Dr Maureen O'Sullivan shares the details of Re Cranston, Webb and Oldfield: could this 1898 case be the first indication of legal protection for the moral convictions of vegans?
Long before the coinage of the term “vegan”, a case arose in the Irish Court of Appeal in which vegetarianism was recognised as a protected ethical belief. Whilst the case was cloaked in the language of vegetarianism, principles of veganism were to the fore1. The judgment in question was In Re Cranston, Webb v. Oldfield2 and it concerned a bequest to the London and Manchester Vegetarian Societies. The matter before the court was whether such gifts could be construed as charitable. This was because the gifts offended the rule against perpetuities: an area of property law that prevents the making of gifts ad infinitum. Only charitable status would save the gifts as such classification created an exception to the rule. The judgment has been cited in several subsequent cases, which will be discussed in a future piece.
The case originated in the Irish Court of Chancery. The judicial navigation of its intricacies involved the Master of the Rolls, Porter M.R. consulting the manifestos of the Vegetarian Societies of both Manchester and London. This should be viewed positively as had a more objective approach been taken, contradictory definitions could potentially blur the boundaries of the belief. The descriptions were in today’s parlance a de facto vegan or plant based profile as they neither mentioned honey, eggs nor dairy products. The Societies’ charters urged abstention from consuming flesh of any animal, fowl or fish and encouraged consumption of food from the vegetable kingdom3. Porter M.R. acknowledged the space for the protection of ethical beliefs that emanated from a secular, and not just a religious premise. This is notable as he had no guiding human rights legislation: the only statutes cited related to charity law. The charities that had forged the path and that were mentioned by the judge were societies that protected animals. He acknowledged that recognition of their beliefs had become established in the law.4 His judgment was appealed to the Court of Appeal.
The court again looked at the societies’ manifestos in order to ascertain whether the objects were charitable. Lord Ashbourne C. noted that the purpose of the societies was to promote health and humaneness by desisting from the killing of animals. He observed that the definition of charity in the law was very wide and, as he opined that vegetarian goals fell within its parameters, the gift was upheld.
The next judgment was that of Fitzgibbon L.J. He stated that charities should have characteristics such as unselfishness, they should be public, and benevolent or philanthropic. He acknowledged vegetarianism as a “fact”,5 and recognised that it had been around for a long time and had many adherents. He viewed vegetarianism as exhibiting “mercy and morality” whether practical or visionary. He held that as long as the society’s purposes were neither immoral nor illegal, the court would not question their charitable status and the gifts in this case fell within those deemed to be charitable.
The third judge, Walker L.J. considered the societies’ charters and the charity law in question. The latter protected donations for the relief of the poor, the promotion of religion and education and there was a miscellaneous class into which the bequest in question fell. His commentary on the object of vegetarians could equally apply to vegans as it was to encourage people to live on vegetables and refrain from killing animals. He also deemed the gifts to fulfil a charitable purpose.
The only dissenting judge was Holmes L.J. who quoted Lord Macnaghten in The Commissioners of Income Tax v. Pensel6. This case divided charitable objects into four categories: the fourth being a kind of catch-all for any gift which did not fit within the boundaries of the first three. Holmes L.J. felt that this category was nebulous and he quibbled more with the manner in which the testatrix had arranged the bequest than with the principle of vegetarianism. He did, however, confess not to knowing much about vegetarianism but this did not curb some invective that placed vegetarians in the same category as eccentrics and cranks. He perceived the practice of the killing of animals for food as universal and denied the charitable status of the bequest, knowing, however, that his was a lone voice.
This case is the earliest I have found that recognises veganism as a protected belief. It does not use the term “veganism” because the case was heard in 1898 and the term would not be coined until the 1940s. It is a meritorious case for this reason alone but also for the fact that the judges in that particular Court of Appeal were very eminent and the majority showed themselves capable of respecting principles that were not their own.
Maureen O’Sullivan, PhD, Lecturer (Above the Bar), School of Law, National University of Ireland, Galway.
- I have written a substantial article on a related case. The citation is O’Sullivan, M. “Vegetarian Rights Denied: No Longer Cutting the Mustard?” European Human Rights Law Review 2021, 2, 181-193.
-  1 I.R. 431.
-  1 I.R. 433.
-  1 I.R. 435.
-  1 I.R. 437.
-  AC 531.