Henry Salt: Radical Campaigner & Activist

Henry Salt ( 1851 – 1939 ) was a writer and social / political reformer whose thoughts and beliefs were a radical departure from mainstream Victorian thinking that embraced vegetarianism, anti-vivisectionism, socialism and pacifism. Salt was born in India the son of a British army colonel and was christened Henry Shakespeare Stephen Salt. When his mother returned to England shortly after Henry’s birth they settled down in Shrewsbury. Eventually Henry entered Eton and then Cambridge. In 1875, soon after graduating, Salt returned to Eton to take up the post of assistant schoolmaster, teaching classics. A courtship soon ensued with Catherine Joynes – the daughter of a fellow master at Eton – and they were married in 1879. It was at this time that Salt was introduced to the works and ideas of William Morris, Edward Carpenter, Henry George and George Bernard Shaw. It was his brother-in-law, a fellow master at Eton who first exposed him to these radical thinkers and it made a profound impact on Salt. By 1884 he had left Eton because of his profound unease and criticisms of other masters who: “ …..were but cannibals in cap and gown – almost literally cannibals, as devouring the flesh and blood of animals … and indirectly cannibals, as living by the sweat and toil of the classes that do the hard work of the world.” Salt, with his wife Catherine moved to a labourer’s cottage at Tilford in Surrey where they started to grow vegetables, fruits, etc and become self-sustainable as far as they could. This interest and involvement with living simply was helped by a small pension Salt had accrued. In Britain, during the 1880’s the ‘ simplification ‘ movement was beginning to make its presence felt in certain sections of society and the work of Rousseau, Thoreau and Carpenter were providing some of the influence. Salt was determined to engage in this choice of lifestyle saying on one occasion that: “….luxury on the part of one man would involve drudgery on the part of another, ” thus reinforcing Henry’s underlying socialist philosophy. This lifestyle also allowed him to devote a considerable amount of his time to writing and engaging in many of the social and political campaigns on issues that concerned him.


“ The notion of the life of an animal having ‘no moral purpose,’ belongs to a class of ideas which cannot possibly be accepted by the advanced humanitarian thought of the present day…… we must get rid of the antiquated notion of a ‘great gulf’ fixed between them and mankind, and must recognize the common bond of humanity that unites all living beings in one universal brotherhood.”
Henry Salt

Salt was undoubtedly one of the first writers to draw attention to animal suffering and animal rights. In his seminal work: Animal Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress ( 1894 ) he covered all aspects of human’s treatment of animals. The chapters used harsh language to get over his message, they were entitled:

The Principle of Animals’ Rights
The Case of Domestic Animals
The Case of Wild Animals
The Slaughter of Animals for Food
Sport, or Amateur Butchery?
Murderous Millinery
Experimental Torture
Lines of Reform

Salt became the Vice President of the Vegetarian Society and actively campaigned on its behalf with vigour and concentrated focus. Later in 1914, through the Humanitarian League he published a collection of essays on blood sports with a preface by George Bernard Shaw. The language was unequivocal: “The sports of hunting and coursing are a brutality which could not be tolerated for a day in a state which possessed anything more than the mere name of justice, freedom and enlightenment”.

Gandhi, when a law student in London read Salt’s book on vegetarianism. Many years later he acknowledged the work in his autobiography saying: “ I read Salt’s book from cover to cover and was very much impressed by it. From the date of reading this book, I may claim to have become a vegetarian by choice.” Much later ( 1931 ) when Gandhi was in London for talks about Indian Independence with the British Government, he took time out to give a talk to the London Vegetarian Society and meet with Salt.


Henry Salt set up the pioneering Humanitarian League in 1891 ( with fellow founder members: Edward Carpenter and John Galsworthy ) to challenge all forms of avoidable suffering. The league opposed both corporal and capital punishment. It also campaigned against hunting as a sport and vivisection. Noted supporters included: Christabel Pankhurst, Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw and Keir Hardy. The league was also vociferous on issues such as pacifism, prison reform and education for children. Salt became the General Secretary and editor of the League’s journal. It’s manifest stated the following: “….that much good will be done by the mere placing on record of a systematic and consistent protest against the numerous barbarisms of civilisation — the cruelties inflicted by men, in the name of law, authority, and traditional habit, and the still more atrocious treatment of the lower animals, for the purpose of ‘sport’, ‘science’, ‘fashion’, and the gratification of an appetite for unnatural food ”.

Just after the First World War the Humanitarian League closed but Salt continued to fight passionately and vigorously for the same issues. His concerns for a rational, fair and just society remained with him throughout his life. He continued to write for many socialist publications and give lectures that were very well attended.

Salt wrote nearly forty books plus many essays and articles. The biographies that Salt penned covered the lives of men that he most admired, including:

• Henry David Thoreau the American writer and naturalist. Gandhi had read Salt’s biography of Thoreau who had earlier written about and practiced civil disobedience. It was through this exposure that Gandhi was to eventually employ this method of protest to great effect in gaining Indian independence from the British.

• Percy Bysshe Shelley, the English poet and radical. Salt recognized and celebrated Shelley’s importance as a poet and said Shelley was an: “….uncompromising champion of the people’s rights and true liberty of thought and action…

• Thomas Penson De Quincey, the English essayist. Salt was interested in De Quincey’s writing and drew a sympathetic portrait of him than previous ones.

• Richard Jefferies, the English writer, naturalist. Salt admired Jefferies and his work and wrote about him on a number of occasions. Like Jefferies, Salt was a naturalist and conservationist who contributed written work in this area.

Salt took great joy from his many walks in the countryside, making copious notes as he went on. Later these were collated into two volumes of work: On Cumbrian and Cumbrian Hills and The Call of the Wildflower. Salt was undoubtedly an early, active conservationist having campaigned to preserve such areas of natural beauty as Snowdonia. He was also a keen amateur botanist and wrote on numerous occasions about the wild flowers of Britain.

In 1939, Henry Salt died in Brighton aged 88. He left the following self-penned funeral address:
“ When I say I shall die, as I have lived ( rationalist, socialist, pacifist, and humanitarian ) I must make my meaning clear. I wholly disbelieve in the present established religion; but I have a very firm religious faith of my own – a Creed of Kinship I call it—a belief that in years yet to come there will be a recognition of brotherhood between man and man, nation and nation, human and subhuman, which will transform a state of semi-savagery, as we have it, into one of civilisation, when there will be no such barbarity of warfare, or the robbery of the poor by the rich, or the ill-usage of the lower animals by mankind.”
Henry Salt