The Humane Influences of Henry Salt

The Humane Influences of Henry Salt

I first came across the works of Henry Salt in 1970 while studying the Irish phase of Charles Bradlaugh's early life. As a young soldier in Ireland Bradlaugh had met and befriended the poet James Thomson (“B.V.”), later author of The City of Dreadful Night, and this led me to reading Salt’s interesting biography of Thomson, first published in 1889.

In 1977 I had the good fortune to acquire, from an Australian friend, a copy of Songs of Freedom (1893), an anthology of poems chosen and edited (but not written) by Salt. I realised from this that Salt had a great feel for poetry and an abiding passion for justice and liberty. Most of Salt’s original publications are now scarce, but in 1980 the Centaur Press reprinted his Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress (first published in 1892), and in 1989 issued The Savour of Salt; a Henry Salt Anthology, edited by George and Willene Hendrick.

Henry Stephens Shakespear Salt was born in Nynee Ta, India, on 20 September 1851, the child of an Indian Army officer, Thomas Henry Salt (colonel, Royal Bengal Artillery), and his wife Ellen Matilda née Allnatt. The parents’ marriage was unhappy, and about a year later his mother returned with the infant Henry to England.

Henry won a scholarship to Eton, where — unlike Shelley and Swinburne — he was happy. Then he progressed to King’s College, Cambridge, but found the place unappealing. “All this education is a sham,” he declared. “It is the woad we are made to smear on our souls to impress silly people.” Nevertheless, he won a gold medal for a Greek epigram.

In 1875 Salt returned to Eton to teach, and was joined on the staff by his university friend, Jim Joynes. Jim was interested in translating Karl Marx, and Henry wrote and spoke highly of Shelley, regarded as infamous by the respectable portion of Eton’s masters and students. In 1879 Henry Salt married Jim’s sister, Kate (Catherine Leigh Joynes), but, according to George Bernard Shaw, she was a lesbian and the marriage was never consummated.

In 1884 Salt left Eton and moved with Kate to Tilford, Surrey. He adopted a simple lifestyle, wore sandals (made by Edward Carpenter), became a vegetarian, socialist and pacifist, and campaigned for humane causes and reforms. In 1891 he founded the Humanitarian League to act as a platform for his various efforts. When described by a hostile journalist as “a compendium of the cranks”, Salt replied: “He apparently meant that I advocated not this or that humane reform, but all of them. That is just what I desire to do.”

Salt’s circle of friends included Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, Edward Carpenter, G. K. Chesterton, G. W. Foote (editor of The Freethinker), M. K. (“Mahatma”) Gandhi, Thomas Hardy, W. M. Hyndman (of the Social Democratic Federation), Ramsay MacDonald, George Meredith, F. W. Newman, William Morris and George Bernard Shaw. His admirers included the American lawyer, Clarence Darrow, and the South African writer, Olive Schreiner.

Salt's passion and persistence were leavened by a generous sense of humour; and, for a pacifist, he showed a good grasp of tactics. Salt did not mind being teased for his views. G. K. Chesterton, who was a compulsive talker, once remarked: “Can you assure me that, if I stay a few minutes longer, no elephant will be the worse for it?”

On the other hand, Salt knew when to take action and when to ignore a purely hypothetical problem: The human conscience furnishes the safest and simplest indicator in these matters. We know that certain acts of injustice affect us as they did not affect our forefathers — it is our duty to set these right. It is not our duty to agitate problems, which, at the present date, excite no unmistakable moral feeling.

He was also shrewd enough to realise that the gains of freedom could be set back or lost: Again and again have the soldiers of freedom appeared to be on the point of capturing the central stronghold of the enemy; again and again has the tyranny rearisen in some new and unexpected quarter, and the battle has been bequeathed anew from one age to another, with the accompanying legacy of suffering, self-sacrifice, and privation. Our Songs of Freedom must therefore of necessity be in great part songs of slavery, for it is the evils of the present that, by very contrast, enhance and emphasise the brighter visions of the future. Yet there is no need, on this account, to adopt the despondent views expressed by Coleridge in his “Ode to France.” The quest of liberty is not “profitless”; our poets of democracy have not sung in vain. Link by link the chains of serfdom are broken: step by step man advances towards that perfect freedom which can only be attained by the temporary failure — in other words, the eventual success — of innumerable earlier efforts.

Salt believed — and the world is catching up with him — that “in our complex modern society, all great issues of justice or injustice are crossed and intermingled, so that no one cruelty can be singled out as the source of all other cruelties, nor can any one reform be fully realised apart from the rest.” Most people, however, do not have the talent, time and energy to campaign on a broad range of issues. Not so Henry Salt: he decided to try reforming what he saw as a “brutalitarian” society. He campaigned against flogging in the Royal Navy, and against corporal punishment in general. He wrote against the hunting of hares by the Eton Beagles. He tackled bureaucrats and politicians — including the Prime Minister — in a campaign for the abolition of the Royal Buckhounds, confident in the knowledge that Queen Victoria herself disapproved of stag hunting. Salt inveighed against warmongering rhetoric, “murderous millinery” (the vogue for egret feathers on women’s hats), the fur trade, vivisection, and some of the barbarous practices at the London Zoo. (Even in his eighties he was briefly threatened with a libel action by the R.S.P.C.A.) He also became a pioneering conservationist, pleading for legal protection of rare wild flowers and against commercial destruction of Britain's mountain scenery. “While we are willing to spend vast sums on grabbing other people's territory,” he commented wryly, “we have not, of course, a penny to spare for the preservation of our own.”

Salt was a prolific writer of letters, articles and books.1 Few of his books made much money but, although this puzzled income-tax officials in 1930, it did not seem to worry Salt unduly. He is perhaps best known for Animals’ Rights, of which Peter Singer, in the preface to the 1980 edition, has written: Every time I re-read Salt's book—and I have now read it several times—I marvel at how he anticipates almost every point discussed in the contemporary debate over animal rights. Defenders of animals, myself included, have been able to add relatively little to the essential case Salt outlined in 1892; but we can console ourselves with the fact that our opponents have been able to come up with few objections that Salt has not already dealt with. . . . Animals’ Rights is of more than merely historical interest: it remains a living contribution to a continuing debate.

Salt also wrote on literary figures such as De Quincey, Richard Jeffries, Tennyson and, of course, Shelley and Thoreau. The Rationalist Press Association published his Treasures of Lucretius (1912) and Our Vanishing Wildflowers (1928), as well as the revised edition (1914) of The Life of James Thomson (“B.V.”). Salt wrote an autobiography, Seventy Years Among Savages (1921), and has himself has been the subject of Stephen Winsten's Salt and His Circle (1951).2

Salt did not, of course, invent the concept that animals should have rights. The idea goes back at least to the late eighteenth century — to Jeremy Bentham and John Lawrence — and its origins can be traced back to classical figures such as Pythagoras and Porphyry. But Salt was one of the first people to write and agitate widely on behalf of animals’ rights and saw himself, no doubt, as following in the tradition of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Salt’s views on religion were, as one would expect, synthetic and holistic rather than analytical and exclusive. Rationalism, he maintained, “is void and without value unless it carries with it that sense of kinship and brotherhood which the world so grievously lacks to-day. Full freedom of thought is essential for human progress, because otherwise the old superstitions stand in the way; but it is not in itself all that is needed, and as long as cruelty and injustice are rampant it is small consolation to be told that our religious beliefs may be made rational. They must give practical proof of their rationality.” The reference to extending the moral law to animals in the aims of the National Secular Society is very likely a legacy of the friendship of Foote and Salt.

“In spite of all the barriers and divisions that prejudice and superstition have heaped up between the human and non-human,” Salt wrote in 1921, “we may take it as certain that, in the long run, as we treat our fellow-beings, ‘the animals’, so shall we treat our fellow-men.” Salt did not live quite long enough to see Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler create slaughterhouses for the industrial-scale extermination of human beings.

Kate Salt died in February 1919, and in 1927 Henry married Catherine Mandeville (1891 – 1984). They had no children but, according to Shaw, “it was, as far as I know, a comfortable, normal marriage”.

Henry Salt died in Brighton, Sussex, on 19 April 1939. At his cremation service his friend Bertram Lloyd read out the testament that Salt had written for the occasion. It included these words: I wholly disbelieve in the present established religion; but I have a very firm religious faith of my own, a Creed of Kinship, I call it, a belief that in years to come there will be a recognition of the brotherhood between man and man, nation with nation, human and sub-human, which will transform a state of semi-savagery as we have it, into one of civilization, when there will be no barbarity as warfare, or the robbery of the poor by the rich, or the ill-usage of the lower animals by mankind. Such is my faith; and it is because I hold all supernatural doctrines taught under the name of religion to be actually harmful in diverting attention from the real truths, that I believe them to have a tendency, as Ingersoll3expressed it, to petrify the heart.

Earlier Salt had written: “I shall die, as I have lived, rationalist, socialist, pacifist and humanitarian.” And Shaw observed: “Salt was original and in his way unique.”

But he was not so unique as to believe that his causes would die with him. In his last book, The Creed of Kinship (1935), Salt wrote: “Yet there is comfort in the thought that the Future is before us, and that if a hundred years effect but little change, a thousand may effect more, and ten thousand more still; there is, in fact, no limit to the time in which humane influences may be brought to bear on this brutal and barbarous mankind.”

Principal References

* SALT, Henry S. 1980 edn. Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress. Preface by Peter Singer. London: Centaur Press.
* SALT, Henry S. 1989. The Savour of Salt: A Henry Salt Anthology; edited by George HENDRICK and Willene HENDRICK. Fontwell, Sussex: Centaur Press.
* SINNOTT, Nigel. 1990. Review of The Savour of Salt in The Freethinker (London), May 1990: 74 – 75.
* Songs of Freedom. Selected and edited, with an introduction, by H. S. SALT. London: Walter Scott, [1893].
* WINSTEN, Stephen. 1951. Salt and His Circle; with a preface by Bernard Shaw. London: Hutchinson.


* A list of Salt’s books to 1935 is given by Winsten (1951): Appendix Two.
* I obtained a copy of Winsten’s book in 2004 at a book fair in Melbourne’s historic Trades Hall building.
* Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-99), American freethought writer and orator.

N. H. Sinnott

1/2 Davy Street, Sunshine West, Vic. 3020, Australia. + 61 3 9312 2304

Published in the Journal of Freethought History 3 (1), Autumn [Nov.] 2005: 1 – 4 (London: Freethought History Research Group).

Before HVG member NIGEL SINNOTT moved to Australia in 1976 he had been chairman of the London Young Humanists and the editor of The Freethinker. He is a life member of South Place Ethical Society. In Australia he is active in Humanist and Vegan organisations.

Nigel Sinnott

Journal of Freethought History, Vol. 3, Autumn [Nov.] 2005