Animal Welfare in the 19th Century: An Earth Day Overview

Una and the Lion by Briton Rivière, 1840-1920.

Una and the Lion by Briton Rivière, 1840-1920.

There was no official Earth Day in the 19th century, but scholars, essayists, and theologians often pondered the solemn duty that man owed to the natural world.  Admittedly, these ponderings were not generally focused on environmental issues such as the effects of greenhouse gases.  Instead, those in the 19th century—and Victorians especially—focused on conservation and man’s treatment of animals.

The 19th century was a turning point in terms of how Western society viewed the treatment of animals.  In 1800, the first anti-cruelty bill was introduced into Parliament.  Only a few short decades later, in 1824, Richard Martin—along with a group of twenty other animal welfare advocates—founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  Addressing the objects of the society, an 1829 publication by what was then the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals states:

“The evils this Society hopes to lessen contain no fiction, nor is it morbid sensibility that obscures its view; but they are facts too clear which speak, and plead in a tongue well understood by all who can grieve for the distress of others—by all who can blush for the disgrace of mankind—by all who hold sacred the great trusts of God.”

Black Beauty, First Edition, 1877.

Black Beauty, First Edition, 1877.

Throughout the century, books on animal welfare were being published, including the novel Black Beauty by Anna Sewell which came to print in 1877.  Told from the horse’s point of view, Black Beauty reveals the many everyday cruelties to carriage horses in Victorian England.  Many of those cruelties, such as the bearing rein, were motivated by fashion.  Sewell’s commentary on these cruelties holds up a mirror to animal welfare concerns of the Victorian era.  As she has a character state in one scene:

“We have no right to distress any of God’s creatures without a very good reason; we call them dumb animals, and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words.”

As the century came to a close, organizations were being formed to combat vivisection and other scientific cruelties against animals.  Meanwhile, bird feeding and bird watching became popular pastimes and people began to look with disfavor on the use of plumes in fashionable hats.  The Plumage League—now the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—was founded in 1889.  And, in the United States, the Audubon Society was formed in 1904.

We have a long way to go in terms of our treatment of animals.  Shelters are filled with unwanted pets, habitats are being decimated, and endangered species are being hunted for sport.  Many believe that it is foolish to act on behalf of animals when there is so much needless suffering and cruelty in the human world.  I strongly disagree.  The plight of humans and animals is inextricably intertwined.  We share the earth together.

Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, 1834.

Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, 1834.

Thus concludes another of my Friday features on Animals in Literature and History.  If you are interested in helping an animal in need, I encourage you to utilize the following links as resources:

The Humane Society of the United States (United States)

Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (United Kingdom)

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 


Forensic Science Advances and Their Application in the Judiciary System.  London: CRC Press, 2011.

McCormick, John.  Reclaiming Paradise: The Global Environmental Movement.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1889.

Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  Objects and Address of the Society.  London: William Molineux, 1829.

Sewell, Anna.  Black Beauty.  n.p. 1877.  Project Gutenberg.  Web.  22 Apr 2016.

Shevelow, Kathryn.  For the Love of Animals: The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement.  New York: Henry Holt, 2008.

Wagner, John A.  Voices of Victorian England.  Oxford: ABC Clio, 2014.

 © 2016 Mimi Matthews

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13 thoughts on “Animal Welfare in the 19th Century: An Earth Day Overview

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        Because of their policy of putting animals, healthy animals, down if they can’t rehome them quickly, which I’ve seen more than once; because they aren’t interested in checking out people who might be involved in getting cats as dog bait unless you can present them with evidence [well, duh, if I could present evidence it would be the police I’d be going to, right?] and have very little interest in small animals. Having said that, I can’t fault individual officers in the RSPCA, many of whom are very dedicated people. But the policy seems to be pretty laissez-faire except for large [farm] animals and the policy on keeping animals long term in shelters doesn’t exist. I don’t know anyone in animal rescue who rates them highly. Oh, and once upon a time, the RSPCA were happy to to a trap-neuter-release program once the Cat Protection League pioneered neutering of female cats in 1946; but now they aren’t interested, despite the rise of feral cats in Britain owing to so many people dumping cute kittens as soon as they are of breeding age. I don’t say it’s an easy battle against bafflingly braindead drooling moronic idiocy of those who like Kute Kitties but can’t or won’t pay for Fixed Furries, but TNR works, and worked in Britain before. During my childhood there were ferals about, but by the time I reached young adulthood ferals were virtually unknown.
        Stepping away from the soapbox

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      • Mimi Matthews says:

        Thanks for the insight, Sarah! Living in the United States, I am not as familiar with the RSPCA’s role in 21st century Britain as I should be. I had no idea that they put healthy animals down if they can’t rehome them. It sounds like, from your description, that they are not unlike some of the bigger animal rescue groups here which run themselves more like a business. It is sometimes hard to know which ones to support and which ones are not all they are cracked up to be.


      • Sarah Waldock says:

        I would like to respect the RSPCA but they are as rich as the church and could afford to do more, and I think that’s what steams me. They have a mass of funds, where smaller charities jogging along on a shoestring manage more compassion. The Blue Cross are always good, the Cats Protection League, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home are the bigger of the rest who are all good.

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