The Best Known of the Co-Founders of the Greatest Cause on Earth, Donald Watson

9th August 2019

Part 2 of ‘And if you know your history…’


In the second of a series of essays, vegan since 1979 and former animal rights prisoner, Dr. Roger Yates, looks at how veganism as a social movement emerged and developed with the focus on accounts of the individual pioneers of the vegan movement. 


A lot has been written about the best known vegan social movement pioneer, Donald Watson – and some of it is true. What is not true is that Watson single-handedly “invented” veganism, or that he wrote a comprehensive definition of veganism in 1944. Both of these false claims are seen regularly in social media platforms related to veganism. Watson himself was keen to spread the blame for the foundation of the vegan social movement among others!, saying, “I hesitate to single out anyone, but I would say Leslie Cross and Arthur Ling must be put in the records as being the two outstanding, faithful contributors to our cause.”


For a variety of reasons, 21st century members of the animal advocacy movement are attempting to reduce, slim down, and make quite shallow the philosophy of veganism that evolved in the first decades after the formation in 1944 of veganism as a social movement. For example, while some tend to regard veganism as merely a diet, some animal activists suggest that the concerns of the vegan movement are restricted to the liberation of other animals and has nothing to do with human liberation. As this series of blog entries about the pioneers of the vegan movement will show, these claims are not accurate. These “reducetarian” opinions about veganism fly in the face of the people who founded our movement. For example, Donald Watson, the person most commonly associated with the formation of the Vegan Society, was asked if he had any message for new vegans. He replied, “Yes. I would like them to take the broad view of what veganism stands for. Something beyond finding a new alternative to, shall we say, scrambled eggs on toast, or a new recipe for a Christmas cake.” Adding, “I would like them to realise that they’re on to something really big.


Donald Watson was born on the 2nd of September, 1910, at Mexborough, in South Yorkshire, the son of a school headmaster. As a child, the young Donald Watson holidayed on a farm run by his grandmother and her son. Innocently, Donald thought these holidays were “heavenly.” He was delighted that he found himself surrounded by lots of interesting other animals – horses, cats, dogs, cows, chickens, a cockerel, sheep, and pigs. It eventually struck Watson that all these other animals had some function; they all had things to “give” to humans.


I realised that they all “gave” something. The farm horse pulled the plough, the lighter built horse pulled the trap and the wagonette… The cows “gave” milk, the hens “gave” eggs, the cockerel was a useful “alarm clock.”


But what of the pigs?


I could never understand what the pigs did – all the other animals “gave” something, but I couldn’t for the life of me see what the pigs “gave,” and they seemed  there were usually two – such friendly creatures, always glad to see me, and grateful for almost anything that was thrown to them in the sty. Well, the day came when I came downstairs for breakfast, and Granny wasn’t alone in the kitchen – there were two women there I’d never seen before, and they were very busy boiling an enormous amount of water, one pan after another, on the fire. What was all this about? Soon after, I saw two men cross the path in front of the kitchen window, carrying what seemed to be like a trestle, with handles on each end, and they took it through to the little yard where the pigsty was. It wasn’t long before the business of killing one of the pigs began. No attempt was made to keep me away from the scene, I just went there, full of interest, to see what all this was about. And I still have vivid recollections of the whole process from start to finish, including all the screams of course, which were only feet away from where this pig’s companion still lived. And then, when the pig had finally expired, the women came out, one after another, with buckets of this scalding water, and the body of the pig was scraped – all the hairs were taken away.



Donald Watson was shocked to discover that animal farms are killing machines: “A Death Row where every creature’s days were numbered.” He concluded that, were he to report on “Man’s progress,” he would write: “could do better.” All this, Watson says, paved his way to veganism, and the formation of the first vegan social movement organisation, The Vegan Society. He saw no other social movement offering as much as the vegan movement, and saw it as the salvation of “Man.” As a sociologist, I tend to remind readers that all people are a product of their times. Thus, in this series, readers will notice that direct quotes by both men and women may contain sexist language. For example, calling humanity “Man” was standard practice until relatively recently.



Something other than being confronted with the realities of animal farming was to have a profound effect on the young Donald Watson. His politics and his view of humanity were forever shaped by events in “World War Two,” which, as I mentioned last time, “sickened” him. In 1994, looking back on the first 50 years of the vegan movement, Watson noted that people were “shattered” by the tragedy of war. So much so that, in 1944, as the conflict drew to a close, most had little time “to fuss over the fate of a few animals.” Tellingly in terms of the scope of the vegan movement that was to evolve, Watson says that the vegan pioneers would never agree with the popular notion that, “the war on animals was a ‘just war’ – to use a term much debated at the time.” To the contrary, it was the position of the vegans that humanity’s tyranny towards humans and other animals was connected although, Watson points out, making this claim in the immediate post-war years was “usually unproductive.” He says that the vegan pioneers, “were not religious in any orthodox sense,” but they did take the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” seriously and applied it to both human and other-than-human animals: “If our vision of a better world was a dream, it was a dream to escape the nightmare of a world overflowing with evil.” The people of this world overflowing with evil, he states, saw nothing wrong with the killing of other animals: “We on the other hand felt that we were facing the issue of morality at its most basic.”


Donald Watson lost several friends during the conflict, including colleagues in the vegetarian movement. He was saddened by the idea of killing people who were strangers to him, such as the 50,000 killed in one raid on Dresden, their bodies subsequently piling up and burnt because there was no way of burying so many. Watson saw no choice but to become a conscientious objector (CO).


It was a terrible dilemma for anyone with high principles to see thousands, millions of people, killed, because the whole idea was so mad that Man should still, at this late stage in his evolution, be trying to solve his problems by this evil method. But that was the dilemma, so, after much thought, for right or wrong, I became a CO.


By now, Watson was a night school teacher (on reduced pay for being a CO) and also a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service. He had escaped the real possibility of death around 1940 because he believed that at least some of the infamous wartime raids by the Luftwaffe that destroyed large parts of the city of Coventry were meant for Leicester in the Midlands of England, where he lived at the time.


Watson mentions the notion of humanity’s evolution in the quote above. This theme was to become very important in the early years of the vegan social movement as the pioneers appeared to see the values embedded within veganism as challenging the barbarism that created war and exploitation: veganism should be seen as part of the moral evolution of humanity, they believed.


Watson stated that he liked to think that the vegan movement is the “greatest movement that ever was.” The reason he gave for this may shock animal advocates who assert that veganism is only “for the animals.” In 2002, when he was 92 years and 104 days old, he said that veganism is the greatest of movements because, “it’s the only one, now, that can save Mankind.” In what may seem a somewhat arrogant claim, Watson declared that all other movements are “lesser” compared to veganism because they had a limited vision of the future. He said that such lesser movements were as 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.”


Watson pointed out that, “nature rebels against any species that becomes too numerous, usually by food shortage, or by disease, both of which are now rampaging ahead in the human community.” He argued that vegans alone have the possible solutions to this crisis. It is not an exaggeration to say that the early vegan vision of the future was spectacular – even utopian perhaps. But we must once again remember that people are a product of their times – and what times had these people lived through. Two sickening, shattering, wars involving populations from all over the planet. They saw the rise of the far right in the shape of the Third Reich, experienced carpet bombing, and widespread destruction – the laying waste of entire cities throughout Europe. They came to learn of the death camps, the ghettos, and the barbarism of war as a general matter. The trauma of warfare on individuals is now well known – some relatives of veterans of war report how their fathers, mothers, aunts, and uncles could never bear to talk about what they witnessed. Often the details of the horror went with them to their own deaths. The vegan pioneers, however, saw a trauma that had damaged human society. They feared that recent history had revealed some form of de-evolution of humanity. That we have become more savage, and more likely to see violence as a means to resolve problems and disputes.


The early vegan movement pioneers believed that veganism’s vision that exploitation of humans and nonhumans was connected could result in a vegan future that could correct and eliminate the violence that they saw all around them. 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.


Finally, there are relatively recent suggestions in the vegan community that “veganism is not enough,” and that veganism itself is a passive posture. Prominent social media activists suggest that vegans will simply stand by and watch humans attack other animals, while an infamous manifesto entitled “Boycott Veganism,” concludes that, “if we want to stand up for animals, then we should stop calling ourselves vegan; stop asking others to go vegan; and even stop using the word vegan.”


Such simplistic notions appear to go out of their way to misrepresent the meaning of veganism, and certainly ignore the views of the pioneers of the vegan social movement, which are dismissed and distorted in sentences such as this:  “When we examine how the ‘go vegan’ message frames the animal rights debate, we see how we are playing into our opponents’ hands. The concept of veganism necessarily focuses on the human who chooses a particular lifestyle. That lifestyle may be informed by ethical principles, no doubt. But the framing has been set — the debate is about human choices and interests, rather than animal rights and brutality.”


The vegan pioneers not only set out to analyse the savagery that they had lived through, but they also wanted to do something about the “problem of humanity” as they saw it. Sociologists and social movement theorists see social movements as “claims-makers” in civil society. Social movements typically make claims about the problems they say they have identified. An Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements suggests that


Claims-making refers to the process of performing or articulating claims that bear on someone else’s interests. In its simplest form an instance of claims-making includes two actors – a subject (claimant) and an object (addressee) – and a verbal or physical action (demanding, protesting, criticizing, blaming etc.). In the context of social movement studies and contentious politics, claims-making has most often referred to the conscious articulation of political demands in the public sphere, thus leaving aside more private or hidden forms of political claims-making such as voting and lobbyism.


Donald Watson famously suggested in 1944 that people need to be “ripened up” to new ideas. He fully understood that change doesn’t just happen – social actors have to make it happen. He noted that important social reformers such as Wilberforce, Chadwick, Shaftesbury, and Kingsley understood that no issue will be “ripe” for reform until it is “ripened by human determination.” Thus, in the very first edition of The Vegan, Watson told his readers that, “There is an obvious danger of leaving the fulfilment of our ideals to posterity, for posterity may not have our ideals. Evolution can be retrogressive as well as progressive, indeed there seems always to be a strong gravitation the wrong way unless existing standards are guarded and new visions honoured. For this reason, we have formed our Group” (all emphases added).



In his 2014 chapter entitled, “The Greatest Cause on Earth: The historical formation of veganism as an ethical practice,” sociologist Matthew Cole identifies the aims of the vegan movement as radically transformative and emancipatory:

…the vegan ethos [aim/object] combines compassionate non-exploitation of other animals with an emancipated vegan self and a more compassionate human society. Vegan ethics, from the beginning, was directed towards these interconnected goals of transforming human beings and transforming human society, with both flowing from the foundational reconfiguration of human-nonhuman animal relations.



Cole also argued that, “The breath-taking scope of the transformative vision of the vegan pioneers…may inspire a re-centring of vegan ethics in the practice of and advocacy of all those who oppose exploitation in its myriad and pernicious forms.”

Writing in the second decade of the 21st century, Matthew Cole is clearly acknowledging that  much of the breath-taking vision of our movement’s founders has been lost. Also note that Cole talks about exploitation not restricted to other animals only, just as the pioneers of the social movement did, and contrary to what some animal advocates are currently suggesting as the full scope of vegan philosophy. Donald Watson himself said that the movement opposed the exploitation of all sentient life in 1945, and Cole has pointed out that, from 1948 to 1951, the front cover strapline of the Vegan Society’s magazine, The Vegan, stated: “Advocating living with exploitation.”

Far from being just a diet; or only about other animals, the driving philosophy of the vegan social movement represents a revolution that is arguably needed more now than it was in the 1940s and 1950s when these radical ideas emerged. I believe that the vision of the vegan pioneers should be honoured. It is shocking to me that their radicalism, their revolutionary vision for a less violent future, is being cast aside in the 21st century. Let’s get veganism back on track, now.




The Vegan News. (No 1. 1944).

The Vegan. (Spring 1946).

The Vegan. (Summer 1988).

The Vegan. (Autumn 1994).

“Ripened by Human Determination: Seventy Years of The Vegan Society.” Samantha Calvert. The Vegan Society. 2014.

The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements, Edited by David A. Snow, Donatella della Porta, Bert Klandermans, and Doug McAdam. 2013, Blackwell.

Earthing Ed. “A Message for All Vegans.”

“Boycott veganism: Animal rights only begins with your diet.” Author(s) uncredited – believed to be Wayne Hsiung.


All parts of the “And if you know your history…” series

Introduction – “And If You Know Your History…” a new series looking at the History of the Vegan Movement

Part 1 – The Difficult and Argumentative Birth of the Vegan Social Movement

Part 2 – The Best Known of the Co-Founders of the Greatest Cause on Earth, Donald Watson

Part 3 – The Focus, the Scope, and the Dream of a Vegan Future. The Vision of Leslie Cross

Part 4 – The Women Pioneers of the Movement: Rarely Out of the Shadows

Part 5 – Kathleen Jannaway: Planting Seeds and Trees the Vegan Way

Part 6 – Let’s All Sing to Arthur Ling, The Plamil King!

Part 7 – Tom Regan: Rights-Based Animal Rights – or “there ain’t no rights in animal rights.”

Part 8 – Ronnie Lee: Encouraging Vegan Education


VegfestUK London

Returning to Olympia London for the 7th year running on the weekend October 26-27, this eagerly anticipated event includes 320 stalls packed with the latest vegan products, a Vegan Food Village with 25 caterers, a New Vegan Support area for beginners to veganism, a Foodies Stage with live music, the Art of Compassion Exhibition, two Fitness areas, a Holistic Health Hub, Cookery Demos, talks on Plant Based Health, a Natural Therapy Zone, Lifestyle presentations, a Yoga Zone, a Kids Yoga area, talks on Veganic Growing, a Mature Zone, a Kids Area, plus talks on Animal Rights and Activism, Vegan Activists Support, VGN, VGN Climate Change Summit and Movement Building.

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Plant Powered Expo – February 1st 2nd 2020 @ Olympia London

The organisers of VegfestUK are running a new show Plant Powered Expo next February in the National Hall of Olympia London. This new event celebrates the best of a plant-based way of life with 235 stalls, 12 features and 100 speakers. For more information, visit

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