On the evening of June 16, 1824, a group of men met together in a West End Coffeehouse; a meeting that would eventually reap results beyond their wildest imaginings. It was a meeting to discuss ways of protecting animals from cruelty. Ironically, the St Martins Lane coffeehouse they held their discussion in was named after its first owner – a Mr Slaughter.
It had been two years since an Irish MP, Richard Martin (nicknamed ‘Humanity Dick’), had piloted a Bill through the House of Commons to give protection to domestic animals. However it was largely un-enforced. The magistrates in the Britain of those days viewed Martin’s Act with, in the words of one historian, “professional torpor.” The constables had too much on their hands. It needed a group to take action, to see that the clauses of the bill were put into effect.
Reverend Arthur Broome, Vicar of the parish of Bromley-by-Bow, was the moving spirit of the group. His idea was to recruit some prominent names, rise some money to pay for an inspector to enforce the Act’s clauses.
From this meeting was born the SPCA. (The “Royal” was added later).
This was Broome’s second attempt to form a society. His first, two years previously just after Martin’s Act had been passed, had failed – the same fate befell a group of people in Liverpool who even earlier in 1809 formed a “Society for the Suppression and Prevention of Wanton Cruelty to Animals”.
We know today the Society that was to become a world-wide organization, but during the first two years of its existence, the newly-formed SPCA all but foundered. The Society was short of cash, and times were hard. Its first office had to be closed, and Broome ended up in a debtors prison.
With only the slenderest financial resources, the Society struggled on on many fronts. It tried to ameliorate the shocking conduct of the Smithfield meat market, to punish cat skinners, men who used dogs as draft animals, and to alleviate the misery of horses; to abolish dog-pits where animals fought to the death for the amusement of the onlookers, to ban bull-fighting and bull-baiting.
They held regular meetings with magistrates to push on them the importance of enforcing Martin’s Act… From such inauspicious beginnings gradually emerged a massive organisation, investigating treatment of animals, confiscating those being mistreated, running public education campaigns… The Society has also been credited with inspiring the creation of similar groups all over the world, as well as charities dedicated to protecting children.
But has the dream gone sour? Far from the near-bankruptcy of its early years, the RSPCA now commands a massive budget, funding a top-heavy bureaucracy; it is also accused from all sides – of selling out animals, of putting down as many animals as they rescue, and of wanton interference and unnecessary removal of loved pets…
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online