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200 Years Since the RSPCA was Established in Great Britain

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Authored by Alice Broome
Published on 16th June, 2024 3 min read

200 Years Since The RSPCA Was Established In Great Britain

Today (16/06/2024) marks 200 years since the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) was founded in Great Britain. On 16 June 1824, Reverend Arthur Broome, credited as the society's founder, met 22 founding members at Old Slaughters Coffee House in London. Amongst this group were the MPs William Wilberforce and Richard Martin. Brought together by their mutual concern for animal welfare, they established the first national society for the protection of animals: the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

Just two years prior to this, in 1822, the first-ever law protecting animals was passed: the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822, colloquially known as Martin's Act. This legislation made it illegal for anyone to “wantonly and cruelly beat, abuse, or ill-treat any Horse, Mare, Gelding, Mule, Ass, Ox, Cow, Heifer, Steer, Sheep, or other Cattle”.[1] Animal abuse was widespread at the time. Several attempts had been made to prompt the introduction of legislation to protect animals, including one to ban bull-baiting, spearheaded by Sir William Pulteney in 1800. It would take another 35 years for bull-baiting to be made illegal under the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835.

Another unsuccessful anti-cruelty bill was introduced by Lord Erskine in 1809. It was passed in the House of Lords, but was defeated in the House of Commons. Notably, Erksine cited biblical passages whilst delivering his parliamentary speech in support of the legislation. In fact, many animal rights campaigners at the time, especially the RSPCA’s founder, Reverend Broome (ordained on 18 December 1803), believed that their stance on this issue was theologically sound. For example, Broome published a sermon anonymously in 1801, titled Unjustifiableness of Cruelty to the Brute Creation, in which he drew upon his knowledge of the Bible. Biblical passages were cited frequently by clergy concerned with animal cruelty in order to cement their argument that abuse of animals was sinful[2]. Theological arguments for animal welfare harmonised with broader philosophical and moral considerations which dominated the intellectual climate in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Reverend Broome’s aim was for the SPCA to employ an inspector who would ensure that Martin’s Act was properly enforced. Today, over 300 inspectors work for the RSPCA, but the first was Mr Wheeler, who worked with his assistant, Mr Charles Teasdale, to take people to court for violating Martin’s Act. Their work led to the conviction of 63 offenders, mainly from Smithfield Market. Wheeler and Teasdale worked for the SPCA until 1826, when the Society experienced financial difficulties—the  Society’s debts exceeded its revenue. As its guarantor, Broome was ordered to serve time in a debtors' prison. He was released in June 1826 after SPCA members Richard Martin and Lewis Gompertz raised enough money for the Society to pay its debts.

The Society was split on the need for an inspector. Whilst some believed that this was imperative, others saw it as a problematic expense. In 1832 a resolution was passed which ended the employment of an inspector. The reintroduction of permanent, salaried inspectors was not agreed upon until 1838. In the meantime, the Society concentrated on influencing public opinion. Instead of focusing solely upon the prevention of cruelty, the Society sought to encourage kinder attitudes towards animals through the publication of books and tracts. The Society also started an annual anti-cruelty sermon.

In 1835, Princess Victoria became the Society’s patron. She maintained her patronage when she came to the throne. In 1840, she granted the Society royal status. It thus became the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), as it is known today. The RSPCA continues to prevent cruelty towards animals in a range of ways, such as by rescuing animals, investigating allegations of animal cruelty, and campaigning for changes to the law.

[1] Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act, 1822.

[2] In particular, they referred to Proverbs 12:10 and Numbers 22:21–34.

Authored by Alice Broome

Alice Broome

Alice Broome is an Editor at British Online Archives. She is a Philosophy, Politics, and Economics graduate from the University of York.

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The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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