Naming Veganism

In the autumn of 1944, a group of acquaintances gathered in London and named themselves Vegans. Their commonalities: they were living through the devastation and deprivation of the Second World War, and they abstained from all animal products. shrigley-henderson-watson2_062416

That first group included Elsie (or Sally) Shrigley (top right) and Fay K. Henderson (middle right) as well as A. Hy Haffenden, Paul Spencer and Bernard Drake. Many others, women and men, would soon join and influence the pioneer movement.

Donald Watson (bottom right) became the voice of the early vegans as the editor, publisher, and main contributor to the group’s newsletter. His writings defined veganism while it was being invented and codified the founders’ philosophy and mission.

Watson (1910-2005) was also a conscientious objector who did home front war work as a firewatcher alongside his day job. He and his colleagues took strong positions consistent with their ethics, whatever problems it might cause them.

Watson was a white man born into the waning days of British imperialism. He was a woodworking teacher, not an academic. His words arise from his time and place. Yet they are also fearless and radical, and not only for the 1940s. Those 1940s newsletters anticipate points on animal rights, spirituality, and the connections in social justice that would not become mainstream until decades later – if then. The writings of Watson and his colleagues testify to the longevity of those ideas from the days of that Greatest Generation. The invention of veganism marks a turning point in human ethics, right in the middle of history’s biggest conflagration.

We take up its challenge today.