The Humanitarian League: What It Is, and What It Is Not

THE HUMANITARIAN LEAGUE is a Society of thinkers and workers, irrespective of class or creed, who have united for the sole purpose of humanising, as far as is possible, the conditions of modern life. “It is proposed,” so ran the preliminary circular of 1891, “under the title of the Humanitarian League, to form an association for the advocacy of humane principles on a constant and rational basis. The object of the League will be to assert and apply these humanitarian doctrines by the issue of tracts, by personal influence, by lectures, by letters addressed to newspapers, and whatever other means may be suggested. However small a beginning is now made, it is believed that much good will be done by the mere placing on record a systematic protest against the numerous barbarisms of civilisations—the cruelties inflicted by men on men, and the still more atrocious ill-treatment of the lower animals.”

It will be seen that what was primarily intended was a consistent, intellectual, well-reasoned protest against all forms of cruelty, not against this or that cruel practice in particular. It was our object to show that Humanitarianism is not merely a kindly sentiment, a product of the heart rather than of the head, but an integral portion of any intelligible system of Ethics or Social Science. The Humanitarian League is not, as it is sometimes represented to be, a society for “Kindness to Animals,” nor have we ever proposed, even if we had the means, to undertake such detailed investigations of particular cases of cruelty as is performed by the R.S.P.C.A. The League is not a prosecuting society. Its business is not to secure the enforcement of the existing laws (for that, we contend, is the duty of the police, rather than of any private body), but to educate public opinion, and so pave the way for further and more advanced legislation.

Another point we would mention is this, that such donations as we have hitherto received have been freely and generously given, so that the League has retained what we trust will under no circumstances sacrifice—its perfect liberty of speech and action. It is of vital importance that a pioneer society such as ours should in all cases be able to speak and act openly and without fear ; and for this reason we have avoided the creation of presidents or vice-presidents, or any official patronage which might compromise our freedom. It must however be understood by our members that the League has no private sources of income, and that the enlargement, and indeed the continuance, of its work will depend entirely on the support of those who are interested in the movement.

In order to lighten the work of the Central Committee, and secure the co-operation of those who are in sympathy with some particular branch of the work, four special departments have been formed—viz., (1) Criminal Law and Prison Reform ; (2) Sports ; (3) Humane Diet and Dress ; (4) Children’s Department. Each of these Departments issues literature and organises meetings of its own, in addition to the regular series of pamphlets and volumes issued by the Central Committee. HUMANITY, the journal of the League, contains a monthly record of the work done by the League and its Departments.

Among those who have lent their names to the Committees of Special Departments, or taken part in meetings held by the Humanitarian League, are Rev. Canon Barnett; Rev. G. C. Bell, Headmaster of Marlborough College; Rev. Dr. Clifford; J. Passmore Edwards; Rev. Dr. Gray, Warden of Bradfield College; J. Keir Hardie; Rev. Dr. James, Headmaster of Rugby School; Very Rev. Dr. Kitchin, Dean of Durham; H. F. Luttrell, M.P.; the late Mrs. Massingberd, of Gunby; Justin McCarthy, M.P.; Rt. Rev. Bishop Mitchinson; Sir Edward R. Russell; Dr. Gordon Stables, R.N.; Very Rev. Dr. Stephens, Dean of Winchester; Hon. Fitz-Roy Stewart; Prof. Alfred Russel Wallace; Sir Wm. Wedderburn, Bart., M.P.; E. H. Pickersgill, M.P.; Rt. Hon. Lord Coleridge, Q.C.; Dr. Moncure Conway; C. A. V. Conybeare; Michael Davitt, M.P.; A. E. Fletcher; Rt. Rev. Lord Bishop of Hereford; G. J. Holyoake; J. H. Levy; Edna Lyall; H. W. Massingham; Mr. Justice Mathew; Henry Broadhurst, M.P.; J. Allanson Picton; J. M. Robertson; Lady Henry Somerset; W. T. Stead; Mr. Justice Wright; Robert Blatchford; Florence Bramwell Booth; Herbert Burrows; Colonel Charles Colville; Rev. Canon Wilberforce; Dr. Washington Sullivan; General J. M. Earle; the late Professor F. W. Newman; Lady Paget; Count Leo Tolstoy; Sidney Olivier.

Among the chief subjects that have been treated in the League’s publications, or discussed at its meetings, the following may be mentioned:—War and Arbitration ; the Reform of the Criminal Law and Prison System ; Capital and Corporal Punishments ; the Sweating System ; the Poor Laws ; Dangerous Trades ; Women’s Wages ; Public Control of Hospitals ; the Game Laws ; Compulsory Vaccination ; Cruel Sports ; Vivisection ; the Slaughter of Animals for Food ; the Protection of Birds ; The Treatment of Horses, Dogs, Cats, and other Domestic Animals. In addition to its journal, HUMANITY, the League publishes a series of numbered and uniform pamphlets, designed to deal in a brief and businesslike way with such humanitarian questions, human and animal alike, as may from time to time be specially urgent or opportune ; so that eventually the whole field of controversy may be covered, and the humanitarian principle presented in a full and comprehensive form. With this purpose three volumes have already been reprinted from the pamphlet series, under the title of “Cruelties of Civilisation.” For particulars of these, and of the other volumes and pamphlets not included in the series, the reader is referred to a list of the League’s publications.

It is not necessary here to repeat what has been said in the Annual Reports of the work done by the Society from 1891 to the present time, but it should be pointed out that, as a direct result of our efforts, the position of Humanitarianism is very different now from what it was then. There has been a marked change in tone, both in society and in the general press, from contemptuous indifference to respectful attention ; while the so-called “animal question” is now beginning to be recognised, by all sections of thinkers, as part and parcel of the modern social movement.

The indirect influence of the League, as reflected in the greater activity of other societies, must also be noted. We may claim some credit for the increased public interest in the Criminal Law and Prison System and other important matters; as also for the more democratic element that has lately been introduced in the crusade against Vivisection. Our work, as is stated in the Manifesto, was designed “to supplement and reinforce such efforts as have already been organised for similar objects”; and that this purpose has been fulfilled will not be doubted by anyone who has watched the advances made against the barbarities, for example, of private slaughterhouses, stag-hunting, rabbit-coursing, dog-cropping, and what the League has named “murderous millinery”–a title that seems likely to be a lasting one. The Sport question, in particular, has been lifted by the League’s action out of the category of sentimental into the practical problems; and speaking generally, we think we may congratulate ourselves on having brought social reformers and zoophilists into line.

We trust that this self-gratulation will not be misunderstood. The moral of it all is a simple one–that if a mere handful of workers, with no funds at their disposal, no influential support, no special qualification for their task, and in fact no advantage of any sort except that of the rightness of their principle, can effect even as much as the League has done, what might not be effected by a larger and more determined rally of humane-minded people? We are painfully conscious of the many things left undone, and many opportunities missed from sheer lack of time or power to utilise them. It is for our friends, if they care to secure the extension of work, to deprive us of any such just excuses in the future.