Almost everything written by Elsie Shrigley about the origins of the UK Vegan Society turns out to be wrong, though whether this was due to faulty memory or a deliberate re-writing of history is hard to tell. Elsie wrote about herself (after Donald Watson retired) as the co-founder of the Society. But in all his extensive writings and interviews, over six decades, including much about the origins of veganism -- the only time Watson ever mentioned Elsie was to list her as one of 10 members of the founding committee on April 8, 1945.
In the Spring 1962 issue of The Vegan, there is a now famous paragraph from Elsie Shrigley:
"The first meeting of 8 non-dairy vegetarians to choose a name and found the Society was in November, 1944, at the Attic Club in Holborn. It was a Sunday, with sunshine and blue sky, an auspicious day for the birth of an idealistic movement. From a long list of suggestions the word Vegan was chosen."
Whether by accident or design, Elsie got the date wrong. It can now be very clearly seen from the online copies of the first three issues of Watson's Vegan News, that what Elsie describes could not have been possible in November 1944. Her "long list of suggestions" did not appear until the February 1945 issue, following a request for more ideas in issue #1.
The meeting she describes was in fact the one on Sunday, April 8, 1945. (Even the London historical weather records show November 1944 as dismal and April 1945 as sunny.)
All that happened in November of 1944 was Watson’s letter the to The Vegetarian Messenger, inviting subscriptions to his ‘non-dairy produce group’, followed by the first issue of Vegan News -- including of course Watson's invention of the word "vegan." There were no meetings, and no Vegan Society, until the following April.
In an earlier article, as far back as 1954, Elsie had claimed that the founding meeting was “at the beginning of” November 1944.
If Elsie were correct about the founding meeting of the UK Vegan Society being in early November 1944, then we would obviously expect that to be the banner headline of the first ever issue of Vegan News, dated November 24, 1944.
But that issue makes no mention of a meeting, and no mention of 'vegan society'. It didn't mention any of that because it didn't happen until the following April.
That complete first edition of Watson's newsletter, November 1944, subtitled The Magazine of the Non-Dairy Vegetarians, can be viewed here: https://issuu.com/vegan_society/docs/the_vegan_news_1944
The latest official “history” of the UK Vegan Society, "researched" and written in 2014, for what they imagined to be their 70th anniversary, quotes from Vegan News #1 and gives its date. But it fails to notice the obvious problem above – having swallowed Elsie’s fantasies, it tries to work out the actual date in “the beginning of November 1944” of Elsie's imagined "meeting" (unsurprisingly, she never gave the date). See page 3 at:
Donald Watson retired as president of the UK Vegan Society in 1948 and had no further active involvement. In 1965, he was contacted and invited to share memories of creating veganism. His article, entitled "The Early History of the Vegan Movement," was published in the Autumn 1965 issue of The Vegan. Below are selected quotes and some commentary.
For the full text see:
In this article, Watson wrote about what motivated him to create veganism:
In 1938, the Arnold F. Mills Memorial Lecture was given by Dr. White, of the Stonefield Maternity Home, who took as his subject "Health Without Dairy Produce"; Dr. White's partner, Dr. Pink, testified repeatedly in his lectures and writings to the superior condition of babies reared without cow's milk; orthodox dieticians were beginning to question the long held belief that proteins from animal were superior to those from plants;
The Coventry Vegetarian Society, through the enthusiasm of Frank and Kathleen Mayo, staged a Vegetarian Supper Without Dairy Produce which received glowing praise from Frank Wyatt, Editor of The Vegetarian News [London VegSoc]; the Croydon Vegetarian Society [on April 22, 1944] carried almost unanimously the motion "That vegetarians aim at eliminating dairy produce"; Bert Jones in his writings on world and national food supply, illustrated the enormous economic advantages of what he called a "Vegetal" diet; the Leicester Vegetarian Society issued a cookery booklet entitled Vegetarian Recipes Without Dairy Produce," a large edition of which was taken by The London Vegetarian Society;
I wrote an article, "Should Vegetarians Eat Dairy Produce?" which was printed in The Vegetarian Messenger [March and April, 1944] and later in pamphlet form. In such a changed atmosphere it was not surprising that many vegetarians were trying diets of greater humanitarian consistency and accepting that butchery and dairy farming were related and subsidised each other.
It is interesting to note that this last sentence is the only mention of the animal angle in any of Watson's considerable recollections, and even that is only about animals as food. Everything else is entirely about food and diet, going back to 1938.
There was also no mention by Watson of the 1943 letter from Leslie Cross to the Vegetarian Messenger, which Cross claimed was instrumental in the Society's creation. The debate in the Messenger had in fact been on and off since 1909, as shown in the in-depth article by Leah Leneman Ph.D. The letter from Cross was just another of many.
To establish an exchange of ideas, an approach was made to the Vegetarian Society asking for a section of the magazine to be devoted to "non-dairy vegetarianism," but this request was not granted.
In response to a letter I had in The Vegetarian Messenger thirty readers sent me 1/- [one shilling] to cover the cost of the first four quarterly issues of a news-sheet I had offered to publish. Under the title The Vegan News the first issue appeared, in duplicated form of four pages, in November 1944.
Watson then wrote more about the early issues in 1945 and getting "our group" together during that year.
The Vegan News, No.3, published in May, 1945, brought the first news that a movement with a democratic Constitution was emerging.
The names of the first provisional committee and so on were given in the first meeting of the group, in April 1945.
This committee met in London on April 8th, 1945, and discussed at length the aims of the movement. It was decided that the society, which had developed from a small group of "non-dairy" vegetarians, should work for the abolition not only of foods from animal, but of commodities from animals too, especially those originating from slaughterhouses.
The last phrase, as seen elsewhere, is at odds with total, and equal, emancipation of all animals which Cross later tried to change veganism to mean, but it was and is consistent with vegetarian tradition -- avoiding particularly non-food animal products originating from slaughterhouses -- but not necessarily avoiding hunting, bullfighting, and the rest of the usual animal rights issues. Watson never spoke or wrote of those subjects, but clearly he created a society to mirror the UK Vegetarian Society, with the only difference being the elimination of dairy and eggs from the diet. Watson never sought to make avoiding animal products a "requirement" of his Society. Cross did that.
When Watson referred to "our group" in issue #1 (November 24, 1944) -- he simply meant those who had sent their one shilling subscription following his letter in the November 1944 issue of the Vegetarian Messenger. Given the usual lead time for printing a monthly journal, that letter must have been drafted in October 1944.
He said in the letter that "about a dozen of us" (UK Vegetarian Society members) had decided to form a non-dairy group. The origins of that were most likely at the debate "under the auspices of the Croydon Vegetarian Society," but probably held in central London, on April 22, 1944, with Watson proposing the motion against the use of dairy produce. The event was significant enough to be given a full page report in the June 1944 Vegetarian Messenger. Watson reported in Vegan News #1 that his motion had been carried by 30 to 2. It would have been the obvious place to collect names and addresses of non-dairy supporters for future use.
In Vegan News #1 Watson also wrote:
"Organisation of the Group.
Our 25 members are scattered far and wide therefore a committee is not possible. In the absence of other volunteers I have undertaken the duties [of everything].
The work of the group will at first be confined to the propaganda contained in the bulletin. …. Many orders [for this journal] have been received, and more will come when we advertise."
This makes it clear that Watson was working alone at this point – and that there had not yet been any advertising beyond his one letter to the Vegetarian Messenger. His readers were therefore drawn entirely from within the membership of the UK Vegetarian Society. He then invited readers to send news and articles. There was no suggestion of any meetings.
WANTED – A NAME
We should all consider carefully what our group, and out magazine and ourselves shall be called.
Watson suggests that "non-dairy" was too negative, and doesn’t exclude eggs. He continues:
As this first issue of our periodical had to be named, I have used the title “The Vegan News” Should we adopt this, our diet will become known as a VEGAN diet… Members suggestions will be welcomed.
At the bottom was Watson’s name with the date, November 24, 1944. The suggestions which followed in the next issue clearly show the absurdity of Elsie Shrigley’s repeated claims that the name had been chosen from “a long list” at the beginning of November, 1944. There was no mention anywhere in this issue of a "vegan society."
Vegan News #2, dated February 1945, was still sub-titled "Quarterly Magazine of the Non-Dairy Vegetarians."
Watson stated that the group now had 48 members and 82 subscribers. Presumably this expansion was due to the publicity now going beyond the UK Vegetarian Society membership.
But there had clearly now been talk of forming a vegan society, and Watson jumped the gun slightly by writing:
… it is proposed that the Vegan Society shall have but one rule, as follows:
“I desire to be enrolled as a Member of the Vegan Society, and during my period of membership I promise not to partake of fish, flesh, fowl, eggs, animals’ milk or any of its products, and also that I will not consciously use foods in any of the above are included. In their place I will use the wholesome products of the vegetable kingdom.”
This was still just a proposal, not yet adopted as there was not yet a Society to adopt it. Note that it mentions nothing other than the vegan diet. Later in 1945 the committee decided not to have a pledge at all.
The voluminous correspondence already received proves that the formation of this Society is quite due.
Clearly it is still "due," and not yet formed. Watson then gives a long list of suggested names received since Vegan News #1. The same list that Elsie Shrigley claimed was discussed "at the beginning of November 1944."
The rest of the newsletter, much expanded from #1, continues with a collection of articles entirely about diet and health.
The journal was now subtitled: ‘Quarterly Organ of The Vegan Society.’
Constitution of the Vegan Society
[British Dictionary: “Constitution: The act of constituting or state of being constituted” – Watson is referring to the formation of the Society, not merely the governing documents]
Since the appearance of our last issue the following members have consented to serve on a temporary committee, which will function until a democratically elected committee can be formed. [He gives nine names, with himself making ten.]
The committee met in London on April 8th .
Watson clearly says there was no committee before issue #2 in February 1945. He doesn’t say where they met, though probably at the Attic Club in Holborn (as they met there the following December), or how many actually attended. Some further details of the meeting are given.
Watson was very clear in this third issue the UK Vegan Society was first constituted at the meeting on April 8, 1945, about 5 months after he launched his newsletter in November 1944.
In September 1945, the UK Vegetarian Society's Vegetarian Messenger magazine published an item sent to them by the UK Vegan Society. It stated that the Vegan Society had begun through the Vegetarian Messenger, and that they had "formed themselves into a group which has since adopted the name Vegan Society."
No, the UK Vegan Society was not founded in November 1944, as they assert.
Leah Leneman has shown that letters to the Vegetarian Messenger on the eggs/dairy issue were on and off from 1909. Each flurry of letters fizzled out, and the latest flurry between 1942-44 would have ended the same way. The difference this time was a major two-part, very thoroughly researched, article (March and April 1944) by Donald Watson on: "Should Vegetarians Eat Dairy Produce."
That led to the "Croydon" debate (probably held in central London) of April 22, 1944, on the use of dairy produce. The debate was led, and won 30:2, by Donald Watson. It provided the first significant gathering of non-dairy vegetarians in the 20th century (There had been others in the mid-19th), and was given a full page report the Vegetarian Messenger in June 1944.
A request was subsequently made to the Executive Committee of the Vegetarian Society for a regular page in Vegetarian Messenger, devoted to non-dairy vegetarianism, run by an internal sub-committee, as a section of the Society. That request was drafted by Watson and signed by Vice-President Dugald Semple. It was rejected but support was offered for an independent group (Society members formed many such groups, including Watson's Leicester Vegetarian Society).
November 1944 saw Watson use the Vegetarian Messenger to invite Vegetarian Society members to send subscriptions for the newsletter of his new Non-Dairy Produce Group, and he received 25 or 30 responses. He then invented the word “Vegan”, as a more positive title for his first newsletter "Vegan News", published on November 24, 1944. Watson suggested that group members might adopt that name for themselves as "vegans" with a "vegan diet" - but the newsletter remained "The Magazine of the Non-dairy Vegetarians" for the first two issues. Further adverts for the group were later run by the Vegetarian Messenger.
All of that was done through support from, and by members of, the UK Vegetarian Society. The group gradually became increasingly independent over the following months, with further external advertising, and began to discuss forming a Vegan Society. After considering possible alternative names, the first Vegan Society was founded on Sunday, April 8, 1945.
Elsie's famous -- and erroneous -- 1962 quote about the first meeting and the creation of the UK Vegan Society wasn't the only time she flubbed in her recollections of the founding of the Society. In the Winter 1954 magazine she wrote an article called "The First Decade." Here are some excerpts, along with our comments:
...a letter written by Mr. Leslie Cross in the Vegetarian Messenger pointing out the ethics of non-dairy vegetarianism, and the correspondence that followed during 1943, roused the conscience of some lacto-vegetarians and led to the formation of The Vegan Society.
As Leah Leneman Ph.D has shown, Leslie Cross and his bad-tempered little rant, was just a part of the latest flurry of letters. The main difference from many previous such debates in the Vegetarian Messenger, going back to 1909, was that this time Donald Watson wrote a detailed, impressively researched, article titled "Should Vegetarians Use Dairy Produce" – which led directly to the "Croydon" debate, and ultimately to the UK Vegan Society. Researching that article, in pre-internet days, and during the war, must have gone back way before the latest round of letters.
I gave up dairy produce in April, 1944, about the same time as Mr. Donald Watson and Mr. and Mrs. Allan Henderson.
Watson has since said he gave up dairy and eggs around 1941. His two-part article in The Vegetarian Messenger in March and April of 1944, states that it was a summary of a talk given to his local Leicester Vegetarian Society in December, 1943. Near the beginning he wrote:
Ten years ago it would have been difficult to find anyone in this country living entirely on foods of plant origin, but today there are many of us.
“Today” and “us” being when he was writing this, at some time before his talk in 1943. Watson had to have been serious about being non-dairy for some considerable time to have done the extensive research needed for his very detailed article -- so his own claim of 1941/2 seems about right. Not Elsie’s spiteful attempt to belittle him.
Elsie again, in her 1954 article:
I remember that, at a vegetarian social club holiday at Minehead, in August, 1944, Mr. Watson and I discussed the necessity of coordinating the non-dairy vegetarians and decided to ask The Vegetarian Society if they would agree to the formation of a non-dairy group within the Society with a page of the Vegetarian News for news and views.
This is Elsie elevating her own importance again. Watson made it clear that “a dozen of us” were involved in that process. "The Vegetarian News" was published by the London Vegetarian Society, as a direct rival to the Vegetarian Messenger, published by the original UK Vegetarian Society in Manchester. It was the Manchester Society that got the request, which was mentioned at their 1944 AGM. So like so many other things, Elsie was confused about yet more facts. Her "memory" was quite foggy, even by 1954.
This the Executive Committee was not prepared to do and so the first committee met at the Attic Club at the beginning of November, 1944, to discuss the name and formation of a new society - present were Mr. Donald Watson, Mr and Mrs Allan Henderson, Mr, Haffenden, Mrs. Elsie B. Shrigley and Mr. Paul Spencer.
There was a list of suggested names for the new society, the word "vegan" was chosen because it was strong and short.
As stated above the "list of suggested names" for the Society did not appear until the February 1945 issue of Vegan News -- and the people Elsie named were among the ten that Watson named in the May 1945 issue, as the first provisional committee, which met on April 8, 1945. Elsie names six people above, she "remembered" eight in her 1962 article.
It is difficult to tell whether Elsie just got confused about absolutely everything, or whether she deliberately changed all this in order to make the origins of the UK Vegan Society sound more impressive.
Mr. Donald Watson became the first Secretary and Editor. The first "Vegan Bulletin" was published at the end of November, 1944.
Now that Elsie can't even get the name of Watson's "Vegan News" right, calling it the "Vegan Bulletin." And we know from later issues of Vegan News that Watson only became "Secretary and Editor" in December, 1945. Elsie's article goes on at some length, getting almost everything else wrong as well.
It's worth nothing that in his article for The Vegan in 1965, Watson made no mention whatsoever of Elsie Shrigley. Or Leslie Cross, for that matter. And of course he made no mention of a meeting in November of 1944
Watson's 1965 article includes some re-quotes from issue #2 of Vegan News, including: "The appearance of your quarterly may prove to be of just as historic value as the meeting in Ramsgate in 1847. - W.S. James"
The Ramsgate meeting founded the UK Vegetarian Society, but this quote makes no mention of a meeting in 1944 -- only the "quarterly" was historic -- and Watson saw fit to re-quote it in 1965.
But in the spring 1989 issue -- just after Watson was reinstated as a honorary Vice-President of the Society, he wrote the first of a series of historical articles. He now misquotes Mr. James as saying: "... the inauguration of the Vegan Society in 1944 would prove to be as important a landmark as the inauguration of the Vegetarian Society in Ramsgate in 1847." Of course we can now see that is not what Mr. James wrote at all -- so now even Watson seems to have been getting confused and falling for Elsie's false memories.
Watson's reinstatement to the Vegan Society becomes apparent from the Summer 1988 issue of The Vegan. It seems they had previously asked for back copies of the magazine and Watson wrote back offering his entire collection from issue #1 onwards, for their safe keeping. Watson said only a couple of the current board would remember who he was -- and he seems to have been right.
The Society’s re-discovery was explained in the Summer 1988 issue, along with an article Watson had been invited to write about how it all began (it says nothing that we haven't seen already). He was then re-instated as an honorary Vice-President at the November 1988 AGM -- the same title Cross had stripped from him in 1950. Watson then started writing a regular general "history" column from spring 1989, entitled "Retrospect."
The summer 89 issue has a photo of Watson addressing the 1988 AGM – presumably accepting his honorary vice-presidency. This was his only known attendance at any UK Vegan Society event or meeting after 1948, until his death in 2005.
In the Winter 1989 issue Watson wrote in his now regular column:
The few of us who were there at the start were all vegetarians of long standing. Some of us had been secretaries of societies affiliated to the then two national vegetarian societies, operating from London and Manchester, with Frank Wyatt and James Hough as their secretaries. The vegan movement owes much to these two men who bought and distributed our literature before we had a Society to do it ourselves. It was of course their duty to do this since the definition of vegetarianism contained the words ".... with or without the addition of eggs and milk and its products (butter and cheese)," but they cooperated with us with an enthusiasm that went beyond the call of duty, since not all their members approved.
Watson mentions in the next paragraph that the Leicester Society was also affiliated to the London Vegetarian Society, as well as Manchester, which no doubt helped to expand the UK Vegan Society after the first issue of Vegan News -- which Watson stated in 1965 was entirely subscribed from his letter to the Vegetarian Messenger.
In his Spring 1990 column, Watson refers to "the vegan movement... founded in 1944" -- which is quite different to claiming the UK Vegan Society itself was founded that year. Sometimes it seems Watson's memory returns.
Then it goes again -- near the end of that article, Watson's final column, he mentions the earlier use of "vegetal" -- but says that they couldn't use that in 1944 because it only referred to food, and "we needed a new word to describe a philosophy of life" -- which is definitely not what anyone said at that time! Watson only ever referred to a diet, and "encouraging" people to leave off non-food animal products as much as they felt they were able to do so.
Perhaps Watson was just trying to keep in with the way things were going -- by 1990 the animal rights/Cross fanatics were gaining control again, and Watson lost his column in the Society's newsletter very suddenly. There was no farewell in his final article.
He retained his ceremonial title, but nothing more was heard from him until he was interviewed for VegNews Magazine in 1995, and then by George Rodger in 2002.
Perhaps most telling, there is no mention in anything Watson ever wrote or promoted of being required to give up going to circuses -- or even leather shoes etc -- in order to be "vegan."
Professional academic historian Leah Lenahan Ph.D., has investigated the beginnings of the Vegan Society, and wrote in her meticulously researched article in 1998:
"At the time The Vegan Society was set up, [Watson's] newsletter was being sent to 500 readers."
Thus the word "vegan" was in wide circulation and use, well before the UK Vegan Society was formed.
In her 1954 article in The Vegan, Elsie Shrigley also claimed that “At the beginning the Vegan Society was faced with antagonism from the vegetarian movement … now we work in harmony."
But she even got that wrong – it is very clear from all the evidence, as well as the quotes from Donald Watson above, that in the beginning -- 1944/45 -- the two main UK vegetarian societies were very supportive and helpful to him. He said merely that some individual vegetarians did not approve.
There were some later tensions, particularly when Leslie Cross took the UK Vegan Society in a very different direction. Though the antagonism then was from vegans toward vegetarians -- as, for some, it has remained ever since.
The UK Vegan Society seemed to want to distance itself from vegetarianism, at least from the time of Leslie Cross’ takeover in 1950, and that was difficult when they knew that the word "vegan" and the first Vegan News, were created by members of the UK Vegetarian Society, before the UK Vegan Society was formed.
They tried to get round that by simply backdating their founding to early November 1944, giving the UK Vegan Society a much more impressive "big bang" launch. And that was widely believed -- until all the original documents were put online, and now everyone can see the truth for themselves.