Henry Salt was born on 20 September 1851 in Nynee Tal, India, the son of Colonel Thomas Henry Salt of the Royal Bengal Artillery. He was christened Henry Shakespear Stephens Salt and shortly after his birth Salt’s mother, Ellen Matilda Salt, return to England with Henry. Much of his childhood was spent in the Shrewsbury home of his maternal grandparents, the Allnatts.
He was educated at Eton and Cambridge, before returning to Eton as a master. However, from about 1880 largely through his brother-in-law and fellow Eton master J.L. Joynes, he was introduced to the leading social reformers of the day including Henry George, William Morris and Edward Carpenter; and the then unknown George Bernard Shaw. Also, by gradual degrees he was beginning to question his diet and developing an interest in vegetarianism. By 1884 the conviction grew on him that Eton masters “were but cannibals in cap and gown – almost literally cannibals, as devouring the flesh and blood of animals … and indirectly cannibals, as living by the sweat and toil of the classes that do the hard work of the world”.
Aside from Socialism, another, movement in the 1880s gaining ground was ‘simplification’, and he became impressed by the writings of Rousseau, Thoreau’s Walden and Edward Carpenter’s essays, and started recognising the connection that “luxury on the part of one man would involve drudgery on the part of another”. In 1884 he dispensed with servants, left his teaching post and retired to a labourer’s cottage in Tilford, Surrey, determined to take up a new life of writing and humanitarian causes in what he would call “an emigration, a romance, a strange new life in some remote antipodes.” Here he began writing for Justice, the journal of the Social Democratic Federation and working as a literary critic in socialist journals.
In 1891 he joined up with a small group of like-minded folk to draw up a manifesto and launch the Humanitarian League. The idea was to proclaim a general principle of humanness underlying the efforts of those societies (SPCA (now Royal), vegetarian and anti-vivisection societies, anti-war groups, Howard Association for Penal Reform, etc) which aimed at humanising public opinion; and the consequence being that it would show that while the various efforts were disconnected, they were inspired by a single bond of fellowship and universal sympathy. In its manifesto it was asserted “that much good will be done by the mere placing on record of a systematic and consistent protest against the numerous barbarisms of civilisation – the cruelties inflicted by men, in the name of law, authority, and traditional habit, and the still more atrocious treatment of the lower animals, for the purpose of ‘sport’, ‘science’, ‘fashion’,’ and the gratification of an appetite for unnatural food”.
In 1892, Salt wrote a seminal, scholarly book called Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress. Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, describes this book as the best of the 18th and 19th century works on the subject. Salt’s wise words include: “The emancipation of men from cruelty and injustice will bring with it, in due course, the emancipation of animals also, the two reforms are inseparable, and neither can be fully realised alone”. And in a chapter on “Sport or Amateur Butchery,” he wrote:
“The sports of hunting and coursing are a brutality which could not be tolerated for a day in a state which possessed anything more than the mere name of justice, freedom and enlightenment”.
Salt edited two journals for the Humanitarian League, Humanity, later renamed The Humanitarian (1895-1919), and The Humane Review (1900-1910). He also appointed special departments to deal with cruel sports, criminal law and prison reform, humane diet, education of children and opposition to war.
In Salt’s much later autobiography, Seventy Years Among Savages there is an interesting account of how the Humanitarian League brought the very word ‘blood-sports’ into common parlance. He describes how a Mr John Macdonald first used the word in an article in the Echo, and the League borrowing the word from him, and finding that it “went home,” made a point of using it on every possible occasion.
Carry The War Into The Enemies’ Camp
Other tricks of the League included carrying the war into the enemies’ camp – to hoist them with their own petard by means of the reductio ad adsurdum, a pretended defence of the very practices they were attacking. In this they published The Brutalitarian, a “Journal for the Sane and Strong”, and The Beagler Boy (the latter eulogising the Eton Beagles). Salt knew the absurdity of the articles would be apparent to the general reader but “would escape the limited intelligence of schoolboys and the sporting press” and indeed, the Horse and Hound and The Sportsman welcomed and praised the articles!
The Eton Beagles and the Royal Buckhounds were the League’s two most cherished ‘pegs’, upon which they did much to hang the exposure of the cruelty of hare and stag-hunting. With the Buckhounds they petitioned Queen Victoria and after her death exposed correspondence from her expressing her “strong opposition to stag hunting for many years past,” and this finally sealed its fate. They also drafted a “Spurious Sports Bill” with the purpose of “prohibiting the hunting of carted stags, the coursing of bagged rabbits, and the shooting of birds released from traps”. However, with a reminder of the present day, the Bill was consistently “talked out”.
In 1914 the League published a volume of essays on Killing for Sport with a preface by Mr Bernard Shaw: the book forming a summary of the League’s arraignment of blood-sports.
Salt also enlisted many able people to carry out reform of criminal law and prison reform. Dr W. Douglas Morrison, a criminologist, led the League’s agitation which helped bring about the Prision’s Act of 1898, and W.S. Monck (Lex) worked for the establishment of a Court of Criminal Appeal and the revision of imprisonment for Debt Law.
Salt, who was very much a man of letters, wrote nearly 40 books during his lifetime including biographical studies of Shelley, Thoreau, De Quincey, James Thompson (“B.V.”) and several others. He was also a great amateur botanist, specialising in wild flowers. One of the books that gave him greatest satisfaction was A Plea for Vegetarianism (1886) because of its effect on Gandhi who, during his student days in London (1888-91) had read Salt’s book. At the meeting of the Vegetarian Society of 20th November 1931, Salt was honoured by Gandhi’s opening remarks: “It was Mr Salt’s book A Plea for Vegetarianism which showed me why, apart from a hereditary habit, and apart from a vow administered to me by my mother, it was right to be vegetarian … He showed me why it was a moral duty incumbent upon vegetarians not to live upon fellow-animals”.
Creed Of Kinship
Salt’s essential philosophy is summed up in his book, The Creed Of Kinship, 1935; here he explains how he “thoroughly disagreed with the present established religions,” but had a firm religious belief of his own which he called a The Creed Of Kinship. Founded on rationalism and underpinned by unselfish deeds, it simply demanded a recognition of the biological and evolutionary affinity between man and man and human and sub-human. Salt was prepared to “hold a truce between those who sought similar reforms but from a different religious foundation, but ultimately he felt his Creed would “outlive and outlast all the complicated doctrines theology has thrown up.”
League Against Cruel Sports
The demise of the Humanitarian League came when Salt decided to step down as Honorary Secretary shortly after the death of Salt’s first wife Kate in 1919. However, as Salt wrote in 1930: “Its long effort to ameliorate certain sports was not in reality wasted and has now been made evident by the success of a later League for the Prohibition of Cruel Sports”. This League, now known as the League Against Cruel Sports was founded in 1924 by former Humanitarian League members Mr Henry Brown Amos (1869-1946) and Mr Ernest Bell (1851-1933). For Salt, who recognised that the Humanitarian League in its day was largely a forlorn hope but with far reaching effects, there would have been satisfaction in knowing that we are now so close to “taking a stronghold of the enemy” with the impending ban on hunting with dogs.