The history of vegetarianism in Australia is only two centuries old and it’s full of characters

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While the global roots of vegetarianism go back many thousands of years, here in Australia the movement dates back only a couple of centuries.   Until then, Australian First Nations people consumed a roughly 30 to 90 per cent plant-based diet, depending on where they lived, says historical researcher – […]

While the global roots of vegetarianism go back many thousands of years, here in Australia the movement dates back only a couple of centuries.  

Until then, Australian First Nations people consumed a roughly 30 to 90 per cent plant-based diet, depending on where they lived, says historical researcher – and lifelong vegetarian – Edgar Crook.

He says the vegetarian movement was introduced to Australia via Europeans – first Swedenborgians, a religious group of Bible literalists, who arrived here in the 1830s, then other religious groups such as Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons and Methodists, all of whom touted a meat-free diet. 

“Nobody died, nobody got killed – or no animal, no person. They saw that as what we should be trying to attain, an Eden on Earth,” Crook tells ABC RN’s The History Listen.

That Eden may not have eventuated quite as they’d hoped, but their ideas set in motion an enduring movement in this country, which grows in strength each year.

Figures from 2018 showed that 12 per cent of Australians were consuming vegetarian or largely vegetarian diets, a number that’s on the rise. 

But it’s been a bumpy road to get to where we are today. The history of vegetarianism in Australia includes the religious and the racist, nudists and rioters, hippies and big corporations – and more.

Close-up shot of a shiny silver fork with a single piece of parsley in it, against a black background.
The history of vegetarianism in Australia is more complicated than you might imagine.(

Unsplash: Alex Kondratiev

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Meat could ‘lead you into sin’

In the early 1800s, Seventh Day Adventists held “a general belief that [meat and alcohol] mutually worked together to cause various forms of social ills and promiscuity”, Crook says.

“[They believed they] could damage your health and lead you into sin.”

American brothers John and Will Kellogg, strong proponents of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, sought healthy food alternatives to replace meat, so that, for example, “instead of having bacon for breakfast, you would have cereal,” Crook explains.

A third brother, Merritt, brought these ideas with him when he visited Australia, where he was based for several years, in the 1890s. But the call to switch foods was a tall order. Meat was, at this time, a “central part of every meal” says Jan O’Connell, food historian and author.

“Australia was in fact promoted to working people as a place where you could have meat three times a day, which must have seemed amazing to people who are doing it hard in England,” she says.

An abundance of sheep was partly to thank – or blame – for this.

“In the mid-1800s, there were nearly two million sheep in New South Wales, and the bottom fell out of the market so mutton became incredibly cheap,” she says.

For many white Australians, dinner looked pretty monochrome. “Basically, you had potatoes and cabbage, and people would grow their own, but there wasn’t really [a fruit and vegetable] industry,” Crook says.

Then came the 1850s Gold Rush and a wave of Chinese migration to Australia.

“Some [Chinese immigrants] struck it rich on the goldfields and went home with a fortune. But others started market gardens and, right up until the middle of the 20th century, Chinese market gardens supplied a high proportion of the vegetables to all of the major Australian cities, as well as other country areas,” O’Connell says.

Close up shot of young leaves of spinach in a square patch of dirt, with other green shoots in the background.
Chinese migrants kicked off market gardening to Australia in the 1850s.(

Unsplash: Sigmund

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This preceded another significant development away from meat in the 19th century: a new, homegrown health food brand, better known for one product than any other.

“The general lack of food for vegetarians is why the Seventh Day Adventists started the Sanitarium Health Food Company, which first started producing food in 1898 to cater for their members,” Crook explains.

One of the company’s early products, “Granose” wheat biscuits, was “a forerunner of Weetbix”, and they also produced a range of substitute meat products, O’Connell says.

Racism and riots

Despite the Seventh Day Adventists’ efforts, by 1900 – on the back of Federation and the need for a “unifying myth” for Australia – the idea of a “meat-eating larrikin, a drinking bloke” was taking shape, Crook says.

He argues the major national publication at the time, The Bulletin, was instrumental in perpetuating this idea – and vegetarianism didn’t fit the bill.

Crook says The Bulletin promoted the “mistaken idea” that Chinese Australians were – via market gardens – promoters of vegetarianism. Several racist stories published in the magazine dismissed what was disparagingly referred to as a “cabbage diet”.

It’s not the only time things would get ugly over meat or its absence.

During the Depression in the 1930s, unemployed South Australians were given meat rations, explains O’Connell.

The meat available to them was poor quality mutton and sausages – and the unemployed were having none of it. They took to the streets of Adelaide, on January 9, 1931, alongside trade unionists and supporters in their thousands, and descended upon the Adelaide Treasury building.

But, instead of meeting with the premier as expected, they encountered police officers who were ready to take on the mob.

This chaotic, meat-driven scene became known as the Adelaide Beef Riot, showing the drive for meat was “as strong as ever”, O’Connell says.

To break into the mainstream kitchen, vegetarians had a lot of work ahead of them.

Nudists, hippies and film stars 

By the 1930s, new groups began extolling the virtues of veggies. 

No longer just the religious pushing vegetarianism, these proponents included some very different – and sometimes very naked – groups of people.

The free body culture movement, or Freikörperkultur, which began in Germany before making its way into Australia, was “very keen on exercise, on nudity [and on] vegetarianism,” Crook says.

Around this time, Australian swimmer and Hollywood film star Annette Kellerman was enthusiastic about her vegetarianism, recommending that good health could be maintained on a flesh-free diet.

Black and white photo of Annette Kellerman dressed in decorated crop-top, skirt and large earrings, looking down at a peacock.
Swimmer and film star Annette Kellerman added celebrity backing to the vegetarian movement.(

Supplied: National Film and Sound Archive

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But despite the broadening followers, and the celebrity endorsement, being vegetarian remained niche. That is, until the counterculture movement hit Australia in the late 1960s and 70s.

“There was definitely a swing towards vegetarian food and it was called macrobiotics. Lentils and beans and rice,” O’Connell explains.

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She says macrobiotics was part of a “revolt against materialism and mass production and commercialised food” as well as an “interest in Eastern religions, which promoted a vegetarian way of eating”.

And unlike other 70s trends like roller discos or safari suits, vegetarianism would stick around.

Australian philosopher Peter Singer says that through the 1950s and 60s, before he became involved in the vegetarian and animal rights movement, it was regarded as “something for conservative elderly women, which was of course in those days something of a put down”.

He says there was a perception that “this is something for people who are sentimental about animals, who love cute kittens and puppies, but it’s not a serious ethical movement”.

Closely cropped photo of Peter Singer with thinning grey hair, glasses and wide smile.
Peter Singer is a poster child for vegetarianism but in the past, he found it difficult to have his ideas taken seriously.(

Supplied

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Singer’s book Animal Liberation came about after he learnt “the eggs that I was eating were coming from hens in wire cages so small, they couldn’t even stretch their wings” and “veal was coming from calves kept in stalls that they couldn’t even turn around in”.

It was a topic of discussion that often was not very well received.

“It was initially hard to get the animal movement taken seriously,” Singer says. He recalls being invited to go on the popular Don Lane TV show in 1975 and Lane being unsure of how to approach the conversation.

“I said, ‘I think we should stop eating [animals]’ and [Lane] obviously was unprepared for that, and didn’t know what to say. And I think the interview didn’t get very much further than that point,” Singer says.

Nationally, the conversation did get serious and in the ensuing years the vegetarian movement has taken great strides.

Vegetarian food is now so mainstream it’s common fare at major fast-food restaurants. The production of fake meat is becoming so sophisticated that manufacturers could soon incorporate lab-grown fat for extra flavour. And every year more and more Australians are leaning towards a plant-based diet, for either environmental, ethical or health reasons or simply as a preference of taste.

And while Australia may not have become the Eden envisaged by those early Swedenborgians, it’s certainly a place that enables, and often embraces, a thriving vegetarian movement.

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