A Servant of the State of Nature

Among the images of national self-sufficiency called up during the recent referendum debate was, if I heard correctly, the Battle of Britain. That was a victory which Winston Churchill (himself also hauled into the debate) fixed into national memory with his “finest hour” speech. It’s true that he promptly sacked the man who did most to create the victory, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, but soon afterwards, in 1943, he made amends by putting Dowding into the House of Lords as Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory (the home of Fighter Command). House of Lords etiquette requires a serviceman of high rank to be referred to as “the noble and gallant lord”, as if expected to coast his way through the remainder of life on the strength of his war record. And that’s certainly the character in


which Dowding is now memorialized outside the Church of St Clement Danes in the Strand, London: a towering uniform, with a text below it quite rightly reminding us that to this man “the people of Britain and of the Free World owe largely the way of life and the liberties they enjoy today.”

In fact, like many distinguished soldiers, Dowding had no great admiration for the business of war, or for the sort of nation-state politics which create the conditions for it. And so far from resting content after the war as a British soldier-hero, he had his vision set on a far wider community even than the United Nations, and a far more ambitious conception of what would constitute peace than even the U.N. had in mind. He told the House of Lords in 1952, “we shall never attain to true peace – the peace of love, and not the uneasy equilibrium of fear – until we recognize the place of animals in the scheme of things and treat them accordingly.”

The “scheme of things” which Dowding meant was one he wrote about in several books from 1942 onwards, the one rather loosely termed spiritualism. At the centre of spiritualism is the belief that life and death are not opposites but alternating states, in continuing contact with each other, leading each soul on a path towards perfection, “back to the ultimate source from which it originated”. I can’t speak with confidence about this; I don’t find it convincing or even appealing. But he did, and he was a man who had to hazard the lives of hundreds of young men, and answer for the violent deaths of very many of them, not just as a personal burden but in the literal sense of speaking to their families. One must feel respect and even awe for the conclusions, on the subject of life and death, of such a man.

Anyway, so far from the stealthy dabbling in posthumous domestic relationships which the word ‘spiritualism’ sometimes suggests, Dowding’s “scheme” was panoramically inclusive (as one might expect from an aviator). He felt a “life chain” joining all nature, “from the mineral through the vegetable and the animal to the human”. The animal part of it he became especially aware of under the influence of the woman he married in 1951 (at age 69), Muriel Albini. He became vegetarian, and was actively involved in her pioneering campaigns against the abuse of animals by the fur and cosmetics industries. He helped his wife to found and promote the pioneering charity and business Beauty Without Cruelty. And as a member of the House of Lords he now tried to get the legislature to take more notice of animal suffering.

The speeches which Dowding made in the House of Lords between 1948 and 1965 – on ‘humane’ slaughter, the training of circus animals, the poisoning of ‘pest’ animals, and vivisection – are surely some of the most urgent and radical which that chamber has ever heard on the animal subject. Several of these debates he himself had initiated, and he was determined that his case should be shown to be, not sentimental (by which he meant uninformed and subjective), but “justified by the facts”. His preparations for the debates on vivisection, in particular, had “compelled me to read of many cases of revolting and sickening cruelty”, and he meant to make his fellow-peers, too, face this “traffic in flesh and blood”. He introduced to them, for instance, the “devilish device known as the Noble-Collip Drum”, then a quite new contrivance (and still used today) in which “the animal is very slowly battered to death”; he described the experiments on cats forced to breathe 100% oxygen at the Royal Naval Laboratory at Alverstoke, another wretched story of protracted execution; he spoke about the ‘siamesing’ of rats at Oxford University. This example of vivisection at Oxford (not the only one he instanced) had been reported to him by a doctor friend who had been allowed access to the laboratories of that university, of which he was an alumnus: “What particularly struck him was the callous attitude of people who were otherwise normal, decent members of society; and also the absolute uselessness of some of the experiments.” Quizzed on this last point, the young scientist doing the siamesing had explained to the doctor what was useful about it: “It’s going to get me my degree.”

For the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876 which at that time was still regulating all such research in the U.K., Dowding had little respect: “merely a sop to public conscience”, “the vivisectors’ charter”, its machinery of enforcement “futile and delusive”. In 1949 a man convicted under the Protection of Animals Act (1911) of starving his dog had been imprisoned for three months and banned for life from keeping dogs; in that same year the Journal of Physiology reported on a long series of nutrition studies during which numbers of puppies had been similarly starved in order to produce diseases of deficiency. “Imprisonment for the amateur in cruelty; honours and rewards for the professional wholesaler,” commented Dowding. It was “a Cruelty to Animals Act in fact as well as in name.”

Of course, other speakers in these debates reassured Dowding that, Act or no Act, scientists could be trusted to do their research humanely, that they were, just like himself, “anxious to spare the animals as much suffering as possible”, and were even “enriched by their work in love and meekness”, whatever that meant. Dowding took no notice of these complacencies, and he was contemptuous of the larger fiction associated with them – that Britain was a nation of animal-lovers: “we are not animal-lovers: we are sentimentalists about our animals”. By way of illustration, he spoke of a recent outcry about 300 monkeys suffocated, through carelessness, in a B.O.A.C van at Heathrow. This public indignation, which might well have been taken as good evidence of British concern for animals, Dowding turned inside out. More than 125,000 monkeys, he said, were coming through Heathrow every year:

“Those 300 were the lucky monkeys: they experienced only about fifteen minutes of slow suffocation. What happened to the others? Here are some of their experiences …

Dowding then read out a long list of vivisection horrors. At the end of it he said, “Yet about all this there is no newspaper outcry”.

In fact the concept of the animal-lover, whether person or nation, was and is delusive and irrelevant. Dowding knew that it appealed mainly to people for whom animals have no real standing of their own and so are quite properly dependent upon the interest and kindness of their superiors. Hence, of course, the preferential treatment, in the 1876 Act, of the particular human favourites, the dogs, cats, and horses: “pure sentimentality”, Dowding called that; “All warm-blooded animals feel pain and all are equally entitled to protection.”

When Dowding spoke about the spiritualist “scheme of things”, there must have been some comical unease in that 1950s House of Lords; containing as yet no women and no life peers, it was probably even less of a ‘new age’ scene than it is now. He did admit that his speeches had sometimes sounded “rather like a sermon”. But whether one shares his beliefs or not, it’s enlightening to see how they raised this apparently conventional Englishman far above his fellow-peers in ethical vision, simply by convincing him of the unity of life. Against their moral job-lot of sentiment, custom, selfishness, and improvised kindness, he brought his serene absolute (“I speak of what I know”) that “all life is one”, and all lives “brothers and sisters”. And even when pressing for the modest particular reforms which were all he could hope politically to achieve, he always kept that larger and revolutionary truth in open view, proportioning all those timid mitigations of wrong: thus, when he argued for the captive bolt gun and the casting-pen in slaughterhouses, he nevertheless told the Lords, “sooner or later, the time will come when we shall regard the eating of animal flesh as we now regard cannibalism.”

But of course one does not have to come at this great truth that “all life is one” by the spiritualist way that Dowding followed. There are many other ways to discern and represent what is, after all, at its least a worldly fact: from Albert Schweitzer’s existentialist ‘reverence for life’, through Charles Darwin’s science of evolution, down to the single word ‘speciesism’ with which Richard Ryder nailed its delusory opposite. (That Darwin’s way, the most matter-of-fact, the most patently fitted to the understanding of a materialist society, has in practice done so little good for the animals, is sad evidence of the littleness of our scientific culture.) But just now we need reminding of it in its political character. There is only one stable and non-arbitrary jurisdiction, which did not need arguing into existence and cannot be debated out of it, and to which we unalterably belong, namely the animal kingdom (etymologically ’kin’-dom). This is the one which Hugh Dowding, having rescued the merely provisional and historical kingdom of Britain, went on to serve without reservations for the remainder of his life and, as he hoped and believed, far beyond.


Notes and references:

The statue of Hugh Dowding, by Faith Winter, was erected in 1988. The photograph is by René and Peter van der Krogt (http://statues.vanderkrogt.net).

All the quotations above are taken from Hansard debates in which Dowding spoke: these took place on the subject of vivisection in October 1952 and July 1957, and on the other subjects in March and May 1948, Feb 49, Nov 50, Oct 53, June 54, Jan 56, Dec 57, May 58, Dec 62, and Feb 65. They can be read online at http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/hansard/lords/ .

Dowding’s labours on behalf of laboratory animals are remembered in the Lord Dowding Fund for Humane Research (established in 1974 by the National Anti-Vivisection Society), and also on World Day for Animals in Laboratories, which falls on 24th April, Dowding’s birthday.



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