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he nineteenth century is a key period in the burgeoning field of animal studies, attracting academics in a range of disciplines, from social, cultural and economic history to the various arts and sciences. Then as now, animals impinged on every aspect of life. They were part of the work force; they provided sustenance, clothing, opportunities for employment, travel, recreation and education; less quantifiably, domestic animals afforded emotional support, and could assist with character-building and character assessment. Above all, they kept people in a newly industrialised society in contact with nature, with its beneficent effect on the human spirit.

Briton Riviere's Sympathy, acknowledging the capacity of animals to feel and respond to human emotion. [Click on this and the following images to enlarge them and for more information about them where available.]

The Victorians seemed to grasp this instinctively. Gina Dorré, for example, identifies and makes a good case for the horse as a "central figure in the Victorian imagination" (6). While horses performed vital functions outside the home, on both a practical and symbolic level, pets became an integral part of many households. In both cases, the differentiation and refinement of breeds, with consequent commercialisation of the "product" — that is, high prices for pedigree specimens — had tangible economic effects. But domestic animals were not the only ones inextricably entwined with the business of Victorian life. As long-range travel became easier and the empire expanded, so too did the discovery, collection, examination, cataloguing and displaying of more exotic species. Certain wild animals assumed a major role in the entertainment sector, and zoos and natural history museums became part of the cultural landscape. As evidence of how important they were in Victorian life, animals appear across the whole spectrum of creative endeavour.

At the same time, the Victorian were confronted with new evidence of human beings' kinship with animals. Just when many had separated themselves from the fields and farms, and transplanted themselves to suburbia, Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 alerted them to their indissoluble link to the natural world. Then, in Chapter II ("Mental Powers") of The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin argued forthrightly that "there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties" (34), going on to suggest that "[m]ost of the more complex emotions are common to the higher animals and ourselves" (40). The inference is clear. Darwin continues in Chapter III ("Moral Sense") by stating that "humanity to the lower animals" is "one of the latest moral acquisitions" (96-97). In effect, he was tasking his readers with finding appropriate ways of relating to the natural world around them, and treating it with kindness and respect. This fitted well with the humanitarian aspect of this age of reform.

First steps towards animal welfare

Left: The Second Stage of Cruelty in Hogarth's "Moral Scenes," in which a carriage horse and an over-driven lamb are being cruelly thrashed, under the very noses of lawyers in an overturned carriage, and other scenes of abuse can be seen nearby. Right: Richard Martin, "Father of humane legislation in the British Parliament." Source: frontispiece to Coleman.

The first steps towards protecting animals had already been taken. A major milestone for animal welfare came when the MP for Galway, Richard Martin (1754-1834), nicknamed "Humanity Dick" by George IV, brought in an Ill-Treatment of Cattle bill on May 1822. It passed after some difficulty on 7 June 1822. But extending its provisions proved even more difficult, with questions raised about practicalities: "how was it possible," for example, "to ascertain what load was suited to a horse's strength" ("Cattle Ill-Treatment Bill, March 1824")? So many hoofed creatures were in public service: even after the advent of the railways, the Victorians still depended on horses for haulage, conveyance, and warfare; goat-carts and pony rides were common seaside attractions; and hundreds and thousands of pit ponies operated underground in the dark, helping to fuel industrial progress. Still, the time was not yet ripe either for a more comprehensive act, or for successful enforcement. Harriet Ritvo points out that Martin's other attempts to broaden the provisions of his act — "to abolish bull baiting and dog fighting in 1823 and ... to protect dogs, cats, and monkeys in 1824" both failed (128).

Pressure, however, was mounting. Outside parliament, but with its founder members drawn from "friends of the bill" passed in 1822, a society for the protection of animals was formed on 16 May 1824, as reported in The Times on the following day (3). Among those present on that occasion was the MP for Hull, William Wilberforce, suggesting that the concern for animal welfare grew out of the same Evangelical and humanitarian feelings as the movement to abolish slavery (see Jenkins 26; Preece and Chamberlain 34).

A seventeenth-century thatched cockpit from an inn yard in Denbigh in Wales, dismantled and rebuilt at St Fagans (National Museum of Wales, near Cardiff. According to the museum website, "cockfighting was enjoyed for centuries in Wales by all social classes. Crowds flocked to their local pits, be they indoor or out, to witness the gory encounters where birds fought each other to death." Author's photographs.

These early proponents of animal protection continued to focus on cruel sports like bull-baiting and cock-fighting, which were at last successfully outlawed in Martin's Prevention of Cruelty Act of 1835 (see Assael 73). This act was also intended to protect dogs and bears. Martin's accounts of atrocities against such animals had been truly shocking, detailing the cutting out of their tongues while they were still alive, and so on (see "Bear-Baiting and Dog-Fighting Bill"). Awareness had been raised and public opinion was now shifting, not least because of the interest and example of Queen Victoria, who in 1840, just a few years after her accession, gave the Society for the Protection of Animals her seal of approval. From now on, it would be called the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (the RSPCA). The welfare of animals would continue to come up for debate regularly. In fact, says Brenda Ayres, "[n]early every year throughout the nineteenth century, Parliament was asked to pass some act to prevent cruelty to animals" (10).

Looking at the Victorians' interactions with domestic, wild and working animals, and the way these developed and changed over the period, reveals much about their values and world view, most of it distressing, but (increasingly) some of it to their credit. Cultural historians like Laurence Mazzeno and Ronald Morrison argue that it provides not just a useful but a "vital" entry into life at that time (14).

Related Material


Assael, Brenda. The Circus and Victorian Society. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2005.

Ayres, Brenda. Victorians and Their Animals: Beast on a Leash. London: Routledge, 2019.

"Bear-Baiting and Dog-Fighting Bill" (21 Febrary 1826). Hansard. Web. 5 October 2020.

Cattle Ill-Treatment Bill (9 March 1824). Hansard. Web. 5 October 2020.

The Cockpit. National Museum Wales. Web. 5 October 2020.

Coleman, Sydney H. Humane Society Leaders in America, with a Sketch of the Early history of the Humane Movement in England. Albany: The American Humane Association, 1924. Hathi Trust, from a book in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 5 October 2020.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. New York: Appleton & Co., 1871. Internet Archive. Contributed by an unknown library. Web. 5 October 2020.

Dorré, Gina M. Victorian Fiction and the Cult of the Horse. Pbk ed. London: Routledge, 2016.

"Ill-Treatment of Cattle Bill" (7 June 1822). Hansard. Web. 5 October 2020.

Jenkins, Garry. A Home of Their Own: The Heartwarming 150-year History of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. London: Bantam, 2011.

Mazzeno, Laurence W., and Ronald D. Morrison, ed. Animals in Victorian Literature: Context for Criticism. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Preece, Rod, and Lorna Chamberlain. Animal Welfare and Human Values. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1993.

Ritvo, Harriet. The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

"Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals." The Times. 17 June 1824: 3. Times Digital Archive. Web. 5 October 2020.

Created 5 October 2020