Vegetarian Roots

Inspired by National Vegetarian Week in May, we wanted to introduce readers to the Pitman Vegetarian Restaurant and Hotel which was located on Corporation Street, Birmingham, and opened in the late 19th century. Unusually for the city, the building has not been demolished and its fine frieze of diners above the ground floor, designed by Benjamin Creswick, can still be admired.


Pitman Buildings. Home to the 19th century vegetarian restaurant. (C) Fiona Tait

The Hotel was opened in 1898 as an expansion of the vegetarian restaurant on the same site, which had opened in 1896. The building was named after Sir Isaac Pitman (of ‘shorthand’ fame), who was at that time vice-president of the Vegetarian Society.The proprietor of both restaurant and hotel was James Henry Cook.

According to his daughter Kathleen Keleny, in her book ‘The First Century of Health Foods’ (1998), Cook took part in debates in Birmingham in favour of Temperance and Votes for Women. In 1895 he attended a meeting of the Vegetarian Federal Union, where Arnold Hills (1857-1927), managing director of the Thames Iron Works, London, spoke on the subject of ‘Vegetarianism’. Cook was persuaded, and Hills offered to contribute to the establishment of a vegetarian restaurant, which Cook was to run.

Plaque commemorating the first health food store  to be opened in the country.  (C) Fiona Tait

Plaque commemorating the first health food store to be opened in the country.
(C) Fiona Tait

The meals served there were an instant success, according to the obituary in ‘Vegan Views’ for Cook’s daughter, Kathleen Keleny, who died in 2003. Some 100 lunches a day were served and customers began to ask for vegetarian foods to take home for their health. He then opened the Pitman Health Food Company (also known as the Pitman Reform Food Stores) in Aston Brook Street, Birmingham, advertised in 1909, as ‘The Largest Health Food dealers in the World.’ Products manufactured there included Pitman Savoury Nut Meat, Nuto Cream, Vegsal Soups and Fruitarian cakes and wafers.

James Henry Cook was also a charitable person. At Christmas, when the Pitman Health Food Company made Vegetarian Christmas puddings, hundreds of small puddings were distributed free to crowds of children who queued outside the factory. During the First World War, daily urns of Nuto Cream soup were sent to feed poor and starving people in Digbeth.

A first search of indexes and catalogues at Birmingham Archives and Collections has not revealed anything about James Henry Cook and the Pitman Restaurant and Hotel, but I am planning further adventures into the subject!

Fiona Tait.


For more interesting information on vegetarianism, have a look at the Bird, Childs and Goldsmiths website.  


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