The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian group founded in 1973


Review By Conor Gearty of
Animal Rights: political and social changes in Britain since 1800
By Hilda Kean

From The Tablet dated 3 October 1998

The success of Hilda Kean's book lies in the sacrifice of its propagandist main title to the more intelligent and comprehensive survey promised by its subsidiary one. Thus she writes not so much about animal rights as such, as about the political and social changes since 1800 that have lain behind a growth in public and private concern for animals which has over time earned such a singular reputation for Britain. The book is a triumph for creative endeavour, maintaining an unerring focus on its own story while confidently sweeping back and forth across the boundaries of traditional disciplines, drawing in only the relevant from the mass of detail before it, like some vast, discerning whale able to feast only on the most succulent plankton.

Hilda Kean has been everywhere on our behalf - politics, the law, the arts, theology, history of all sorts - and returned with a tale compelling both in respect of what she has to say and (just as important in this age of earnest un-readability) of how she says it. She shows how Britain's concern for animals emerged from its artistic, philosophical, religious and cultural life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and how this developing sensibility was also fuelled at a more populist level by urban dwellers as they increasingly realised how terrible was the cruelty to animals that was all around them in ordinary life.

The first attempt at legislative expression of these sentiments was Sir William Pulteney's failed effort to ban bull baiting in 1800, but more general anti-cruelty legislation did reach the statute book in 1822. Two years later the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals got under way (becoming the RSPCA in 1840). London Zoo was established in Regent's Park in 1830, and in its early incarnation the place was rightly seen as an animal heaven in comparison with the tiny cages and dark containers in which "exotic" animals were otherwise kept en route to this or that provincial show.

So, well before Victoria's ascent to the throne in 1837, the scene was set for the proliferation of animal causes with which her age has become synonymous: the campaign to close Smithfield market (finally achieved in 1855); the foundation of the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association in 1859, without which London and the other great British cities would have even fewer first-class fountains on show than they do now; the growth of vegetarianism and the increase in anxiety about the connection between public health and eating. Also important were the writings of Charles Darwin and the effect on middle-class opinion of the vast scientific literature on animals that abounded at the mid- century.

Hilda Kean is refreshingly honest about the class base to much of this activity, directed against "the rabble" (who were needlessly cruel to animals) and "the aristocrat" (who casually hunted them for sport). The vivisectionists were controversial because they were "an enemy within" the middle class. Such was Augustus Desire Waller, lecturer in physiology at St Mary's Hospital in fashionable St John's Wood. In his home, Kean tells us, "the table on which the apparatus was laid out could be removed by a complicated system of pulleys and ropes to reveal a full-sized billiard table".

This class base to the movement left it vulnerable when socialism, which it was more or less true to say "did not agree about the importance of animal issues", rose to the intellectual centre-stage at the turn of the century. In the decades that followed, the very human cruelty of two great wars and the ideological life and death struggles between fascism, Communism and capitalism drained Britain of all its excess feeling, leaving the animals to fend for decades on only the dregs of human kindness.

Kean's book is at its least energetic in its coverage of this period, though it revives wonderfully at the end, just as the animal welfare movement has in the past two decades. The final pages of this book are a riveting read, with the author's engagement with her subject now clearly in view and with the extraordinary obviousness of the connection between the Victorian age and our post-Cold War reinvigorated sensibility towards animals laid bare for all to see. There is little that is new about the ideas, campaigns and parliamentary struggles with which the animal movement has so successfully signaled its return to centre-stage, except for the prevalence of the "animal rights" slogan, concerning the meaning of which, and possibly to the annoyance of her publisher, Hilda Kean - careful historian that she is - is notably coy.

Conor Gearty

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