Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

A Pinch of Salt

performed at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, 15 October 1989

This play was read at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature in the Town Hall on 15 October 1989 by Michael Denison, Dulcie Gray, Angela Thorne, and Christopher Timothy. It was written for the Festival to mark the continuing influence of The Extended Circles: a Dictionary of Humane Thought, edited by Jon Wynne-Tyson, which a critic claimed ‘should become the bible of all concerned with humane education and the concept of animal [as well as human] rights’.

Before the break in these readings, I mentioned Henry Salt. That most of you have probably never heard of him is a reflection on our times, and proof of Salt’s misfortune in being born in country with small respect for the blending of clear expression with original and inspirational thinking.

Yet in the days following his death in 1939, over fifty obituary notices were published, extolling the scholarship, wit, prolific literary output, kindliness and integrity of a man against whose compassionate ideals the media maintained an almost unbroken silence throughout his life.

The Times gave him 13½ inches,  the Telegraph eight. His background as the son of a colonel in the Royal Bengal Artillery was of course mentioned, as was his education at Eton and Cambridge, where he won Sir William Brown’s medal for a Greek epigram and was bracketed with Gerald Balfour as fifth classic in the 1875 Tripos. His friendships with Shaw, Hardly, Edward Carpenter, W H Hudson, Huskin, Swinburne, Gandhi and Havelock Ellis were respectfully noted. But except for the barely acknowledged reissue of his book Animals’ Rights in 1980, and a recently published anthology of his writings entitled The Savour of Salt, there is nothing readily available to command his remarkably contemporary thinking to a public increasingly tuned into the concerns he so passionately felt. He was truly a Deep Green born far ahead of his time.

The dramatization that follows starts with Henry as an Eton scholar. He went there in 1866 after prep school and tutors, and an itinerant childhood spent mostly with his mother and grandparents in Shrewsbury.

Eton’s headmaster at that time was the slack and uninspiring J J Hornby, who in 1884 was replaced by the much stronger character Edmond Warre. Henry’s mother was not entirely convinced of Dr Hornby’s suitability as a guardian of her chick. She came from a proper, upper-middle class family which had not shown itself short of eccentrics to enliven young Henry’s life. Once uncle, with a fear of being buried prematurely, offered to make Henry his heir, provided his nephew personally saw to it that his uncle’s head was severed before burial. Henry wrote later that “This proposal I unwisely declined, from an over-conscientious doubt whether I should be able to carry such instructions into effect; and the property accordingly passed into the hands of some cousins who presumably undertook to complete the desired severance, and I trust did so.”

Mrs Salt, a woman with predictable viewpoints, was not without her problems. Her relationship with her husband appears to have been as distant emotionally as it was geographically, for Colonel Salt stayed firmly in India. But her concern for Harry – as she called her son – was such that she took rooms in Eton for long enough to see him into the school and to acquaint Dr Hornby of her expectations from an institution that had also been entrusted with the care of Henry’s father. Of her concern for Henry’s physical and mental well-being, there can be no doubt. Her ability to mould him to the expectations of conventional Victorian West England gentlefolk was another matter.

A Note on Henry Salt (1851 – 1939)

Henry Stephens Shakespear Salt (sic), described by his biographer George Hendrick as “a child of privilege in Victorian England,” was born in India, the son of a colonel in the Royal Bengal Artillery. A King’s scholar at Eton, he went on to Cambridge in 1871, returning to Eton as a master in 1875.

In 1884 he relinquished that comfortable post to devote the rest of his long life to “causes” – penal reform, conservation, animals’ right, and other humanitarian and Socialist concerns that now attract increasing understanding and sympathy.

Salt was also a respected man of letters, writing on Shelley, Thoreau, De Quincey, James Thomson (‘B.V.’), and several others. He knew and influenced Mahatma Gandhi and George Bernard Shaw, and his other friends included Thomas Hardy, W H Hudson, the Webbs, Havelock Ellis, Ruskin, and in particular Edward Carpenter.

On his death, over fifty obituary notices appeared, extolling the scholarship, humanity, wit, integrity and prolific output of a man against whose compassionate ideals the media had maintained an almost unbroken silence throughout his life.

After his death, that silence was resumed, broken only by Stephen Winsten’s Salt and His Circle (1951), Hendrick’s Henry Salt (1977), the 1980 reissue of Salt’s classic Animals’ Rights, and in 19989 the Hendricks’ anthology The Savour of Salt, which has received wide and favourable press attention.

Apart from the last two volumes, nothing has been readily available to commend Salt’s remarkably contemporary thinking to a public now happily more attuned to the concerns he so passionately felt.

Henry Salt was truly what we today term a “Deep Green”, born far ahead of his time.

[Play to follow]

Jon Wynne-Tyson