from the Vegetarian Society, dated 24th October 1918 which sheds light on the arrangements made for vegetarians under rationing. It was made possible for vegetarians to surrender their meat and lard rations to enable them to receive extra butter and margarine. There were also arrangements in place for them to be able to receive 'nut butter' later in the year.
Circular from Vegetarian Society 1918
RET 4/3/4/1 Circular from Vegetarian Society 1918, front
Circular from Vegetarian Society, reverse
RET 4/3/4/1 Circular from Vegetarian Society, reverse
It might  seem strange to think of these special arrangements being made for vegetarians in 1918. We tend to think of vegetarianism in this country as a product of 'hippy culture' in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact vegetarianism has a long established history in Britain, dating back to the early nineteenth century. It has been associated with health for about as long, although in the early years that might be spiritual health as well as physical well-being.  A second document from the Retreat archive helps illustrate this dichotomy.
Front cover, Science in Diet by Mr K Monteath, second ed. 1922

'Science in Diet' (2nd edition) was published by the Yorkshire Herald Company in 1922. Its author, Mr Kenneth McLaurin Monteath who lived at 107 Heslington Road in York (very near to the University of York's campus today). In his bookley, Monteath expounds a theory of vegetarianism which would have sounded very familiar to the early founders of the Vegetarian Society. He condemns meat-eating because of the "unnecessary character of the cruelties inflicted upon animals and of the trades in the lives and flesh of animals" and condemns the meat eater too: "Eventual retribution of a severe character pursues the meat consumer", just as "eventual retribution pursues each individual according to his or her liabilities".

The references to religious damnation come the Resurrection sit uneasily in a booklet with "Science" in the title, but to Monteath (and other religious vegetarians) one did not exclude the other. The religious argument was only one part of his argument. He also expounds on the resources needed to produce meat versus vegetable foods; the healthiness of a vegetarian diet, being lower in fat; and the diets of our early ancestors. All of these subjects will look familiar to us today. He even includes a dietary table of the dietary value of various foods. Rowntree's and Co would have been very happy to see the emphatic placing of cocoa as a healthy, proteinous, food.

Food table from Science in Diet by Mr K Moneath, 1922

The question remains, why were these documents held by the Retreat? It is possible that they were received as circulars and piqued someone's interest. As an institution established and maintained under Quaker principles, aspects of Mr Moneath's arguments might have appeal to the managing staff. Otherwise, perhaps a member of staff, or a patient, was a vegetarian. Either way, they are fascinating survivors of vegetarian history.


  1. There is certainly a strong link between Quakerism and vegetarianism and the Quakers were the first to found a denominational vegetarian society. A chapter on the Society of Friends in my PhD thesis examines these links: http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/4575/. It is fascinating to see these documents. It is also possible that vegetarianism was being used as part of treatment for unwanted behaviours in the patient. In the 19th century it was generally believed that vegetarianism could 'subdue the passions' and it was used as a cure for alcoholism in Salvation Army homes - specifically of female inebriates - into the 20th century. Vegetarianism was generally held to cure alcoholism. As temperance and vegetarianism usually went hand in hand in the 19th century this might not be an unreasonable assumption at the time. In another SA home for young girls who had been the victims of physical and sexual abuse it was used to control unwanted behaviours that were described as later appearing in the children. It does not seem a great leap to suppose that the more avant garde medics might try such experiments with diet in a hospital setting. Again, more information can be found in the relevant chapter of my thesis.

    1. Hi, Thanks for your reply. All very interesting - I hadn't thought about the treatment angle but of course you're right about vegetarianism being used to calm patients. It was often the case at psychiatric hospitals that red meat would be withheld as it was thought to fire up the patients, even as late as the twentieth century. Tapioca and semolina were considered much more soothing (although I'm not sure the patients were soothed so much as ground down by daily milk puddings!).

      I am very much looking forward to reading your thesis as I have a longstanding interest in the role of food in institutions. Consider it book-marked for greater perusal at home.


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