The first Australian Vegetarian Society was formed in Melbourne on June 16 1886 to ‘induce habits of abstinence from the use of fish, flesh, and fowl’ as food. Edgar Crook, the author of Vegetarianism in Australia, writes that the founding members were generally religious teetotallers. The first meeting was held at 41 Little Collins Street in central Melbourne at Australia’s first vegetarian restaurant, Mrs Harvie’s Vegetarian Dining Room. A New South Wales Vegetarian Society was founded in 1891, a Queensland society in 1893 and a South Australian one in 1898.
The world’s first Vegetarian Society was founded in England in 1847. This was soon followed by the USA, where the first Society was founded in 1850. In the 19th century, vegetarianism was often associated with religious groups, including the Swedenborg New Church, a movement founded by a Swedish Christian. Literature from overseas groups such as these was available in Australia and circulated among the educated classes. In later years, leading members of the Methodist church, the Mormons and other religious groups were vegetarians. The Seventh Day Adventists also advocated a vegetarian diet.
Those who embraced vegetarianism were often also temperance advocates. According to Crook, the term ‘total abstainer’, which was in widespread use among temperance groups, often indicated that a person abstained from meat as well as alcohol. He quotes the masthead of the Van Diemen’s Land Temperance Herald (1845) which carried the Bible quotation “It is good neither to eat meat, nor to drink wine, nor anything whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or made weak.” – Rom. xiv.21
The Vegetarian Society in Melbourne met on the first Wednesday of every month. Further societies were founded in Ballarat and Mildura. Although it appears there were relatively few members of the society, it persisted and in the early 1900s even had a children’s group called the “Wattle Blossoms”. The last known meeting of the society was on 11 May 1909 after which a group of members broke away to found the Food Reform League, seeking to avoid what they saw as negative connotations of the word “vegetarian”. The League was apparently active until the 1920s but for some decades thereafter it seems there was no central organisation of vegetarians.
A new Australian Vegetarian Society was formed in Sydney in 1948 and soon had branches in most other states.