Generating Vegetarians
from The Vegetarian June 1992
Vegetarianism has been running in the Beurle family for the last six generations. Beverley Pink visited the fifth and sixth generation vegetarian father and daughter of this remarkable family.
If asked to trace our vegetarian roots, most of us would not have to think further back than ourselves or our parents. But an exceptional family like the Beurles from London would have to think back a lot further than that.
For the Beurles certainly believe in keeping it in the family: vegetarianism is not just their way of life, it's a family tradition. For six generations vegetarianism has been handed down from parents to children: from George Dornbusch in the nineteenth century, to eight-year-old Angharad Beurle-Williams today.
A family of hoarders, the Beurles have, over the years, built up a fascinating collection of letters and diaries recording the lives of now long-dead relatives.
Sifting through the family archives proved to be an enlightening exercise for Kevin Beurle, the fifth generation veggie in the family and Angharad's father. Anyone bold enough to look up their family tree risks making some nasty discoveries about past relatives' unsavoury deeds. But this wasn't the case for Kevin. He discovered that he comes from a line of worthy individuals who invested much of their lives standing up for humanitarian causes. Years ahead of their time they were fighting for things which have shaped society today such as women's suffrage and abolition of capital punishment.
The family archives also clearly indicate that the Beurles were actively involved with the early days of the vegetarian movement in this country. It came as a pleasant shock to Kevin to discover just how far his family's vegetarian roots went back. "I was certainly aware of my grandfather's close connection with the Vegetarian Cycling and Athletic Club, but I hadn't really realised consciously how far the vegetarianism went back. It was only recently, when looking back through old family papers, that it dawned on me."
One letter indicates that George Dornbusch, Kevin's great-great-grandfather was a vegetarian, possibly a vegan, by the 1840s. He was also an active member of The Vegetarian Society in its earliest form. A notice which appeared in The Times newspaper on 2 August 1851, shows that George Dornbusch, was one of the organisers of a Vegetarian soire which took place in London that year. His address appears as Vegetarian Cottage, Dalston.
This enthusiastic involvement with the vegetarian movement carried on through George Dornbusch's daughter Ada, and her husband William Louis Beurle who brought about a fundamental change in the structure of The Vegetarian Society. In 1888 he seconded a vote that brought about the breakaway of the London Vegetarian Society from The Vegetarian Society (Manchester). It was to be eighty years before the two organisations merged again properly.
Later Beurle relatives became members of the Vegetarian Cycling and Athletic Club. The club, which enjoyed much success, was one of the first cycling organisations to organise scientifically researched diets. Many of its members broke cycling records and did much to prove that vegetarian athletes can break as many records as meat-eaters. Kevin's grandfather, Harold Dornbusch Beurle, was renowned for his dedication to the vegetarian cause and the cycling club. His keen efficiency which aided the smooth running of a cycling event prompted another member to write: "He always seemed to have the right thing at the right moment, and what no doubt made him carry out his work so well was that he had his heart in the job."
Harold, who was just 16 at the time, competed and also used to organise food for the cyclists who were on special diets to enhance their performance. Cyclists would fill out cards stating what they wanted at feeding stations and Harold would ensure it was waiting for them.
Although six generations of Beurles have inherited vegetarianism, not all have sustained this lifestyle for the same reasons. Attitudes have been coloured by the society they were living in at the time, although the fundamental belief that animals should not be killed for food carries consistently through right up to the present.
In Victorian times, for instance, factory farming, was not an issue. Yet both Kevin and Angharad, typical of many 1990s vegetarians, say they do not eat meat because of the way animals are treated and slaughtered.
But just as today, some people in the past saw vegetarianism as the healthier option. Kevin thinks that his Victorian relatives were more likely to have been vegetarian for health reasons. "With me, my father and Angharad the reasons for being vegetarian are to do with animals. But I suspect with relatives going further back it was more likely to have been for health reason."
Just a glance around Anghorad's bedroom tells you why she is a vegetarian. It is full of books about animals which she clearly loves. "If I were a meat eater I would be afraid that I might eat one of my favourite animals." When asked what her favourite animal is, she sharply replies: "I haven't got one favourite, I've got millions."
Whatever their reasons, Kevin's relatives were well ahead of their time in their thoughts and actions. It is only over the last few years that vegetarianism has been accepted as a normal way of life. But even between Kevin's childhood and Angharad's, attitudes towards vegetarians varied greatly. Kevin, who was born and brought up in Swansea, remembers being the only vegetarian in his school and experiencing some hostility as a result. "It was thought unusual. It wasn't a problem at primary school - they seemed to accept it there. But at secondary school there were children who felt threatened by it and who were quite agressive about anything which challenged meat. Most of the time it would take the form of posing me various unlikely situations such as 'if you were on a desert island what would you do?' I think probably the reason was these people were rather unsure about what they were doing themselves and did perhaps feel some misgivings about it."
Angharad, however, can readily think of friends, a next door neighbour and a teacher who are vegetarians. Her meat-eating friends seem to accept her the way she is without much fuss. "They don't seem to mind it. They don't take any notice of it really."
However, she did experience some difficulties with the older generation when she used to have school dinners. At one point, dinner ladies even tried to persuade her to eat a fish dish by saying that fish is not meat and is therefore suitable for vegetarians.
Not only does Angharad not eat fish, she checks labels for any suspect substances such as gelatine. Kevin thinks this represents quite a modern approach to vegetarianism. "Vegetarians scrutinise labels more than they used to. People are much better informed these days and know what to look out for," Another improvement Kevin has noticed in his own lifetime and definitely since the days of some of his own ancestors is the wider availability of vegetarian food. He noticed it is much easier to get vegetarian food now than when he was a child. He remembers family trips where much time was spent circling a town looking for somewhere suitable to eat. "These days you can find something vegetarian to eat in any town, and street." Vegetarian cooking at home has also been made easier by the wide range of vegetables and vegetarian foods in the shops.
With such a strong vegetarian tradition running through the family you would expect Kevin to have inherited plenty of family recipes . But Kevin insists that whenever he tries to recreate old family favourites they never taste the way he remembers them. Recalling a recipe his father used to make Kevin says: "It never works even though I'm using the same ingredients. It's strange - it's the same recipe but three different generations get three different results."
Thinking back to childhood mealtimes Kevin remembers good wholesome home cooking with vegetarian casseroles, baked potatoes and cheese dishes, although his mother never really came to terms with lentils.
Cooking now for himself and Angharad, Kevin relies heavily on quick and easy meals, such as pasta with sauces, and convenience foods such as veggie burgers which tend to be a hit with young children. Even to meat eaters these foods would seem pretty normal - in fact many of them have caught on with meat eaters in a big way. But in the days of Kevin's great-great-grandparents the vegetarian diet seem a peculiar one. The author of a letter recalling a visit to Kevin's great-great-grandfather writes: "We dined together on Graham bread and pears, a strange diet to me but I did not care."
It would be all too easy for critics of vegetarians to point the finger at a family like the Beurles and say they have had vegetarianism drummed into them fram birth and as children had no choice. But Kevin does not feel his father pressurised him into being a vegetarian at all: rather he believes it was a natural development. "I was never taken to one side and lectured to by my father. I think vegetarianism was just something that was there. I never felt the need to eat meat; since I was a child I've known I could quite happily exist without it. I formed my own opinions on how I felt about it."
Nor does Kevin believe in imposing his views on his daughter. "I deal with her pretty much the way my father dealt with me. I feel that what I am doing is right, but I wouldn't impose this. I don't say to her you must not go out and eat meat.' When she's had questions about it, I've answered them. I've been honest with her about what various types of diet involve in terms of suffering to animals and all that. I think she's been aware for a long time, of that contradiction between cuddly live animals and a steaming bowl of food made of dead animals.' That's a contradiction that children who are not brought up as vegetarian will have to face sooner or later. But if she wanted to experiment with meat I wouldn't try and stop her. I wouldn't come the heavy father."
Not that Angharad has any intentions so far of abandoning her heritage and reverting to eating meat. Not only has she the present encouragement of her father in her vegetarianisim, but she also feels support from past generations too. "I think it's very good that members of my family before me were vegetarian, because I feel now as if I have company in being vegetarian." she explains.
Whether vegetarianism will carry on into a seventh generation of Beurles depends on what the future holds for Angharad. But at least the family tradition seems safe in her hands for now.