In Defence of Frances Power Cobbe

On the web-site of Understanding Animal Research (the promotional agency for animal research in the U.K.), an article has recently been posted under the heading ‘Why the anti-vivisection movement took an absolutist view’. It’s written by UAR’s Head of Policy and Media, Chris Magee, and his subject is Frances Power Cobbe, who was the person most responsible for bringing vivisection into the reach of a dedicated law, the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876.

That Act, momentous as it was, in fact painfully disappointed Frances Cobbe, because the promising bill which had started out in the House of Lords a few weeks earlier had been “mutilated” (her word) during its passage, in order to make it acceptable to the medical profession.  One of Miss Cobbe’s fellow-campaigners, the social reformer Lord Shaftesbury, hoped to reassure her by describing the Act as “a foundation on which to build amendments hereafter as evidence and opportunity shall be offered to us”. But in fact it never was amended, and for 110 years it inadequately oversaw the expansion of animal research in the U.K., from the few hundreds of animals used annually at the time of its introduction, to peaks of five million and more in the 1970s.

Chris Magee brings Frances Cobbe’s legacy right up to date, and blames the “140 years of astonishingly little progress towards her aims” on her decision, as leader of the anti-vivisection movement and of its first collective, the Victoria Street Society, to campaign in future for nothing short of abolition. He declares that “there are two things which push progress on – messy compromises and technological innovation”. These, he says, have brought whatever relief to laboratory animals they’ve enjoyed since the days of Frances Cobbe, and she must have realised this would be so: “She knew that by her approach, more animals would suffer.”

So why did Frances Cobbe take, as the UAR title has it, “an absolutist view”? Magee quotes from Cobbe’s autobiography some of her “tenuous reasons”, and finds them unconvincing. His preferred explanation refers the matter more simply to her own psyche. She “didn’t get her way” and chose, for the sake of “her personal narrative” to characterize the half-success, which the Act in fact represented, as “a great betrayal”. She, at least, would remain untainted by compromise. In fact she wanted to be high-minded more than she wanted to help animals: choosing “her soul over their wellbeing”, Magee calls it. More generally – for his account is also a critique of the abolitionist ideal, whoever holds it – he uses the phrase “burnishing one’s halo”.

I don’t think that Frances Cobbe did use that word ‘betrayal’ in anything she wrote about the 1876 Act, and I’d be surprised to find it in the thinking of so disciplined and unself-pitying a personality. Still, that episode did very reasonably come as a hideous shock and disillusionment to her.

It’s not that she was unused to failures or to deferred results in such matters. She was already an experienced campaigner and lobbyist, notably on women’s legal rights and women’s suffrage. Her active strife against vivisection had begun in Florence in 1863, where she had organised a ‘memorial’ or petition against the ruthless vivisections being conducted by Professor Schiff. He, of course, was unmoved by the list of important names: ‘a pile of aristocrats’ the republican professor called it, or words to that effect. But Frances Cobbe only concedes that  “The memorial, as often happens, did no direct good.” [FPC’s italics here and throughout] The implication is clear enough, and when more than ten years later she put together a petition urging the R.S.P.C.A. to sponsor a bill restricting vivisection in the U.K., the failure of that proposal didn’t demoralize her either. Supported by the public attention which she had raised, she took up the management of the project herself. After some parliamentary false starts, the government was pushed by the controversy into setting up the 1875 Royal Commission. The Commission found that vivisection was indeed “from its very nature, liable to great abuse, and … ought to be subjected to due regulation and control.” Accordingly the government agreed to support a bill sketched out by Frances Cobbe and fellow-members of her Victoria Street Society, and it was introduced in the House of Lords by the Colonial Secretary, Lord Carnarvon.

This bill didn’t propose to prohibit vivisection, but it was an abolitionist bill all the same, for it put dogs, cats, and horses out of bounds altogether. Other animals were to be used in experiments only if anaesthetized. Having government support, the bill seemed certain to pass successfully through Parliament. But there was a delay, during which the medical profession vigorously lobbied the Home Secretary, Richard Cross. The bill was revised accordingly, finished its passage through Parliament, and received royal assent in August of 1876 – surely with reluctance on the part of the Queen, who was as keenly opposed to vivisection as Frances Cobbe herself.

So dogs, cats, and horses were back in the laboratory. They could even be experimented on without anaesthetics, if the licensee applied for and received a special certificate. The Act did introduce inspections of laboratories, licensing of practitioners, and special protections for the dogs, cats, and horses (the certificates). Yet the alterations to Carnarvon’s bill seemed to Frances Cobbe so thorough as “even to make me fear that I had done harm instead of good.” Could the 1876 Act really have made things worse?

The answer, for Cobbe, was premised on the fact that all the controlling – the licensing, certifying, and inspecting – would necessarily be in the hands of fellow-professionals (only unconditional prohibitions escape this fundamental defect). True, the Home Secretary would be in overall charge, but who could depend on the moral sympathies of every successive tenant of that office? Richard Cross had seemed fairly sympathetic, or at least willing to do something to pacify the public concern. His successor, William (‘Buffalo Bill’) Harcourt, was something more than unsympathetic. He was one of the members of Parliament who talked out (i.e. prevented a vote upon) a later anti-vivisection bill sponsored in 1881 by the Victoria Street Society. More drastically, he formally delegated the administration of the Act to the Association for the Advancement of Medicine by Research, as the appropriate experts in the matter. This organisation had been set up in 1882, and had as one of its declared objects to ensure that the Act would be “harmlessly administered”. In this it largely succeeded until the subject of animal research came before another Royal Commission in 1906.

And if the Home Secretary was undependable, the inspectors might be supposed even more reluctant to intervene. After all, it was (so one eminent physiologist had said in 1875) “absurd” to ask an official, however keen he might be to serve the animal interest, “to inspect half a dozen others of at least equal status with himself”. And as to the keen-ness, Frances Cobbe quotes one inspector of the time calling the anti-vivisection campaign which had produced the 1876 Act “a senseless and mischievous agitation”. Meanwhile the licences and certificates would be in the bestowal of the profession, whose agents would of course have sympathy with the aims and practices of the applicants.

But perhaps that sympathy would not anyway be necessary to the success of the applications. Those aims and practices had been given an extraordinary public showing during the Royal Commission: one after another, the new breed of physiologist had justified itself under detailed questioning. Frances Cobbe had not herself given evidence, but “I heard constantly all that went on at the Commission.” When she was later explaining her rejection of half-way measures, she remembered all that. Writing in her pamphlet The Fallacy of Restriction Applied to Vivisection, she argued that once anti-vivisectionists conceded the utilitarian principle, it would mean entering into “inextricable difficulties to determine, next, the point where a little pain, or a greater pain, to one animal or to a thousand animals, ought to be sanctioned to obtain benefit for mankind; and how great or direct that benefit ought to be, and how far be likely of attainment. We fight the battle, in short, thenceforth on our enemy’s ground; and must infallibly be pushed back and back, till all the excesses of scientific cruelty be justified, just as they were by the different witnesses before the Royal Commission.” Among the experiments thus “justified” before the Commission had been the baking and starving of dogs to death, from which indeed something must certainly have been learned. Surely those who could speak confidently of such things in the lay setting of a commission would have little difficulty in convincing less shockable fellow-professionals of their good faith.

What in particular made Frances Cobbe fear that she had “done harm instead of good” was that all these supposed controls over what was done in research had a quid pro quo in the formal entitlement to do that research, which the Act now provided for the first time. Strictly speaking the 1876 Act was an amendment to a more general Cruelty to Animals Act of 1849. Among other things, this earlier law made it an offence to “cruelly beat, ill-treat, over-drive, abuse, or torture … any animal”. Admittedly the only prosecution of a vivisector under that Act had failed, in 1874, but the Act itself had not been found unable in the matter. Now it was made so by the 1876 amendment, which established vivisection as a specially protected case. So, Frances Cobbe writes in her autobiography, “we found that the compromise that we proposed had failed, and that our bill providing the minimum of protection for animals at all acceptable by their friends was twisted into a bill protecting their tormentors”. And it’s at this point that, as she records, “we were driven to raise our demands to the total prohibition of the practice, and to determine to work upon that basis for any number of years till public opinion be ripe for our measure.”

Looking back in the early 1890s, as she wrote her autobiography, over “the heart-breaking delays and disappointments of this weary movement” (“this”, because she never ceased in her active commitment to it), Frances Cobbe came to believe that it was just as well that Carnarvon’s bill had failed. If it had become law, then it would have answered and allayed the concern and indignation aroused during the earlier 1870s. There it would then have endured, whether authoritative or, more probably, ineffectual, in either case steadily mis-educating generations as to the proper relations between humans and other animals. Now, instead, the Act and the practice would be constantly under challenge.

In fact the whole human/animal relation would thereby come under challenge. It’s true that vivisection was a special case, a portentous innovation in the misuse of animals, because it was the practice not of poor men, drunkards, vicious criminals and other such unexemplary types, but of “men who hope to found the Religion of the Future, and to leave the impress of their minds upon their age, and upon generations yet to be born”. Still it was related to all such cruelty, as the title of the 1876 Act made clear. To campaign against vivisection, then, was also to draw continual attention to “the whole department of ethics dealing with man’s relation to the lower animals”. And therefore Frances Cobbe concludes her account of the subject in her autobiography by expressing “my supreme hope that when, with God’s help, our Anti-vivisection controversy ends in years to come, long after I have passed away, mankind will have attained through it a recognition of our duties towards the lower animals far in advance of that which we now commonly hold.” That controversy hasn’t yet ended, but she was surely right in imagining that a much larger conception of animal rights would eventually arise out of the pioneering anti-vivisection movement, if it only kept its nerve and principles.

Chris Magee speaks approvingly of Frances Cobbe as a personality, though in a slightly patronizing way: “I like to think I’d have got on with Frances Power Cobbeher writing style makes it feel a bit like you’ve been hanging out with an educated, thoughtful, and caring and personable individual.” This, I suggest, understates her remarkable force of character. When Cobbe set up the Society offices in Victoria Street in 1876, she made sure that one of the rooms was homely and comfortable – not for her own sake, but to sustain the morale of other women faced with “the frightful character of our work”. Anyone who has looked through her own multitudinous campaigning publications, with their long extracts from reports of experiments, and their illustrations, will feel the force cobbe possible.JPGof that phrase, and admire her accordingly.

And we must remember that she led this campaign against a medical establishment hardly less absolutely masculine in fact and mind-set than the armed services. Magee calls her decision (subsequently incorporated in the rules of the British Union Against Vivisection, which she founded in 1898) not to co-operate in any measure short of prohibition, “a 140 year hissy fit” (= ‘fit of hysterics’?). His mock is not directly aimed at Frances Cobbe herself, but it surely implicates her, and it’s a reminder of some of the things said about her and such as her by contemporary opponents. In private letters, Charles Darwin jeeringly confused the genders of Cobbe and her colleague George Hoggan, and Thomas Huxley referred to her as “that foolish fat scullion”. More publicly, the physiologist and champion of vivisection Elie de Cyon wrote in the Contemporary Review about “hysterical old maids … whose tenderness, despised by man, has flung itself in despair at the feet of cats and parrots.” Portraits of Frances Cobbe, who was indeed unmarried, suggest both how vulnerable she was to such mockery, and also what strength of character she possessed to endure and to rightly estimate it.

Late in her life, Frances Cobbe was left money by a fellow campaigner, so that she who had had to make her own way in the world, and who had never been paid for her long years of campaigning work, was able finally to live in a rather grand house in rural Wales with the woman-friend she loved. I feel glad to picture them there.


Notes and references:

The article by Chris Magee can be read on the UAR web-site at

Wishing to be fair to both parties, I have used the same number of words in my response as Magee uses. I haven’t dealt with the subsequent remarkable achievements in medicine which, Magee rightly says, Cobbe could not have foreseen. He believes that they have subverted her case against vivisection, but her plainly stated view was that “the Elixir Vitae itself would be too dearly purchased” by such means. Nor have I dealt with that part of the anti-vivisection movement which was willing to go on pursuing a gradualist policy, notably the National Anti-Vivisection Society, but it needs saying that after 1898 Frances Cobbe wasn’t making decisions on behalf of the whole movement.

Quotations from Frances Power Cobbe come mainly from the chapter titled ‘The Claims of Brutes’ in Life of Frances Power Cobbe by Herself, which in the American edition published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. in 1894, is in vol.2 at pp.556-634. Other quotations are from the pamphlets Four Reasons for Total Prohibition of Vivisection and The Fallacy of Restriction applied to Vivisection, which are collected with many others written by Frances Cobbe in the volume The Modern Rack, Swan Sonnenschein & Co, 1889. Both of these books can be read online. Some other information comes from Emma Hopley, Campaigning Against Cruelty: the Hundred Year History of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, BUAV, 1998.

The quotation from the report of the Royal Commission is at p.xvii, in Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO, 1876.

Quotation and other information about the aims of the AAMR can be found in John Vyvyan, The Dark Face of Science, Michael Joseph 1971, pp.70-77.

The absurdity of expecting a man to supervise his equals in status is argued in a letter written to Charles Darwin by John Scott Burdon Sanderson in April 1875, quoted in R.D.French, Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society, Princeton University Press, 1975, p.77.

Huxley’s phrase is quoted in Adrian Desmond, Huxley: Evolution’s High Priest, Michael Joseph, 1997, p.76; de Cyon’s article on the “hysterical old maids” was published in the Contemporary Review, no.43, 1883, pp.498-511.

The photograph is of the portrait plaque of Frances Power Cobbe in Manchester College, Oxford.