The Savour of Salt: A Henry Salt Anthology

The Savour of Salt: A Henry Salt Anthology

THE SAVOUR OF SALT: A HENRY SALT ANTHOLOGY; edited by George Hendrick and Willene Hendrick. 204 pp. Fontwell, Sussex: Centaur Press, £12.95 ($30 approx.)

I first came across the works of Henry Salt in 1970 nineteen years ago when I decided to look into the Irish phase of Charles Bradlaugh's early life. In Ireland Bradlaugh had met and befriended the poet James Thomson (“B.V.”), author of The City of Dreadful Night (which Bradlaugh published in England in 1874). So I went to South Place Ethical Society's library [London] and borrowed Salt’s interesting biography of Thomson (first published in 1889).

In 1977 I had the good fortune to acquire, from an Australian friend [the late Harry Hastings Pearce of Footscray], a copy of Songs of Freedom (ca. 1895), 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 his Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress (1892) was reprinted in Britain in 1980 by the Centaur Press, publisher of the present collection of Salt’s prose and verse.

Henry Shakespear Stephens Salt (1851-1939) came from a well-to-do background and, after a “good” (conventional) school and university education, became an assistant master at Eton. In 1884, however, he “dropped out” of a system he no longer believed in, adopted a simple lifestyle, and devoted the rest of his life to campaigning for causes. He became a vegetarian and, in his own words, a “rationalist, socialist, pacifist and humanitarian”. In 1891 he founded the Humanitarian League to act as a platform for his various efforts. He was an unrepentant eccentric and, 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 passion and persistence were leavened by a generous sense of humour; and, for a pacifist, he showed a shrewd grasp of tactics. His friends were many, and included Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, Edward Carpenter, G. W. Foote, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Hardy, W. M. Hyndman, George Meredith, F. W. Newman, William Morris and George Bernard Shaw.

Salt believed — and the world is catching up with him — that “in our complex modern society, all great issues of justice or injustice arc 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; haunted his alma mater over the hunting of hares by the Eton Beagles; and tackled bureaucrats and politicians — including the Prime Minister — in a campaign for the abolition of the Royal Buckhounds, confident in the knowledge that the old Queen herself disapproved of stag hunting. Salt inveighed against warmongering rhetoric, “murderous millinery” (the vogue for egret feathers), 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 RSPCA.) He also became a pioneering conservationist, pleading for legal protection of rare wild flowers and against commercial destruction of Britain's mountain scenery.

When roused, Salt had a splendid turn of phrase. (He reminds me a bit of the Rev. Stewart Headlam.) “It used to be said,” Salt wrote, “that ‘whoever slept upon Snowdon would wake inspired’. The inspiration which to-day awaits those who wake upon Y Wyddfa is the site of a rubbish-heap surmounted by a pot-house, with the usual appurtenances of civilisation — post-office, railway station, refreshment-rooms, cigar-ends, urinals, hordes of trippers. . . If there is still any ‘beauty born of murmuring sound’ among the dwellers on Snowdon, it must be born of the slow-panting locomotive, or of the gurgling of whiskies in the hotel. And the view? In clear weather, we are told, it embraces the coast of Ireland. I have seen it embrace a line of ‘washing’ hung out to dry on the edge of the Glaslyn precipice. This is what the Welsh ‘nonconformist conscience’ has made of its holy hill.” Later on he commented wryly: “While we are willing to spend vast sums on grabbing other people's territory, 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. Few of his books made much money but, although this puzzled the income-tax officials in 1930, it did not seem to worry Salt unduly. He is perhaps best known for Animals’ Rights (already mentioned), but he 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 himself has been the subject of Stephen Winsten's Salt and His Circle (1951), and George Hendrick, who wrote Henry Salt: Humanitarian Reformer and Man of Letters (1977), is co editor of the present anthology.

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.”

I have two minor quibbles about The Savour of Salt. I would like to have seen included some detailed comment of Salt’s — if available — on the First World War and the rise of fascism; and it is a pity that the photograph which appears on the back dust cover could not have been bound into the book as a plate.

George and Willene Hendrick have done a fine job in selecting examples of Salt's poetry, prose and letters to illustrate his earnest, thoughtful, polemical and humorous nature. I am sure that the author of Cum Grano (“With a Pinch”) would have approved of the title given to this anthology. The Centaur Press also deserves an accolade for the excellent printing and tasteful presentation of the text.

I warmly commend The Savour of Salt to freethinkers, vegetarians and environmentalists everywhere. (I may even bring it to the attention of a few Tory-voting, shotgun-toting friends of the gallows, the birch and The Bomb!) The world urgently needs a lot more cranks of the calibre of Henry Salt.

Nigel Sinnott

The Freethinker, May 1990