The thread about the early history of vegetarianism in Edinburgh; the pioneering café that was a haven for suffragettes and the tragic demise of its idealistic founder

For the sake of civic one-upmanship, I decided to look up “Vegetarian” in the Edinburgh Post Office directories.

Lost Glasgow – 1897 Vegetarian advert

The first mention for Edinburgh is a café in the 1892-3 edition, although there is a Vegetarian restaurant at 6 Jamaica Street in Glasgow, then called “Arbuckle’s Caledonian Restaurant”, as early as 1881.

Edinburgh's first vegetarian café?
Edinburgh’s first vegetarian café?

In 1908 the first vegetarian “Health Food Depot” is listed, the proprietor one Edwin Rodbourn, on Hanover Street. Incredibly, it’s still going, first opening in 1904.

Edinburgh's first vegetarian "health food depot" opened here in 1904, there's s till a shop of this type and name on the same spot.
Edinburgh’s first vegetarian “health food depot” opened here in 1904, there’s s till a shop of this type and name on the same spot.

The first mention of the word “vegetarian” in The Scotsman is in 1849, where it is described in a book review as something with a “considerable number of professors in England” but that hasn’t caught on in Scotland due to “our shaper mountain air and generally colder climate”

The Scotsman discuses vegetarianism, 1849
The Scotsman discuses vegetarianism, 1849

The first real mention of vegetarianism in a local context is October 1855, where Mr Palmer, the former precentor of the Broughton Place United Presbyterian Church, is reported as giving a lecture detailing “his experience in the vegetarian line“. Mr Palmer described an “inventory of the vegetable contents of a series of brown jars which he [was] fortunate enough to have in his pantry at home“. He also described a vegetarian banquet he had recently attended in Glasgow. The menu contained “almost every green thing that ever was created – besides some articles of dubious lawfulness at a vegetarian table, such as butter cheese, eggs and omelettes“. He also detailed his wife’s horror when he came home one night and announced to her that “as he had for a long time lived without drink he was determined in future to live without meat” and further claimed his vegetarianism had cured a 20 year stomach ache.

So perhaps Mr Palmer is the first recorded Vegetarian in Edinburgh?

There was for a while an Edinburgh establishment called “Café Vegetaria”, proprietor Albert Broadbent, who was a food reform campaigner and the secretary of the Vegetarian Society. It opened on March 24th 1909 at 3 Nicolson Street, having started out at the Edinburgh Exhibition at Saughton Park in 1909, and advertised itself as the “Freshest, most Artistic Café in the City“.

June 1909 advert for Cafe Vegetaria, Fife Free Press
June 1909 advert for Cafe Vegetaria, Fife Free Press

A letter written to the Clarion socialist newspaper in May 1909 stated that the café gave

The best conditions to the employees. Waitresses and kitchen helpers receive a minimum wage of 15s. weekly, all their food, a week’s holiday with wages paid, no fines and no deductions from wages for absence through illness. Mr Albert Broadbent deserves great credit for his constant consideration oft the woman workers in the cafés run in various exhibitions by the Vegetarian society.

J. Meldrum, 28th May 1909, writing in the Clarion.

Broadbent believed that the social position of women could be bettered by providing them with better working conditions. The café prided itself on the low cost of its food (25% below that offered in equivalent establishments) and also the purity; food purity is a common theme amongst vegetarianism at this time. It also drew attention to the cleanliness of its kitchens, which were open to inspection by the clientèle at any time.

Within a few months it was being advertised as a meeting place for suffragists. Vegetarian food at this time was sometimes known as “reform food” and was increasingly popular in radical and progressive circles. Vegetarian cafés provided women with good meeting and organising places.

Advert for a suffragette function at Café Vegetaria, Scotsman, 1909
Advert for a suffragette function at Café Vegetaria, Scotsman, 1909

Cafe Vegetaria advertised itself quite widely in the newspapers as a cafe, but the adverts for suffragist events held there are far more numerous. In April 1911, the establishement was used as part of a women’s suffrage campaign to avoid taking part in the census; it was a safe venue for them to stay in on the night of the census so that they could not be recorded at home; no rights? no censusing. The Registrar was forewarned and arranged for extra forms for the venue, but the manager had sublet the premises for the weekend to Miss Burns of the Womens Social and Political Union who refused to take part, and returned it to the enumerator marked “No Vote etc“.

Scotsman article about the "Suffragists and the Census", 1911
Scotsman article about the “Suffragists and the Census”, 1911

The Registrar reported he had “seen the said lady but can obtain no satisfaction“.

“Miss Burns” was Lucy Burns, a prominent American suffragist who was the WPSU’s organiser in Edinburgh for 2 years.

Lucy Burns in 1913, when Vice Chairman of the Congressional Union
Lucy Burns in 1913, when Vice Chairman of the Congressional Union

Despite the popularity of the café, with its generous ideals and the cheap prices it offered (Broadbent was long an advocate for a vegetarian diet for the poor as being cheaper and more nutritious than a traditional diet) it caused its owner to suffer considerable financial loss and he suffered a complete nervous breakdown as a result, dying on January 12th 1912.

Albert Broadbent in 1902
Albert Broadbent in 1902

In December 1911, a limited company with the significant capital of £1,500 was formed to take over the running of Café Vegetaria and its premises, by which time included a branch on Princes Street and one on Broad Street, Aberdeen. It was “to advocate the total disuse of animal flesh, and to promote instead by all expedient means the use of purer and better food yielded by the vegetable kingdom“. Its principal financial backers were:

  • J. Daniel Easson, a solicitor of 10 George Street, he was a noted supporter of women’s suffrage – his wife was the suffragette Florence Elizabeth Macleod
  • Archibald Aikman Blair of 67 Gilmore Place, a dietician, organic gardener and vegetarian
  • Frances A. D. Clark of 31 Scotland Street
  • Christina Meredith of 3 Nicholson Street, the manager of the café
  • Ethel H. L. Palmer of 35 Lauriston Place, a spiritualist
  • Kenneth Sinclair of 6 Eyre Crescent
  • James Redpath Watson of Iona Place, Leith

In January 1912, Café Vegetaria was advertising itself as open again for “luncheons and teas”, with rooms for meetings, dances etc. In March of that year it was the setting for what were regular “Hard-Up Social” fundraisers by the Women’s Freedom League, where guests brought their own food for a pot-luck supper and dressed to an interpretation of “hard up”.

March 1912, last advert for Café Vegetaria

In October they were advertising for a pastry cook and in February 1913 a Socialist Party event was held there on the evening of the 17th, but in May of that year the contents of the restaurant, its furnishings, fittings, appliances etc. were being sold by the liquidator; clearly the business had gone bankrupt.

Monday 19th May 1913; the end of Café Vegetaria
Monday 19th May 1913; the end of Café Vegetaria

The business seems to have re-opened in 1914 as the New Café (Vegetaria) at 3 St. Andrew Square, taking out adverts to describe itself as the “daintiest café in the city” and that it was owned, managed and worked by women, with liveable wages paid to all. Suffragists were asked to please support the establishment. Again from advertisements it was clearly a political meeting place as much as a café, with suffragist, socialist, pacifist and liberal organisations making use of it.

It was more successful than its predecessor, and lasted until May 1923, when again the auctioneers were selling the fixtures and fittings. This time it was on account of the termination of its lease. The proprietor at this time was Christina Meredith; who had previously been the manager at 3 Nicolson Street. Christina Meredith died age 83 in 1952, at which time she was living at 7 Brunton Place.

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