Shrugging off the irony in the name of their chosen meeting place, animal welfare campaigners, MPs Richard Martin and William Wilberforce, met with their supporters on 16 June 1824 at Old Slaughter’s Coffee House in London to establish a ground-breaking new organisation.
At this time in Britain, bloodsports such as badger baiting were all the rage, while flogging horses and donkeys to death raised few eyebrows. Animals were mere commodities to be used and abused like any other.
But not everybody agreed. William Wilberforce, who is better-known for his work in bringing about the end of slavery, found a like mind in Richard Martin. In 1822, Humanity Dick, as Martin was teasingly called, managed to get a bill through Parliament banning the inhumane treatment of animals.
It was imaginatively called An Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle, and that same year it was used to prosecute a fruit and veg seller named Bill Burns. The case against the accused was sealed when his abused donkey hobbled into the courtroom, to the horror of the jury.
Martin and Wilberforce sensed the tide of public opinion was slowly turning (although the press dined out on the fact that Burns had been convicted on the testimony of a donkey). Two years later, at that coffeeshop meeting in June 1824, they established the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).
In 1840, the ‘R’ was added to make RSPCA, following a nod from Queen Victoria. And it says a lot about Victorian values that the NSPCC, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, wasn’t created until 1884 – over half a century later.
The RSPCA also pre-dates the modern police force, which was founded in 1829. Rumour has it that the uniforms and ranks of the police were borrowed from the original RSPCA inspectors who had already started making their rounds. But the similarities don’t end there. In recent months, the charity has been criticised for over-stepping its powers, and becoming “too political” in its activities in relation to, for example, fox-hunting.
Today, the RSPCA is not only the world’s oldest animal welfare charity, but one of the biggest too. In 2014, it attracted £125.9m in funds, mostly from donations and legacies. Not bad for an organisation born out of a coffeeshop chat.