World War 2

The vegan movement in the UK was formed by a breakaway group from the UK Vegetarian Socety which had been established in 1847.

In August 1944 Donald Watson and Elsie Shrigley petitioned the Vegetarian Society to allow a non-dairy group to be set up. Their request was refused, and Watson and Shrigley went on to form the Vegan Society in November 1944.   Around seven people attended the founding meeting of the Vegan Society at The Attic Club in London.

The founding members of the vegan movement had just been through World War 2, which had a profound and shocking effect on them.  They believed that veganism was a necessary and fundamental part of the moral evolution of humanity.  Donald Watson said:

“We don’t know the spiritual advancements that long term veganism – I mean not over years or even decades, but over generations, would have on human life.  It would be certainly a different civilisation, and the first one in the whole of our history that would truly deserve the title of being a civilisation.  Full stop.”

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), an ardent animal rights activist, saw the connection between war and our treatment of animals.  In ‘Living Graves‘ he wrote:

We are the living graves of murdered beasts,
Slaughtered to satisfy our appetites.
We never pause to wonder at our feasts,
If animals, like men, can possibly have rights.
We pray on Sundays that we may have light,
To guide our footsteps on the path we tread.
We’re sick of War, we do not want to fight –
The thought of it now fills our hearts with dread,
And yet – we gorge ourselves upon the dead.
Like carrion crows, we live and feed on meat,
Regardless of the suffering and pain
We cause by doing so, if thus we treat
Defenseless animals for sport or gain,
How can we hope in this world to attain
The PEACE we say we are so anxious for.
We pray for it, o’er hecatombs of slain,
To God, while outraging the moral law.
Thus cruelty begets its offspring – WAR

Donald Watson (1910-2005)

Watson’s name is synonymous with the vegan movement and he is usually referred to as the founder of the Vegan Society.  He was born in Yorkshire, the son of a headmaster in a mining community.  He later became a teacher.  As a child, Watson spent time on his uncle’s farm. The slaughtering of a pig on the farm horrified him and he became a vegetarian at the age of fourteen.  He gave up dairy products about 18 years later, having seen that the production of milk-related products was unethical.

Watson was sickened by the events of World War Two, and saw the vegan movement as the ‘salvation of Man’.  The vegan pioneers saw a connection between humanity’s tyranny towards each other and towards animals.  In 1988 Watson wrote about the beginnings of the vegan movement:

“Perhaps it seemed to us a fitting antidote to the sickening experience of war, and a reminder that we should be doing more about the other holocaust that goes on all the time.  Or perhaps it was that we were conscious of a remarkable omission in all previous vegetarian literature – namely, that though nature provides us with lots of examples of carnivores and vegetarians it provides us with no examples of lacto-carnivores or lacto-vegetarians.  Such groups are freaks and only made possible by man’s capacity to exploit the reproductive functions of other species. This, we thought, could not be right either dietetically or ethically.  It was certainly wrong aesthetically, and we could conceive of no spectacle more bizarre than that of a grown man attached at his meal-times to the udder of a cow.”

Watson declared that all other movements are “lesser” compared to veganism because they had a limited vision of the future.  He said that other movements were like people re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic, whereas they could be helping the vegans who were busy shining their searchlight “on the iceberg which is going to be the end of the whole show.”

In his address to the International Vegetarian Congress in 1947, Watson said:

“The vegan believes there is nothing in the idea of vegetarianism so long as this regrettable practice of eating more dairy produce continues. Indeed the use of milk must be a greater crime than the use of flesh-foods, since after all the exploitation of motherhood and calf killing the cow must face the slaughterhouse. Thus the dairy cow suffers far more than the bullock taken from the field and slaughtered.”

Watson also emphasised the health aspects of the vegan diet and showed how veganism could abolish food shortages throughout the world.

Leslie Cross

Donald Watson stated that Leslie Cross was a great friend of his and one of the outstanding contributors to the early years of the vegan movement. Both men saw veganism as something that would emancipate human and other animals.  Cross said:

“While we must admit that changes in world dietary habits cannot take place overnight, the long term view must surely be that we wish to bring practice more and more into line with what we inwardly know to be worthy of man’s better nature.  If as we claim, we are a more noble creation than the animals, then we cannot avoid the logic of noblesse oblige.  The most stringent test of the character of a man is how he acts toward those over whom he possesses power, and here the animals present us with an absolutely acid test.  Surely we diminish ourselves by using our power over them merely to satisfy our own self-interested desires?”


“Veganism is in truth an affirmation that where love is, exploitation vanishes. It possesses historical continuity with the movement that set free the human slaves. Were it put into effect, every basic wrong done to animals by man would automatically disappear. At its heart is the healing power of compassion, the highest expression of love of which man is capable. For it is a giving without hope of a getting. And yet, because he would free himself from many of the demands made by his own lower nature, the benefit to man himself would be incalculable.”

In 1956 Cross set up the Plantmilk Society. The company, later renamed as ‘Plamil’, produced one of the first widely distributed soy milks in the Western world.

Elsie Shrigley

Elsie Beatrice Shrigley, also known as Sally Shrigley, was a co-founder of The Vegan Society in 1944.  She is credited by some as coining the word “vegan” with Watson.  As early as 1947 Sally researched a small list of ‘vegan commodities’ – biscuits, chocolate and sweets – which was published in The Vegan magazine.  This was the beginning of the project that became the Animal Free Shopper.  In the early 1960s Sally was President of The Vegan Society and at various times she occupied more or less every other official position.  She served continuously on the Society’s committee until her death in May 1978.

Fay Henderson

According to commentators, Henderson was more visible in the vegan movement than Watson. She wrote literature for the Vegan Society, served as a vice-president, and toured Britain and Ireland giving lectures and cooking demonstrations. She put a lot of emphasis on education and was a prime mover in terms of raising the public consciousness of veganism.  In 1947, she wrote:

“It is our duty to recognise the obligation we owe to these creatures and to understand all that is involved in the consumption and use of their live and dead products.  Only thus shall we be properly equipped to decide our own attitude to the question and explain the case to others who may be interested but who have not given the matter serious thought.”

Eva Batt

Batt became vegan in 1954 and made major contributions to the spread of veganism.  She was a highly active member of the Vegan Society, serving  fifteen years as chairperson, and edited the commodity pages of The Vegan for over two decades. The society published her two cookbooks: “What’s Cooking” (1973) and “What Else is Cooking” (1983).  Batt was a council member of the American Vegan Society and a director of Plamil. She also worked with Beauty Without Cruelty, promoting cosmetics and clothing not derived from or tested on animals.  She owned a shop in Enfield, her hometown, that sold food, clothing, and footwear suitable for vegans.