Donald Watson

Founder of veganism and the Vegan Society


Donald Watson, teacher: born Mexborough, Yorkshire 2 September 1910; married (one daughter); died Keswick, Cumbria 16 November 2005.

Donald Watson coined the word "vegan" and, in 1944, founded the Vegan Society, the start of a no-meat, no-dairy lifestyle now followed by millions worldwide, with vegan alternatives available in anything from ice-cream to caviar.

Shocked by the screams of a slaughtered pig on his Uncle George's farm in South Yorkshire when he was a 13-year-old at Christmas 1923, Watson made a New Year's resolution not to eat meat, a pledge he kept until his death on 16 November, two months after his 95th birthday.

It was towards the end of the Second World War, which he avoided as a conscientious objector along with his brother and sister, that he decided to share his view that it was not only eating meat that was inhumane, but also dairy products such as milk, cheese or eggs. He also tried not to wear leather, wool or silk and used a fork, rather than a spade, on his allotment to avoid killing worms.

In a small room in his house at 67 Evesham Road, Leicester, in late November 1944, he typed out several pages expressing his beliefs and seeking reaction, stapled them together, and handwrote at the top of the first page: "Vegan News". The price of his newsletter was tuppence, or one shilling for an annual subscription. He had taken the word vegan from the start and end of the word vegetarian, but told his would-be readers (he made 500 copies) that this was only a suggestion and asked for their views on a title for their movement. The word proved popular.

"The unquestionable cruelty associated with the production of dairy produce," Watson wrote in that first newsletter,

has made it clear that lacto-vegetarianism is but a half-way house between flesh-eating and a truly humane, civilized diet, and we think, therefore, that during our life on earth we should try to evolve sufficiently to make the "full journey".

I have used the title the "Vegan News". Should we adopt this, our diet will soon become known as a VEGAN diet, and we should aspire to the rank of VEGANS. Members' suggestions will be welcomed. The virtue of having a short title is best known to those of us who, as secretaries of vegetarian societies, have to type or write the word vegetarian thousands of times a year!

And so his Vegan Society began, initially with 25 members. There are now nearly 5,000 members, and an estimated 300,000 vegans in the UK.

Donald Watson was born in 1910 ("into a meat-eating family," he liked to say) in Mexborough, South Yorkshire. It was there that he had his experience of the slaughtered pig, which made him realise, according to an interview he gave three years ago, that "the idyllic scene was nothing more than death row, where every creature's days were numbered by the point at which they were no longer of service to human beings".

He trained as a carpenter but, needing work during the 1930s depression, became a woodwork teacher, first in Leicester and later in Cumbria, a job he stayed in, leaving the running of the Vegan Society to others, though keeping close tabs on it, until his retirement in the mid-1970s in Keswick, where he died.

Asked in the 2002 interview what he considered to be his greatest achievement, he answered:

To feel that I was instrumental in starting a great new movement which could not only change the course of things for humanity and the rest of creation but alter man's expectation of surviving for much longer on this planet.

He also contemplated his own death:

Inevitably, I suppose, within the next 10 years, one morning I won't wake up. What then? There'll be a funeral, there'll be a smattering of people at it and, as Shaw forecast for his own funeral, there'll be the spirits of all the animals I've never eaten. In that case, it will be a big funeral!

Phil Davison

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