The Fellowship of Life
'Pebble in still water'
The Rt Hon Lady Muriel Dowding
From The Vegetarian, May 1972 with thanks to The Vegetarian Society:
"A child weeping - fall of hair hiding fall of tears - the sore, unassuaged grief of a little girl. A mother questioning, gently, patiently: "What is it then? - tell me." And punctuated by sobs, the story told. They were down on a farm in Hampshire. A Wedgewood summer - intense blue skies, white-gold of wheat, of sunshine. The child and her sister playing in the fields, running into the farmhouse hungry for lunch. The farmer's wife lifting the silver cover of one of the great dishes to reveal... the glazed body of some small animal. The child recoiling in horror, identifying the shape with the creatures she had come to love on the farm. Was it a cat, a dog, a rabbit? Refusing to eat it, she had been sent from the room in disgrace.
That child was later to become Lady Muriel Dowding, wife of Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding. Muriel Dowding still remembers her mother saying: "Good gracious, a big girl of eight crying because she is sent out of the room." And Muriel replying, desperately needing to make it known:
"I'm not crying about that - I'm crying for the poor little rabbit." Mother saying in mother wisdom: "You must understand they are being very kind to us. They have gone to a lot of trouble to give us lovely food, but I will see that you never have rabbit again."
That was Muriel's first introduction to vegetarianism, a child's instinctive rejection of dead food. Again - and this is several years later - she was to see an incident that left a lasting impression. She was thirteen at the time, staying at Herne Bay. Some bullocks were being herded into a knacker's yard. The rough ride in the cart, the smell of blood, the contagion of fear - one of the young bullocks bolted, eyes white-staring, clatter of hooves on the cobbles, the drovers yelling after it, waving their sticks.
She had always been told that if anything was wrong to fetch a policeman. Her plea for help met with an equivocal reception. "Is that all you're upset about?" the policeman asked. "Do something about it," she insisted. He looked at her pointedly: "You do eat meat, don't you?" That was unanswerable.
But the lesson learnt there had yet to be applied - life was crowding her. Boarding school, followed by marriage to her first husband, Max Whiting: the birth of their son David.
The war started. Max was in Bomber Command - they moved to Warrington. There didn't seem to be any catering for vegetarians; indeed, she had no idea at the time that a vegetarian society existed. Their son David was being brought up on the bleak rationing of those days.
Then Max was posted missing, presumed killed. Loneliness steeled resolution - now she had only herself to consider, she became wholly vegetarian. At that time, the house she was living in had been requisitioned as an officer's mess. There were lots of nissen huts in the beautiful parkland. Squatters moved into them, and on leaving often abandoned their pets. Muriel found herself caring for fifteen strays. What meat ration she had went to them, while she lived on milk, apples and cheese with the occasional luxury of an egg.
When she married her second husband, Lord Dowding, Muriel was a vegetarian; he was not. They entertained a great deal, and when accepting invitations she made a point of saying: "Please don't be offended if I only eat the vegetables."
One day she asked her husband if he found it inhibiting, and he reassured her: "You make your principles known so unobtrusively, you never cause anyone trouble. I have been thinking about it - I can't make up my mind whether you are fifty or a hundred years ahead of your time. But I feel you are absolutely right."
When they had been married about three years, she said to him: "You have a seat in the House of Lords, and you eat meat - could you do something about getting it humanely slaughtered." He said: "Well, isn't it?" She said: "I suggest you find out." Then, without telling her, he went round a number of slaughter houses. Later, he was instrumental in bringing in several bills in this connection - he introduced the humane killer for sheep and pigs. Its use for smaller animals wasn't compulsory before then. He kept on and on asking questions about animal welfare, vivisection, kept on lobbying - has this been augmented, when was something going to be done about this or that? On one occasion, all slaughter houses got a telegram the night before to say some new regulation must be implemented immediately - so in the House they could answer him with a yes!
Except for herself, they were a meat-eating household. He liked salt beef very much. One day, it arrived at table. He looked at it, and at what was on her plate. "What is that peculiar stuff you're eating?" It was macaroni cheese. "If you have enough of it," he said "would you share it with me? And you needn't order any more meat for me again."
Lord Dowding's conversion was a challenge because he disliked vegetables, refused onions and tomatoes - and is on record as only once having had a salad. But he remained a vegetarian for the rest of his life. In a way, it was a turning point for the whole family. David was home from boarding school about that time. He was fourteen, and ration cards were still in use. "Oh David," she said, "You've brought back a vegetarian card - I can't get you meat on this." Well, I'm a vegetarian now." "What made you decide?" He said "Oh well, a number of reasons." She was pleased, but anxious that he should be convinced. "He assured her: "Yes, I'm quite certain - in fact, the boys at the vegetarian table do much better than the boys at the meat table!" They had become a vegetarian family.
A riding accident many years previously had left her with a bad back, for which she had two major spinal operations. Three months was spent in Woolwich Hospital, and a private nurse was needed for her convalescence. One came as a temporary and stayed on. She regaled her own family with tales of the Dowdings.
"Your hair would stand on end if you heard the things they talk about - they never eat animals...in all my experience of nursing I've never been in such a household; I find it fascinating."
The nurse even cut short her holidays to come back to them. Muriel asked her: "Didn't you enjoy your holiday?" The girl replied: "I don't know what you've done to me - I was so bored, I had to come back sooner." The nurse stayed a year, became a vegetarian, and now works in a health clinic.
Another occasion Muriel has cause to remember. In connection with Battle of Britain Day, a dinner was given in her honour, attended by the wives of many top-ranking RAF officers. Hors d'oeuvre was served - she found it delicious, but when it came to the soup, she declined it. Her hostess asked: "Don't you take soup?"
"Not usually when I'm out. I happen to be a vegetarian, so if you don't mind I will be content with whatever vegetables are prepared."
"But Lady Dowding, you are our guest of honour - everything you eat will be vegetarian - the margarine, the oils we've cooked with...everything."
It was a seven-course dinner - if you are top-brass RAF, you have top-brass chefs. Never in her life in any vegetarian home or restaurant had she had such an exquisite meal.
At the end there were toasts, and her hostess said: "In honour of our guest, you have all enjoyed a vegetarian meal tonight." The effect on those who had shared the evening with her was incredible - they had all been raving over the marvellous dinner - and never missed the conventional ingredients of fish and meat!
Those early-formed beliefs were spreading. Like a pebble falling into still water - little splash, but the ripples widening, reaching out...
NB. Lady Muriel Dowding (1908-1993) was a Fellowship of Life patron and a founding trustee of the Beauty Without Cruelty company which she revitalised in 1969. Her Autobiography was published by Neville Spearman, in 1980 (ISBN: 0859780562):
Lord Dowding (1882-1970) achieved national recognition for his role as Air Chief Marshal during the Battle of Britain. His twenty-seven post-war speeches on animal protection in the House of Lords received a deferential hearing from his contemporaries but there little real enthusiasm.
The Lord Dowding Fund for Humane Research was established in his memory: http://www.navs.org.uk/research/
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