“Neither Fish, nor Flesh, nor Fowl”

Did you try out Veganuary this year? Or perhaps you are a committed carnivore. Either way you make think that vegetarianism is a very modern concept. Whilst some religions and cultures do eschew meat and animal products, vegetarians are still a minority group in most European and Western cultures. The NHS estimated in 2015 that only 2% of Brits were vegetarian. It may come as a surprise then to learn that Dundee had a Vegetarian Society in the 1870s.

The group, also known as the Food Reform Society, was formed in 1877. It was by no means the first vegetarian society in the UK, that honour goes to Manchester which had a group 30 years earlier in 1847. By 1853 the Manchester society had 889 members and in 1897 there were over 5000 members. The Dundee Food Reform Society wasn’t quite as popular. The first meeting was held on March 16th 1877 and was attended by 12 men. Most of them gave an account of why they had given up meat and how long they had been on the vegetarian path. For many it seems to have been health reasons that had been the motivator.

The First Minute of the Dundee Vegetarian Society
The First Minute of the Dundee Vegetarian Society

The group met monthly in the Waverley Temperance Hotel on Union Street, and later the Imperial Hotel on Commercial Street. They discussed papers on the benefits of vegetarianism, such as the easing the symptoms of rheumatism, general health improvements and the cost savings of not eating meat. Papers were also heard on the religious arguments for vegetarianism, although once they did discuss the “Fish difficulty of the New Testament” – without elaborating exactly what that meant.

In the summer months they arranged excursions and picnics to nearby beauty spots. The first in August 1877 was due to be a picnic at Rossie Priory but was cancelled due to rain. The next year they tried again, and arranged to head across the water to Forgan in April but there was a lack of interest, and yes, it rained again. Eventually they managed to arrange a trip to St Andrews by train on July 20th 1878. 26 went along and they toured the castle and abbey. Alas the weather was still not on their side as a thick mist descended on the town and made their sightseeing “disagreeable and uncomfortable”. But a luncheon of breads, biscuits, fruits, tarts and cakes was still “partaken of within the cathedral grounds”.

Although new members joined and there were ‘friends’ of the society, the membership roll only grew to about 15. Several members moved away, one to Glasgow, one to London and Mr Cairncross went to Lismore in Ireland and set up his own society. Perhaps the most notable departure was that of Matthew Forbes, Vice President. In a small note (pasted into the minutes) he told the group that after a 4 year trial as a vegetarian he was giving it up!

Matthew Forbes' note
Matthew Forbes’ note to the Society

Although more people attended meetings, by far the most popular event was the annual banquet or fruit festivals. This reached a peak in March 1882 when 120 people attended the banquet. An array of breads, cakes and fruits were on offer. At the 1881 event the spread included eight large pies made by Mrs Tosh and the Misses Hutcheson. Mr Lamb, a local baker, supplied the Farrels. Despite the 70 attendees there was still food left over, which was kindly donated to the Sabbath Morning Adult Free Breakfast.

Vegetarian Banquet Menu
Vegetarian Banquet Menu, 1882

From 1880 women were accepted on to the committee for the first time. Mrs E Parker had been the first female member in 1878. She, Mrs Tosh and Misses M and E Hutcheson joined the committee. The ladies of the group soon started demonstrations on economical cooking and various recipes for scones, oatcakes, digestive biscuits and parkin. The group were advocates for wholewheat flour, complaining of the aldulteration of bread with alum. One member even claimed that if one dined “on white bread alone, death would soon follow”. The reports of these demonstrations in the local press led to a large number of ladies attending meetings – much to the bemusement of the male members.

Sadly the society just fizzled out. Several key members died and there was no significant growth in member numbers. Many of the meetings held in 1882 had no quorate so had to be cancelled. In January 1883 it was agreed that the society was not in a prosperous state – the books were only just balancing. It was decided to continue the society but have no meetings.

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