There’s ‘Hello’ to Dr Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, and ‘Goodbye’ to Ceylon (but ‘Hello Sri Lanka’). ‘Goodbye’ to freedom, after Hungary’s 1956 failed uprising, and ‘Hello’ to the world’s first heart transplant. And it’s ‘Hello’ to Chickens’ Lib.
Under a photo of hens crammed into battery cages, the caption reads: ‘Hens lost out and found themselves trapped in batteries. Chickens’ Lib was founded in 1973.’
In fact, this tiny pressure group, with no proper structure let alone a constitution, had emerged a few years earlier, but it wasn’t until 1973 that we came up with a cracking good name.
Oh how the media loved Chickens’ Lib!
June 27th 1971: Rain is falling, a steady, cold summer rain.
The Press Association’s been alerted. We’ve told them about our protest, said the two of us would be here at 11 o’clock, next to the Canning statue in Parliament Square, with a mock battery cage complete with live ex-battery hens.
I bend down and tweak the plastic shrouding the cage. The birds mustn’t get wet. They’re pathetic enough, without the rain adding to their troubles. Pale combs, scant feathers, the flesh around all four vents an angry red.
We desperately need the media’s help, but a full hour has passed. We’re losing hope.
“What if we’re in the wrong place?” I say.
My mother fishes out our press release and checks. Thank God! We’ve not done anything stupid.
“They’re just not interested,” she says. “Nobody cares.”
“Give it another half hour,” I say.
Five minutes later two figures appear through the gloom and rain, one shouldering a serious looking camera. Oh, thank goodness we didn’t pack the hens back into the van and head for home.
If we had, we’d have missed the Guardian.
That same afternoon: The rain had passed over, and London basked in hot sunshine. Still in Parliament Square, we’d erected our cage for people, six foot high and constructed of wood and wire netting. Placards on all four sides challenged Agriculture Minister Jim Prior to take action to end the birds’ suffering.
Five human prisoners stood quietly inside. There was Dr Alan Long, tireless campaigner for a vegan diet, Yvonne Anderson from the Farm and Food Society, Violet and me – and, our star guest, the writer Ernest Raymond, whose 1920s novel Tell England had been a runaway best seller. Perhaps the most powerful among his later books is We the Accused, a dark compassionate story about capital punishment. Violet and I felt honoured to share a cage with Ernest Raymond.
Parliament Square was buzzing now, and bemused Londoners and tourists stopped to stare, many of them supportive. On a fold-up table we gathered hundreds of signatures for our petition to Prime Minister Ted Heath. Best of all, a reporter and photographer from the Press Association turned up.
The next day we buy the Guardian, feverishly turn the pages. And we’re in! Reporter Martin Adeney’s article is excellent. ‘A chicken with wings stripped of feathers gave powerful support in Parliament Square yesterday to the campaign against factory farming, which is demanding a meeting with Mr Heath to present its case for more humane treatment of farm animals. The chicken, its neck rubbed apparently by bars so that it looked like a victim of alopecia, was one of four bought the previous day from a battery farm and lodged together in a cage 20x17x18 inches…When (the caged hens) tried to change about, one at least got squashed and pecked – usually the one with wings without feathers…a leaflet handed out said: Many battery hens suffer from respiratory diseases or cancer. The eggs they lay in these fetid conditions probably come to you labelled “farm fresh” or “new laid”. After slaughter, the spent layers, so often diseased, still have their uses. They may become your baby’s tinned dinner, chicken paste, or just a tin of soup.’ There’s a good big picture of the hens too, peering out through the cage bars.
Bars? In fact they’re knitting needles, not even all of the same gauge, my father’s inventive substitute for the real thing. Eccentric our homemade cage may be, but it’s correct in all the important features, including floor slope. (Years later the Guardian ran a general article on factory farming, illustrated with a photo of caged hens. We studied it: something wasn’t quite right with the bars. Ah! The knitting needles again. )
The Press Association has done its good work. The image of five caged humans receives wide media coverage, even, we discover later, in a German newspaper.
How it all began
So how did my mother and I come to be there, just the two of us standing beside the Canning statue, on that wet June morning in 1971?
It was like this:
Three or four years previously, I’d come upon Ruth Harrison’s 1964 book Animal Machines, a disturbing exposé of how the post WW2 quest for cheap food had led to ‘factory farming’, that cocktail of cruelty to animals and danger to human health.
Shocked, I lent the book to my mother, Violet Spalding. She’d always had a gut feeling for sustainability, long before it was fashionable, lamenting the loss of topsoil, aware of the role of the earthworm. On reading Animal Machines she was as appalled as I’d been. We wondered what, if anything, we could do.
We contacted Ruth Harrison, who told us about The Farm and Food Society (FAFS), a small but influential organisation, well known for valuable research into all aspects of farming, its moving force Joanne Bower.
At that time our two daughters were small, and with my husband working as a BBC music producer, but increasingly involved in the London contemporary music scene, it was hard for me to get out in the evenings. So Violet attended FAFS meetings on behalf of us both, and was soon invited onto its committee, where she made long-lasting friendships, especially with Joanne.
But before long Violet’s impatient nature got the better of her. I was feeling frustrated too, and we wondered about a change of tactics. Could we perhaps ‘go it alone’ in some way, and so add a new dimension to present-day campaigning? After some discussion, we decided on our way forward.
For fact finding, we’d already put our faith in the power of the pen. Here are two examples of responses to some of our early letters:
September 10th 1969: Ernest Shippam, Managing Director of Shippam’s pastes, wrote to say he would have no problem in taking the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ round his factory, there to discuss the pros and cons of how the company obtained its raw materials.
September 29th 1969: A spokesman for H.J. Heinz Company Limited confirmed that spent battery hens were included in its chicken baby foods, that the meat wasn’t tested for residues of antibiotics, and that no checks were made for the presence of Marek’s disease, a form of cancer.
There’s no proof that Marek’s can be transferred to humans, but who’d want to risk feeding their baby chicken meat contaminated with chicken cancer?
Already, we’d made an important decision: we’d limit our campaign to the plight of battery hens*. Maybe their extreme deprivation would be the easiest to highlight; images of hens trapped for life in metal cages, forced to stand on sloping wire, living in semi-darkness, unable to take a normal step, ever…. surely that would resonate with the public?
* I dislike the term ‘battery hen’. It seems to suggest a breed of hen ideally suited to imprisonment, while nothing could be further from the truth. But I’ll use the term throughout, as a form of shorthand.
When Animal Machines was published in 1964, around 80% of UK hens were incarcerated in cages, with their numbers increasing. By early 1969 our protest letters were landing on the desks of civil servants and Government officials, fired off from Violet’s home in Croydon and mine in West London. Back came the replies, re-assuring, bland and misleading:
July 15th 1969: The Minister’s Private Secretary wrote, in response to our complaints: ‘I am sure that it would be true to say that this country holds a place second to none in the wealth of legislation to protect the welfare of animals.’ We reflected that fine words butter no parsnips, legislation being useless if millions of animals continued to suffer.
Worse was to follow: ‘It is true that a valuable export trade in live poultry and hatching eggs has been developed in the last few years. The poultry and eggs that we export are valuable breeding stock and it is greatly in the interest of those who import them that they should be kept in excellent condition in the importing countries.’ No mention here of the likelihood of lower standards in those countries, or a complete lack of welfare laws.
Months passed, merging into years. Names became depressingly familiar, as the same civil servants were instructed to fend us off. Eventually, our patience snapped. There was only one thing for it! We’d beard the pen pushers in their hitherto safe hide-out, namely the Department of Obfuscation, aka the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), Government Offices, Block E, Leatherhead Road, Chessington, in Surrey.
But first, we needed the evidence.