Although the first Australian Vegetarian Society was founded in 1886, there is little evidence of its activities between 1900 and 1948. The society was revived after a conference held in Sydney under the auspices of the World League for the Protection of Animals.
For the first half of the 20th century, the few articles about vegetarians in the Australian press refer to the societies in Britain. In 1937, English vegetarians protested over plans in many towns to hold traditional ox roasts in honour of the Coronation of King George VI. The writer George Bernard Shaw was famously a vegetarian and was quoted in the Australian press saying:
I have lived and worked without flesh, fish or fowl, and all statements to the contrary are entered in the books of the Recording Angel as aggravated and outrageous falsehoods. During illnesses, doctors and family have tried in vain to make me drink meat extracts. Death is better than cannibalism.
At the 33rd World Vegetarian Congress in 1999, Robert Fraser gave an address titled The Australian Vegetarian Experience. Fraser was the President of the Vegetarian Society of Western Australia. He attributed the lack of interest in vegetarianism in Australia between the wars to the agricultural economy and heavy promotion of meat and dairy. Fraser recounted that the founding (or re-founding) of the Australian Vegetarian Society stemmed from a lecture given in Sydney in April 1948, The Humane Aspect of Vegetarianism.
While the revival of the society began in Sydney, the following year branches were formed in Victoria and Western Australia. Fraser said many of the founding members of the Australian Vegetarian Society were naturopaths or dietitians. Indeed, the first President of the South Australian branch was Madame Mira Louise, a naturopathic dietitian. The Society initially produced a newsletter called Australian Vegetarian. The first issue was published in July 1948 at a cost of sixpence.
The Victorian branch was particularly active – and vocal. For a time, they received considerable press coverage. In 1950, the society held a banquet which was addressed by a visiting English vegetarian, John Coats, who spoke admiringly of a man in England who lived only on grass. The Secretary of the Victorian branch was widely quoted as saying that meat-eating was to blame for war. ‘Meat-eaters cause all wars,’ she told a ‘mass meeting’ of 20 people. ‘For men, it is only a step from the killing of animals to the killing of each other.’
Miss Foley’s pronouncements provoked a response from someone who purported to speak for the Society of Carnivores. Under the heading of ‘Food ‘atrocities'” his letter read:
Members of our society are horrified at the letter of Mary E. Foley, hon. secretary Australian Vegetarian Society (20/6) saying “while meat is eaten, cruelty will always prevail.”
Can Miss Foley contemplate with equanimity the peeling of a potato, the shredding of a cabbage, stringing of beans, dicing of carrots, bruising of mint and other atrocities? Has she never shuddered at the agonising, grinding wrench as she tears the heart out of a lettuce? (The Herald, Melbourne, 23 June 1952)
The Vegetarian Society later produced a journal known as the Vegetarian Monthly. It became focused on the health benefits of vegetarianism and for some years in the late 1950s and early 1960s was edited by the naturopath Mira Louise. This focus led to some dissatisfaction from those who had become vegetarian for ethical or environmental reasons. In the 1970s, vegan and animal liberation organisations appeared, which had more appeal to these groups. The first Australian vegan organisation – The Vegan Society of Victoria – was founded in 1973.
Vegetarianism in Australia, by Edgar Crook, gives a comprehensive account, not just of vegetarian societies but of the whole history of vegetarianism in this country.