Interview with Donald Watson
- Vegan Founder
Donald Watson formed the word
vegan from the begining and end of "vegetarian" and founded
The Vegan Society in November 1944.
Where: South Yorkshire, UK
Where: Cumbria, UK
Invented Word 'Vegan' with
his wife Dorothy (Dot)
Founded Vegan Society in 1944
Occupation: Woodwork Teacher
Vegetarian for over 80 Years
- Vegan for over 60 years
Interview with Donald Watson
founder and patron of The Vegan
Society taken from a 3 hour taped interview by Vegan Society Trustee
and Author of The Vegan
Passport George D. Rodger on 15 December 2002. First published in
The Vegan Summer 2003 Edition. This extract from www.worldveganday.org
Q: Where and when were
A: I was born on 2nd September 1910 at Mexborough in South Yorkshire,
into a meat-eating family.
Q: Tell me about your
A: One of my earliest recollections is of holidays on my Uncle George's
farm where I was surrounded by interesting animals. They all "gave"
something: the farm horse pulled the plough, the lighter horse pulled
the trap, the cows "gave" milk, the hens "gave" eggs
and the cockerel was a useful "alarm clock" - I didn't realise
at that time that he had another function too. The sheep "gave"
wool. I could never understand what the pigs "gave", but they
seemed such friendly creatures - always glad to see me. Then the day came
when one of the pigs was killed: I still have vivid recollections of the
whole process - including the screams, of course. One thing that shocked
me was that my Uncle George, of whom I thought very highly, was part of
the crew. I decided that farms - and uncles - had to be reassessed: the
idyllic scene was nothing more than Death Row, where every creature's
days were numbered by the point at which it was no longer of service to
human beings. I lived at home for 21 years and in the whole of that time
I never heard a word from my parents, my grandparents, my 22 uncles and
aunts, my 16 cousins, my teachers or my vicar on anything remotely associated
with any duties we might have to "God's Creation". On leaving
school, I went to be an apprentice woodworker with another uncle. When
I was 21, and due to become a craftsman, we found ourselves in the economic
slump of the early 1930s and I discovered that craftsmen could become
woodwork teachers by qualifying through the City and Guilds. With a bit
of trouble I managed it and liked the job so much that I never tried to
get any kind of promotion.
Q: You are 92 years and
104 days old as of today. To what do you attribute your long life?
A: I married a Welsh girl, who taught me a Welsh saying, "When everyone
runs, stand still", and I seem to have been doing that ever since.
That must be part of the answer, because so many people are running towards
what I see as suicide, performing habits that everyone knows are dangerous.
I've always accepted that Man's greatest mistake is trying to turn himself
into a carnivore, contrary to natural law. Inevitably, I suppose, within
the next ten 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!
Q: When did you first become a vegetarian?
A: It was a New Year Resolution in 1924, so I haven't eaten any meat or
fish for 78 years.
Q: Tell me about the
early days of the Vegan Society.
A: In the two years before
we formed a democratic Society, I literally ran the show. From the response
that I had - thousands of letters - I feel that if I hadn't formed the
Society someone else would have done so, though it might have had a different
name. The word "vegan" was immediately accepted and became part
of our language and is now in almost every world dictionary, I suppose.
I can't help comparing our attractive quarterly magazine with my humble
"Vegan News" which I produced at great labour. Normally I spent
a whole night assembling the various pages and stapling them together.
I'd limited the number of subscribers to five hundred because I couldn't
cope with a bigger number. Compared with democracy, dictatorship has obvious
advantages. In the early days of "Vegan News" I could do everything
my own way. I don't think I could have survived if I had had to write
to the few people concerned and ask for their opinion. I had no telephone
and no motor car - I could only hope that they would see my point, until
I handed over the work to a committee.
Q: How does your veganism
relate to any religious beliefs you may have?
A: I never had very deep ones. I've never been clever enough to be an
atheist - an agnostic, yes. Some theologians think that Christ was an
Essene. If he was, he was a vegan. If he were alive today, he'd be an
itinerant vegan propagandist instead of an itinerant preacher of those
days, spreading the message of compassion. I understand that there are
now more vegans sitting down to Sunday lunch than there are Anglicans
attending Sunday morning service. I think that Anglicans should rejoice
at the good news that somebody at least is practising the essential element
in the Christian religion - compassion.
Q: What do you find most
difficult about being vegan?
A: Well, I suppose it is the social aspect - excommunicating myself from
that part of life where people meet to eat. The only way this problem
can be eased is by veganism becoming more and more acceptable in guest
houses, hotels, wherever one goes, until one hopes one day it will become
Q: And the other side
of the coin: what do you find easiest about being vegan?
A: The great advantage of having
a clear conscience and believing that scientists must now accept conscience
as part of the scientific equation.
Q: How important has gardening been in your life?
A: When I lived in Leicester a friend let me use an allotment. When the
crops matured, I had to wheel them back four miles to the other side of
the city. When I was lucky enough to get a job in Keswick, I got a house
with an acre of garden, which was a dream come true. My compost bins are
filled with all the weeds, grass mowings, vegetable waste from the garden,
dead leaves - no animal manure. By the way, all my digging is done with
a fork - not a spade - to preserve earthworms.
Q: What are your views on genetically modified organisms?
A: As the old saying has it, if a thing seems too good to be true, it
probably is too good to be true, and I'm sure this is a classic example,
quite apart from the irreversible genetic nature of what is our basic
food supply in the future.
Q: What are your views
on blood sports?
A: I think it's the bottom of the barrel. However necessary we may feel
that, having got into this mess, we have to kill some creatures for their
own good, to kill creatures for fun must be the very dregs.
Q: What are your views
on animal experiments?
A: I said that cruel sports were the bottom of the barrel, but I think
I'll have to move even them up one and put vivisection at the bottom.
One thing we should always ask when we think that cruelty is largely delegated
to the people who perform it is the simple question, if these butchers
and vivisectors weren't there, could we perform the acts that they are
doing? If we couldn't, we have no right to expect them to do those things
on our behalf. Most orthodox medicines are tested on animals, and this
perhaps is the greatest inconsistency in vegetarians and vegans who take
orthodox medicines - a more serious inconsistency even than wearing leather
or wool because these are by-products of industries that are primarily
there to provide meat.
Q: What are your views
on direct action?
A: I've never become involved in it. I respect the people enormously who
do it, believing that it's the most direct and quick way to achieve their
ends. If I were an animal in a vivisection cage, I would thank the person
who broke in and let me out but, having said that, we must always remember:
is it just possible that our act could be counterproductive? I'd rather
not say "yes" or "no" because I don't know the answer
Q: What do you consider the greatest achievement in your life?
A: Achieving what I set out to do: 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.
Q: Do you have any message for the millions of people who are now vegan?
A: Take the broad view of what veganism stands for - something beyond
finding a new alternative to scrambled eggs on toast or a new recipe for
Christmas cake. Realise that you're on to something really big, something
that hadn't been tried until sixty years ago, and something which is meeting
every reasonable criticism that anyone can level against it. And this
doesn't involve weeks or months of studying diet charts or reading books
by socalled experts - it means grasping a few simple facts and applying
Q: Do you have any message
A: Accept that vegetarianism is only a stepping stone between meat eating
and veganism. There may be vegans who made the change all in one leap,
but I'm sure that for most people vegetarianism is a necessary staging
post. I'm still a member of the Vegetarian Society to keep in touch with
the movement. I was delighted to learn that at the World Vegetarian Conference
in Edinburgh the diet was a vegan diet and the delegates had no choice.
This little seed that I planted 60 years ago is making its presence felt.
Q: What do you think of the way the Vegan Society has developed
since you were running it?
A: Better than expected, certainly. The genie is now out of the bottle
and no one can ever put it back to the ignorant days before 1944, when
this seed was planted by people full of hope. Now wherever Man lives he
can have a vegan diet. All the early work was done by volunteers. In a
way, everyone the Society has ever paid to do the office work have all
been volunteers. Even our Chief Executive is on a wage at the very bottom
of anything that is paid in the commercial sector. Because we can afford
nothing more. So the Vegan Society has always, in that sense, been supported
by voluntary labour. And we're enormously grateful to these people because
heaven knows what would happen if they all packed in.
Q: In what direction
do you think the Vegan Society should go in the future?
A: I hesitate to suggest anything to a movement which seems to be going
well and spreading world wide. The edifice that survived all attacks before
we started our work is now crumbling because of the inherent weakness
of its own structure. We don't know the spiritual advancements that long-term
veganism - over generations - would have for 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.
(Picture Don Watson by Joe Connolly - Veg News)
Donald Watson Reads 1st copy of Vegan News - later to become "The
Vegan" and copies of his early diaries.