Walter Greenwood: Vegetarian Messenger (1934-1935)

Few people know about Walter’s commitment to vegetarianism – and indeed, with one striking exception, he seems not to have referred to it in his writings or interviews between 1933 and his death in 1974. However, it was a matter of great interest to the Vegetarian Society in the immediate period after Greenwood first came to public notice in the years from 1933 to 1935. From being an unemployed man living in dire poverty in Salford from 1929 to 1932 he suddenly became famous when his novel about unemployment in the north of England, Love on the Dole, was published by Jonathan Cape in 1933.

Dust-wrapper from the first edition of the novel of Love on the Dole: the design is striking, but the clean lines of the somewhat futurist image (which may derive from the young apprentice Harry Hardcastle’s early wonder at Marlowe’s works) do not altogether reflect the still present nineteenth-century modes of poverty which dominate the novel’s concerns (scanned from copy in author’s collection)

Even more of a success in many ways was the play-adaptation co-written with the Manchester playwright Ronald Gow in late 1933, staged in Manchester in early 1934 and then produced at the Garrick Theatre London in 1935, where it became a huge success, much praised for its serious social message, as well as its gripping drama and acting. It was at that point that the Vegetarian Society, also based in Manchester (and then even in Rusholme where the play had first been staged by the Manchester Repertory Theatre), realised that this unusual writer was also a vegetarian, and its monthly magazine, the Vegetarian Messenger (and Health Review), made considerable efforts to publicise not only this fact, but also the reasons behind it. (1)

The Cover of the April 1934 Vegetarian Messenger, the issue which first drew attention to Greenwood as a writer who was a vegetarian (photo taken by the author with the permission of the Vegetarian Society – my apologies for the blurred focus towards the bottom half of the image).

I first came across this interest from the Vegetarian Messenger while searching the web for Greenwood resources as I began researching my Greenwood book back in 2006. I found a brief mention of Greenwood with an accompanying footnote in a doctoral thesis which had been generously shared by its author on the web-site of the International Vegetarian Union. The thesis was titled The Vegetarian Movement in England 1847-1981: a Study in the Structure of its Ideology and was written by Julia Twigg for submission at the London School of Economics (see The reference to Greenwood was part of a chapter focussing on the period of the Great War and the period between the two wars, which particularly discussed links between vegetarianism and political parties on the left, noting a tendency for the political-left vegetarians to ‘incline toward the humanitarian rather than the health aspect of vegetarianism’ (Twigg’s footnote 6). The sentence said that ‘the link appears also in the socialist novelist Walter Greenwood whose best-seller Love on the Dole exposed the human conditions of life in Salford, where Greenwood was a Labour councillor’ and the footnote gave the source of this information as three issues of The Vegetarian Messenger, those for April 1934, June 1935 and July 1935.

This sufficiently made the point for the thesis, but naturally I wanted to know in more detail what the Vegetarian Messenger said about Greenwood, what kinds of article they were, what their titles were, and indeed if they were about Greenwood or by him. With the kind assistance of the Vegetarian Society, I have recently been able to visit its archives at its site in Altrincham and to read the relevant articles in these issues of the Vegetarian Messenger. As it turns out two are about Greenwood and written by contributors to the magazine, while the third and longest is based on an interview with Greenwood, quoting several verbatim responses from him. Between them the three articles reveal aspects of Greenwood’s life and beliefs which are covered nowhere else, and which this article will document and discuss. I am very grateful for the lead from Julia Twigg (now Emeritus Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at the University of Kent) which eventually took me to the Vegetarian Society archives, and to Antony Byatt, Treasurer of the Society, who hosted my visit to the Archive.

The first article is three-quarters of a page in length and appeared in the April 1934 issue of the Vegetarian Messenger (p. 126). It is headed simply ‘Walter Greenwood Novelist and Playwright’ and is signed by E.G. Barlow. The piece opens by stating that ‘yet another well-known name has been added to the ranks of vegetarian playwrights’ and continues with a reminder of Greenwood’s recent fame for the success of his novel and then the even more notable success of the play version, ‘which has attracted record crowds in Manchester’. Barlow gives his own view of the work’s importance:

Love on the Dole is one of the most effective books ever written dealing with working-class life. It is a story of life in a big industrial town – a terrible condemnation of our present system of society. No one concerned about social problems can afford to ignore such a book.

Of course, Greenwood’s novel and the play are explicitly about the devastating current impact of unemployment, and how national and local government have responded to it, but Barlow can in this context safely take it more or less for granted that most readers of the Vegetarian Messenger will indeed be concerned with social problems and accept that this particular one is not just incidental but a structural one related to ‘our present system of society’. For vegetarianism as understood by the Vegetarian Society at this time was partly about a particular ethical choice not to eat meat, and partly about healthy living, but adopted the wider view that vegetarianism was at least part of a solution to what seemed to them the evident contemporary failure of many aspects of social organisation. The next paragraph of the article, if rather implicitly, makes a link between the writer’s social critique of the exploitation of the working class and his vegetarianism, which is a result of his opposition to the exploitation of animals:

Mr Greenwood, a young man of 30, has been a vegetarian for the past six years. Nothing, he says, would induce him to go back to flesh-eating. His vegetarianism is not based on health reasons, but on moral grounds. He is opposed to the exploitation of animals. Animals, he says are dependent on us for just treatment and have every claim to our protection.

The ideas here seem close to the arguments made by the pioneer vegetarian and first user of the term ‘animal rights’, Henry S. Salt (1851-1931) in (among other publications) his book Animal Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress (George Bell & Sons, London, 1892):

The emancipation of men from cruelty and injustice will bring with it, in due course, the emancipation of animals also, the two reforms are inseparable, and neither can be fully realised alone. (2)

Greenwood may or may not have read Salt’s work directly, though he was a great user of the public library while unemployed and he (or his sister Betty – see below) might for example have come across Henry S. Salt’s frequent letters to the press or his more recent 1921 autobiography, Seventy Years Among Savages (George Allen & Unwin), which inevitably expressed related ideas (the ‘savages’ here – though the term itself of course draws on a range of very dubious meanings – are British meat-eaters, whose diet bears too on all their other social and ethical attitudes and actions).

The remainder of Barlow’s article contrasts Greenwood’s ‘grim story [Love on the Dole] . . . which has startled a nation’ with his gentle fascination with animals, for he can ‘talk with enthusiasm of crawling along to watch a bird; of the gentleness and beauty of a horse; of spending hours watching rabbits play’. Greenwood was, indeed, very much engaged with the natural world as is shown in his wishes for the restoration of nature (and especially fish) to the ruined urban landscapes of the industrial revolution in his 1951 book on Lancashire (County Book series, Hale, London). In his 1971 Guardian interview with Catherine Stott, Greenwood traced his interest in the natural world back to boyhood Salford days: ‘Even in Salford I would creep off somewhere to find a field where I could sit stroking the grasses. But there was always someone to chase me off’. In the twenties he had left his desk-bound job as a clerk at the Manchester Co-Operative Society (where he had been reprimanded for drawing horses on the ledger books) in order to work as a stable lad at a big house, and then at a stable for racehorses. As he records in his 1967 memoir, There was a Time, he liked the work with horses but was very aware of the lack of ‘just treatment’ by some of the positively vicious characters he met in that world. He had anyway to return to urban life when the depression caused the racing stables and the horses to be sold off (see memoir, chapters 24 and 25, ‘New Boy – Just Joined’ and ‘Holidays with Pay’, pp. 144 -158).

The second Vegetarian Messenger article (3 pages) to take note of Greenwood is mainly about another contemporary theatrical vegetarian, the producer (director in modern terms), actress and writer Nancy Price (1880-1970), who became famous for among other things her joint production with the Chinese author Hsiung Shi-I (1902-1991) of his play based on a Chinese folk-tale, Lady Precious Stream, at the Little Theatre in London in 1935. This was the first work by a Chinese author to be staged in a London theatre. This reference in itself does not add that much to the April 1934 article, but reminds readers that like Price, Greenwood too is ‘a convinced vegetarian’ (p.193). (3)

However, it is the third Vegetarian Messenger article (July 1935) about Greenwood which is the most substantial.

July 1935 cover featuring (among others) the article about Greenwood as vegetarian playwright (photograph by the author, taken with the permission of the Vegetarian Society; again my apologies for my under-developed photographic skills . . .)

This is a three page piece (pp. 221-3) based on an interview conducted with the author in the foyer of the Garrick Theatre, London, presumably in June 1935, when the play of Love on the Dole was attracting full houses. It is headed ‘A Great Tragedy by a Vegetarian’ and is signed by Leonard J. Simons. There are two main themes in the article: the grimness of the play, which is nevertheless thought to be ‘all true to life [with ] no exaggeration’ , and Greenwood’s own optimistic character, which is ‘quite the opposite’ of ‘gloomy’. Rather unusually Simons thinks that Greenwood is not a writer like Dickens (with whom he was often compared) who ‘showed us life magnified and coloured’, but is rather in his view a true realist like Jane Austen, for ‘both get their power from their genuine sympathy with ordinary, average human beings’. Part of the motivation for this contrast between play and author seems to be that for Simons while the drama is a profound criticism of the present, it is still a manifestation of Greenwood’s (and the Vegetarian Society’s) positive belief that radical change can put things right:

Though Love on the Dole is a tremendous tragedy – a tragedy presenting the failure of the human race – yet Walter Greenwood is neither a cynic nor a pessimist about the future. He has a strong faith in ‘Humanity’s capacity and desire to plan its own destiny’; and that destiny should include the establishment of vegetarianism. He was converted to our diet six years ago by his sister, herself an enthusiastic vegetarian. Obviously the diet has been good for him intellectually. As to his physical health, he says, ‘I feel better for it, and have put on weight’ – an accomplishment that doctors had failed to achieve for him.

The play’s critique of the present is put against the author’s (and the Vegetarian Society’s) optimism for the future, if rightly approached by a sufficient mass of people. Since Greenwood had adopted vegetarianism six years earlier, that will have been in 1929, when he first became unemployed. The Vegetarian Messenger was naturally keen on representing the diets it recommended as not only equal to meat-eating diets, but generally superior, hence the comments about Greenwood’s intellectual vigour, and also about his better health. The context for this last comment about gaining weight was that while unemployed he had, as the rear inner flap dust-wrapper of the first edition of the novel of Love on the Dole states, had ‘two attacks of double pneumonia’ (1933). There were, of course, no antibiotics in existence at this point with which to treat such common but often lethal lung infections.

The article ends on a comic note with a reference to a film Greenwood was then working on, and in fact his first story for cinema. This was originally titled Where’s George? (produced by British Dominions Film Corporation, directed by Jack Raymond, released 19 August 1935), though it was retitled The Hope of His Side after the death of King George V in January 1936. The film was a comedy mainly about Rugby League, though it also included a horse-racing element, and starred the then famous comedian Sydney Howard and the celebrity radio star Mabel Constandouros, who played Mr and Mrs Scodger, two comic characters for whom Greenwood had a particular fondness in his early works. (5) At the point of this interview the original title was of course in use and responding to Greenwood’s observation that his current work is on a film called Where’s George?, his interviewer says that he hopes he is at a vegetarian lunch. Greenwood answers that George indeed will be – for he is a horse.

The film poster (with Greenwood’s authorship visible beneath the title) shows Alf Scodger (Sydney Howard) in the course of the match. He does not look like a typical rugby league player, but that seems to have been part of the comedy of the film. Alf does score a winning try, but only because he catches sight of his missing and potentially champion horse George in a neighbouring field. The film was not a great success and it is not easy to view it since it has never been released in video or DVD formats. I will see if the BFI can help me view the film at some near future date. The poster is from the Wikipedia entry on the film:

These are the facts of the attention paid to Greenwood by the vegetarian world in the mid-thirties. They do tempt me to speculate a little on why he said so little about vegetarianism elsewhere. He was, according to most accounts, generally a rather reserved character when it came to talking about himself (and indeed his sister), but he did on occasion talk about his teetotalism, which might seem a perhaps related choice to vegetarianism (indeed, Orwell associates the two choices as ‘crankery’ several times in The Road to Wigan Pier – see pp. 2322 and 2359). For example, in his 1971 Guardian interview with Catherine Stott Greenwood tells her that he did not drink at all until he was forty because he reckoned his father had drunk enough for two for an entire lifetime (see Walter Greenwood: ‘Dole Cue’ Interview, (the Guardian, Catherine Stott, 1971). As Julia Twigg’s thesis noted, there was a considerable interest in vegetarianism among some leftists, including, for example, Fabians like George Bernard Shaw, and the leader of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), Fenner Brockway, as well as the important, if for a long period excluded from the Party, Labour figure Stafford Cripps. However, on the whole this interest was found, as in these instances, not so much in the Labour Party mainstream, but among those at or beyond the boundaries of Labour. Greenwood was in the Labour mainstream in that he was a Labour Councillor for a year, though some elements of Love on the Dole suggest some differences between Labour Party and his own attitudes to, for example, policing and family planning, less positive and more supportive respectively (Orwell also included ‘birth-control fanatics’ as well as ‘vegetarians with wilting beards’ in another of his lists of characteristic ‘socialist’ ‘cranks’ in The Road to Wigan Pier, p.2355).

Greenwood’s Labour Candidate election pamphlet from 1933 (he was not elected that year, but he was for a neighbouring Salford ward the following year); scanned from copy in the author’s Greenwood collection

Greenwood is said to have written some of Love on the Dole in the local Ashfield Labour Club, where there was generally a fire lit during the day, and he also stated in an early newspaper interview that the novel began as ‘propaganda for the Salford Labour Party and it developed from there’. Certainly Greenwood was never associated with the ILP. (4)

One notable leftist figure not mentioned by Julia Twigg but whom I have already named twice – though hardly an obviously typical Labour Party supporter – frequently expressed an almost obsessively negative view of vegetarianism and its association with those to the left of official Labour – George Orwell. A search of his Complete Works (one of those kinds of research made instant by e-books and simple digital tools) discovers thirteen references to vegetarians or vegetarianism, all deeply negative. (6) These occur in novels (The Clergyman’s Daughter, 1935 and Coming Up for Air, 1939), non-fiction (The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937) and essays and columns (‘Charles Dickens’, 1940, his ‘As I Please’ column on Christmas food in the Evening Standard, December 20th, 1947, and ‘Reflections on Gandhi’, 1949). All share a blatant prejudice as a starting point: that vegetarianism is a form, to use Orwell’s own word, of ‘crankishness’, which no ordinary (British?) person would adopt. In several cases there is a specific association made between being a vegetarian and presenting, to Orwell’s mind, the wrong public face of socialism. In The Road to Wigan Pier, vegetarianism is specifically identified by Orwell as a reason for a general British distaste for Socialism and Socialists:

There is the horrible – the really disquieting – prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together . . . . I have here a prospectus from another [socialist] summer school which states its terms per week and then asks me to say ‘whether my diet is ordinary or vegetarian’. They take it for granted, you see, that it is necessary to ask this question. This kind of thing is by itself sufficient to alienate plenty of decent people. And their instinct is perfectly sound, for the food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years on the life of his carcase; that is a person out of touch with common humanity (pp.2321 and 2323).

It is noticeable that Orwell ignored any possible motivations for vegetarianism apart from personal (which he implies is also ‘selfish’) health gains, though as we have seen the Vegetarian Messenger vigorously argued for the combined ethical, social and health benefits of a vegetarian diet and way of life. As so often in Orwell’s fascinating writing, the strategy seems to be to sweep the reader along with an obvious ‘man in the street’ (and I use the phrase advisedly) ‘common-sense’. ‘Ordinary’ ‘decent’ people eat meat, vegetarians do not and are thus ‘cranks’, so that ‘ordinary people’ are led into thinking, Orwell claims, that socialism if linked with vegetarianism is ‘crankish’ too. His odd use of the word ‘carcase’ to depict vegetarians as focusing only on their own egotistical bodies, seems slightly to undo his own effects – for surely ‘carcase’ brings to mind the slaughterhouse, and raises the very ethical issue about the killing of animals which he has refused to acknowledge as a possible vegetarian concern. Some of Orwell’s common sense seems to me quite resistible for quite ordinary readers, and this seems an instance. In his novel The Clergyman’s Daughter from 1935, Orwell refers to a vegetarian periodical when describing how the destitute make use of public libraries:

In the wake of the job-hunters came poor old bundles of rags, men and women both, who had spent the night in the streets, and came to the library to sleep. They [ . . .] flopped down with relief at the nearest table, and pulled the nearest periodical towards them; it might be the Free Church Messenger, it might be the Vegetarian Sentinel – it didn’t matter what it was but you couldn’t stay in the library unless you pretended to be reading (p.390).

Clearly, the main issue here is not about vegetarianism (nor religion), but about the complete irrelevance of the choice of periodical for homeless library users seeking warmth, shelter and a place to sleep. Nevertheless, Orwell seemed to have had at least a passing acquaintance with Vegetarian periodicals, and while there was no paper called the Free Church Sentinel, it does look as if Orwell might have shifted the Messenger part of the Vegetarian title to the Christian publication a little to disguise his actual model. If so, one might reasonably expect some knowledge on his part of the combination of ethical, social and health issues covered every month in the Vegetarian Messenger, and we might suspect that the concentration on only one of these in his rhetorical uses of vegetarianism might be quite deliberate.

Greenwood certainly read The Road to Wigan Pier on its publication in 1937, for the Labour periodical Tribune asked him to review it (review published 12 March 1937, p.12). Like others on the left, Greenwood expressed very mixed views of Orwell’s representation of the working people of northern England and of his political analysis:

The first part of the book is a studied account of the conditions of life of the people in the areas mentioned, and it is authentic and first rate . . . Thereafterwards, when he begins to explain himself in relationship to socialism, when he begins to tell you what this and other isms are, he has you with him one moment, and provoked beyond endurance the next.

I cannot remember being so infuriated for a long time than by some of the things he says here. And since his arguments are tied up with each other in a manner as to make quotation and criticism either interminable  or unfair to the author, the final judgement must be left to Mr Orwell’s readers. (7)

Greenwood’s reading experience certainly suggests that while he was able at times to be the implied reader Orwell’s text suggested, he found himself very aware of dissent at other points. I wonder if some of these points of disagreement were about Orwell’s depiction of socialists as ‘cranks’, who included vegetarians among others? However, Greenwood remains  reluctant to go into detail about these differences in point of view – perhaps because going into detail might reveal things about his own beliefs which he might not want to air in public.  Orwell certainly too knew of Love on the Dole, presumably having seen the play version, for he refers to it in The Road to Wigan Pier as authentically capturing a widely-experienced sense of working-class despair:

Everyone who saw Greenwood’s play Love on the Dole must remember that dreadful moment when the poor, good, stupid working man beats on the table and cries out ‘Oh God, send me some work!’, This was not dramatic exaggeration it was a touch from life. That cry must have been uttered, in almost these words, in ten thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands  of English homes, during the past fifteen years’ (pp. 2256-7 – I am uncertain why Orwell should see Mr Hardcastle as ‘stupid’ rather than desperate in the face of economic circumstances which render him powerless and robbed of his dignity).

Clearly, Orwell does not here associate Greenwood with ‘crankery’, but rather sees him as a genuine working-class witness, as ‘ordinary’ and in complete touch with ‘common humanity’, presumably partly at least because Greenwood did not have any prominent public persona as a vegetarian working-class writer, nor  did he have any association with the ILP. I wonder if Greenwood feared that the Labour Party might not be keen on association with vegetarianism, lest this deterred ‘ordinary’ working class voters (though so far my searches of histories of the early Labour Party have not discovered any clear evidence for this).

Greenwood’s lack of extensive reference to his vegetarianism is only negative evidence, yet given the force and centrality of this to his wider social beliefs in the Vegetarian Messenger articles, it still seems a notable absence. To add a a further layer of speculation, I wonder if there is a strange kinship between Orwell’s construction of vegetarianism as a ‘cranky’ deterrent to an engagement with socialism for the ‘ordinary’ person, and Greenwood’s lack of a wider public socialist-vegetarian persona. Greenwood very much wanted what he had to say about long-term poverty and unemployment to be heard by a wide and cross-class public (which indeed it was) and perhaps that needed him to sustain an ‘ordinary’, and mainstream reputation as a witness to common experience, rather than being driven by what might be interpreted by some as ‘ideological’ or ‘individual’ commitments. (6) In his interview with Catherine Stott in the Guardian in 1971 Greenwood made a rare reflective comment on the aesthetics of Love on the Dole and on its political persuasiveness:

I was burning up inside with fury at the poverty around me … it was a burning hatred, but I realised this was no way to go about writing it all down. This would be carrying a torch. I knew the best way to present it was to get the characters right and a good story to tell it through’ (see Walter Greenwood: ‘Dole Cue’ Interview, (the Guardian, Catherine Stott, 1971)).

What makes me most regard the lack of further references to his vegetarian commitment as significant is the complete absence of discussion in his 1967 memoir, There was a Time. While, as has been noted, Greenwood is often somewhat absent from the centre of his own autobiographical text, some comment on this surely intertwined political, social and personal commitment is a striking omission (see ‘Greenwood Come Home’ interview (Geoffrey Moorhouse, the Guardian, 1967)). (8)

In the end, for whatever reason, Greenwood was certainly not the ‘celebrity’ ‘vegetarian messenger’ the Vegetarian Society might have ideally wished for in the mid-thirties. However, the three articles in the Vegetarian Messenger do at least give us an insight into what appears a key if largely unstated part of Greenwood’s social and ethical beliefs. Perhaps it was only in conversation with the Vegetarian Messenger that Greenwood felt free to open up about this particular commitment?


Note 1. For an introduction to the history of the Vegetarian Society see the Wikipedia entry: . See also the Society’s page marking 175 years since it was founded:

Note 2. Quoted (with no page reference) in the useful biography of Henry S. Salt on the Henry S. Salt Society website: . See also his Wikipedia entry: .

Note 3. Introductions to both Price and Hsiung Shi-I can be found on Wikipedia: see and

Note 4. For discussion of some of Greenwood’s departures from dominant Labour Party views see Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole – Novel, Play, Film, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2018, pp. 73-4 and 103-6.  The information about Ashfield Labour Club comes from the Working-Class Movement Library online article about Greenwood  (see: ). The quotation about ‘propaganda for the Salford Labour Party’ comes from an unattributed newspaper clipping in Greenwood’s Press Clippings Book, volume 1 (WGC/3/1, in the Walter Greenwood Collection at the University of Salford Archives).  

Note 5. The Scodgers had a story of their own in Greenwood and Arthur Wragg’s short story collection The Cleft Stick (Selwyn & Blount, 1937) and made briefer appearances in the novel of Love on the Dole. For further information about the film see the sports historian Professor Tony Collins’ Rugby Reloaded website, from which the poster image is also borrowed: . There is also a Wikipedia article on the film, mainly based on Professor Collins’ work: .

Note 5. George Orwell, The Complete Works, e-artworks, 2019, is the e-book edition referred to here and from which all the following quotations are taken. There are a number of e-books of Orwell’s Complete Works, and while useful, I would not regard any of them as anything like a scholarly edition.

Note 6. The question of whether in order to have a wide impact and avoid automatic resistance to his work among middle-class and upper-working-class readers/playgoers Greenwood was overly politically tactful is a key discussion in the critical work on Love on the Dole. See argument about this in my Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole: Novel, Play, Film, Liverpool University Press, 2018, pp.52-59 and 263-282. I take the view that Greenwood’s tactics potentially took readers/ playgoers into an understanding of long-term poverty and unemployment which they might otherwise have been unwilling to acknowledge or confront.

Note 7. The easiest way to access Greenwood’s review in its entirety is in Jeffrey Meyer’s collection of critical responses to Orwell, George Orwell – the Critical Heritage, Routledge, London, 1997, pp.99-100.

Note 8. However, Greenwood took a considerable time to arrive at a final version of his memoir There Was a Time. I will when possible look at the three draft typescripts of the memoir in the Walter Greenwood Collection at the University of Salford Archives to see if earlier versions do discuss vegetarianism.