When Henry Salt published ‘Animal Rights’ in 1892 he became an overnight sensation. Adored by the few, hated by the many. John Schofield charts the rise and fall and rise of this vegetarian visionary.
When Henry Salt died in 1939 it must have seemed to many that he was a man whom history had passed by. As the war clouds gathered over Europe for the second time in a generation, the mourners at his funeral would surely have thought that his guiding principles — rationalism, socialism, pacifism and humanitarianism — were being buried with him.
Salt had prepared his own funeral address, which was read by his friend Bertram Lloyd, in which he stated, ‘I have a belief that in years yet to come there will be a recognition of brotherhood between man and man, nation and nation, human and subhuman, which will transform a state of semi-savagery, as we have it, into one of civilisation, when there will be no such barbarity of warfare, or the robbery of the poor by the rich, or the ill-usage of the lower animals by mankind.’
The mourners dispersed and gradually the name of Henry Salt was forgotten by all but a dedicated few. So who was this man whose ideas seemed so far ahead of his time?
Born in India in 1851, the son of a Colonel in the Royal Bengal Artillery, Salt spent most of his childhood living with his maternal grandparents before attending Eton and Cambridge. Despite glittering academic career he was unhappy at university as he felt that ancient seat of learning had no interest in ‘the higher social ethics’.
In 1875 Salt returned to Eton as an assistant master, but his conversion from high Victorian respectability to radicalism was already underway. Since boyhood he had been a devoted admirer of the poet Shelley and followed in his hero’s footsteps. He became a socialist and converted to vegetarianism. The latter was considered even more dangerous than the former and soon attracted the displeasure of his fellow masters as ‘it had to be practised as well as preached’.
In time Salt realised that he could no longer remain at Eton and visited the Headmaster, Dr Warre, to tender his resignation. He later wrote of this interview, ‘Dr Warre expressed regret that I had lost faith in that public school system to which he himself, as all Etonians are aware, devoted a lifetime of unsparing service. ‘It’s the vegetarianism’ he gravely remarked; and I understood him to mean that it was the abandonment of the orthodox diet that had led to my apostasy in regard to Education. When I told him that Socialism must take its share of the blame, as having been at least an auxiliary cause, he was really shocked. ‘Socialism!’ he cried in his hearty tones. ‘Then blow us up, blow us up! There’s nothing left for it but that.’
Salt and his wife, Kate, began a new life. A simple 1880s version of ‘The Good Life’. The marriage however was not entirely happy. Kate had a series of lesbian affairs and refused to consummate the relationship with Henry, who threw himself into the work of the Victorian reform movements and writing serious literary criticisms.
By the early 1890s Salt had pulled together the various strands of his belief – socialism, vegetarianism, pacifism, anti-vivisectionism – into a unified philosophy that was eventually called Humanitarianism.
Salt confessed that he did not really like the term, as it started well, but tailed off into a series of formless and ungainly suffixes. Like-minded people soon joined him and together they founded the Humanitarian League in order ‘that much good will be done by the mere placing on record of a systematic and consistent protest against the numerous barbarisms of civilization – the cruelties inflicted on men by men, in the name of law, authority, and the traditional habit, and the still more atrocious ill-treatment of the so-called lower animals, for the purpose of ‘sport’, ‘science’, ‘fashion’, and the gratification of an appetite for unnatural food.’
In 1892 Salt published ‘Animals’ Rights’. The book was an immediate success and was translated into several languages. However, it was also seen as dangerous, radical and as an attack on the very order upon which Victorian society was based. It made Salt one of the most hated men in Britain. The average thinking Victorian man or woman may have thought of themselves as animal lovers, but they also regarded themselves above the beasts. Their kindness towards animals was a gift they could give or withhold as they saw fit. The wit and writer G. K. Chesterton put it thus: ‘Cruelty to a man and cruelty to animals are two quite detestable but quite different sins. The man who breaks a cat’s back breaks a cat’s back. The man who breaks a man’s back breaks an implied treaty. The tyrant to animals is a tyrant. The tyrant to man is a traitor. Nay, he is a rebel, for man is royal.’
To Salt this was quite wrong. He argued that the sins were equal, and that the tyrant and the traitor equally evil.
In order to build popular support the Humanitarian League found a journal, Humanity later renamed The Humanitarian, which Salt was to edit. In addition he also acted as secretary and general organiser for the League.
Throughout the 1890s and early years of the 20th century Salt toured the country speaking and debating on numerous issues. He appealed for the establishment of National Parks in Snowdonia and the Lake District, expressed his deep concern over the chemical pollution of rivers and lakes, campaigned to abolish flogging in the Royal Navy and corporal punishment in prisons and he also promoted vegetarianism wherever he went.
The cataclysm of the First World War destroyed much of the fabric of British society and the Humanitarian League was one casualty of the barbarism of the trenches. Salt was not downhearted. ‘We must go with our work,’ he said. ‘Until war becomes as unthinkable as cannibalism.’
In 1919 Kate died, and Salt, now 68, worked ever harder at his writing and nature studies. The first volume of his autobiography, ‘Seventy Years Among Savages’, was published in 1921.
In 1927 he married for a second time, to Catherine Mandeville, a union which brought happiness and tranquillity to his later years. He continued to write until his death, at the age of 87.
Now, sixty years after his death, interest in Henry Salt is growing again. His books are being sought out and there is interest in erecting a memorial to the man, in Brighton, where he spent his last days.
2001 will see the 150th anniversary of his birth. Which is perhaps a good time to try again the flavour of Salt.
The Vegetarian, Autumn 1999