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We’ve come a long way!

The Vegan Society was founded in November 1944 and we’ve made tremendous progress since.

Early vegans

The Vegan Society may have been established 70 years ago but veganism has been around much longer. Evidence of people choosing to avoid animal products can be traced back over 2,000 years. As early as 500 BCE, Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras promoted benevolence among all species and followed what could be described as a vegetarian diet.  Around the same time, Siddhārtha Gautama (better known as the Buddha) was discussing vegetarian diets with his followers.

Fast forward to 1806 CE and the earliest concepts of veganism are just starting to take shape, with Dr William Lambe and Percy Bysshe Shelley amongst the first to publicly object to eggs and dairy on ethical grounds.

The first modern-day vegans

In November 1944, Donald Watson (right and below) called a meeting with five other non-dairy vegetarians, including Elsie Shrigley, to discuss non-dairy vegetarian diets and lifestyles. Though many held similar views at the time, these six pioneers were the first to actively found a new movement - despite opposition. The group felt a new word was required to describe them; something more concise than ‘non-dairy vegetarians’. Rejected words included ‘dairyban’, ‘vitan’, and ‘benevore’. They settled on ‘vegan’, a word that Donald Watson later described as containing the first three and last two letters of ‘vegetarian’. In the words of Donald Watson, it marked “the beginning and end of vegetarian.” The word vegan was coined by Donald Watson from a suggestion by early members Mr G, A Henderson and his wife Fay K. Henderson that the society should be called Allvega and the magazine Allvegan.

Although the vegan diet was defined early on it was as late as 1949 before Leslie J Cross pointed out that the society lacked a definition of veganism and he suggested “[t]he principle of the emancipation of animals from exploitation by man”. This is later clarified as “to seek an end to the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection, and by all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man”.

The society was first registered as a charity in August 1964 but its assets were later transferred to a new charity when it also became limited company in December 1979.  The definition of veganism and the charitable objects of the society were amended and refined over the years.  By winter 1988 this definition was in use - although the phrasing has changed slightly over the years - and remains so today:

[…] a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

Delving into Vegan Society archives

Our researcher-in-residence, Dr Sam Calvert, has been hard at work delving into our archives at Vegan Society HQ, discovering how The Vegan Society began and how we have grown over the decades. Her findings are published as a pdf entitled Ripened by Human Determination: Seventy Years of The Vegan Society.  It is available to download here.

A transcript of an interview with Donald Watson from 2002 is available here and his 2005 obituary, from the archives, can be found here.

The story continues

The Vegan Society continues to hold true to the vision of our founding members as we work towards a world in which humans do not exploit other animals. We’re as determined as ever to promote vegan lifestyles for the benefit of people, other animals and the environment. 

Will you join us to continue the story?


Left and above right: Donald Watson (02/09/1910 – 16/11/2005)