Salt of the Earth

Henry Salt called his autobiography Seventy Years Among Savages. 1 It tells of a life lived entirely in England. As one might therefore guess, Salt’s writings were not well received when they appeared, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Now George and Willene Hendrick have done Salt a much-needed posthumous service by presenting his ideas to a world sympathetic to the tenor of his thought.

Salt was born in India in 1851, the son of an officer in the Indian army, but was brought up by his mother in England and educated at Eton and Cambridge. A brilliant scholar, he was invited back to teach at Eton. There he married Kate Joynes, daughter of an Eton master and sister of his closest friend, Jim Joynes, also a master at Eton. But Henry, Kate, and Jim Joynes had become intoxicated with Shelley’s free-thinking brand of humanitarian socialism. This soon proved incompatible with teaching at a school that existed, as Salt’s father-in-law informed him, so that the world can be redeemed by its aristocrats.2

Henry and Kate Salt exchanged their Eton lodgings for a laborer’s cottage in Tilford, a village in Surrey. There they lived without any servants, an extraordinary decision for people of their social class at that time (even Marx at his most penurious kept a housekeeper). Inspired by Thoreau’s Walden, they grew vegetables, wore sandals, and sought to simplify their lives.

As Henry Salt’s reputation as a man of ideas spread, a stream of social and political thinkers began visiting his cottage in Tilford: William Morris, Edward Carpenter, George Meredith, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the socialist leader H.M. Hyndman, Eleanor Marx, and Edward Aveling, Keir Hardie, Ramsay Mac-Donald, G.K. Chesterton, and Havelock Ellis. Among the most frequent visitors, particularly in the early days, was George Bernard Shaw, then young and unknown.

Salt’s abiding commitment was to making the world more humane. Although a socialist of sorts, he was not prepared to wait for the revolution to redress the suffering he saw around him. With support from some members of the Fabian Society he founded the Humanitarian League, bringing together prison reformers, those opposed to corporal punishment, campaigners for improved factory working conditions, socialists, vegetarians, and anti-vivisectionists, in order to advance the general principle of humaneness that, in Salt’s view, was the common factor in all their struggles. On the league’s behalf he wrote leaflets against conditions in prisons, factories, schools, and slaughter-houses. But Salt wrote more than leaflets. During his eighty-eight years he published forty-seven books, on a great many different subjects: studies of Shelley, Thoreau, De Quincey, and Richard Jefferies; humanitarian works on the rights of animals, vegetarianism, socialism, and corporal punishment; and collections of essays on the importance of preserving nature and places of natural beauty. The Hendricks have offered us only a sample. It is enough to display Salt as a pathbreaking thinker, but I hope it will lead readers to want to read some of the works in their entirety.

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