The Origins of a Friendship Group

This blog details who the members of the Oxford Group were, where they came from and how they met. The ten core members consisted of three married couples – Roslind and Stanley Godlovitch, Peter and Renata Singer and Richard and Mary Keshen, three singletons who shared a house in Oxford – John Harris, David Wood and Michael Peters – and, finally, Richard Ryder who was older and not an Oxford student, or married to one.

Ros and Stan Godlovitch arrived in Oxford in 1968. Stan had worked out an animal rights position as an undergraduate in Montreal and he and Ros had therefore become vegetarians before arriving in Oxford. Stan enrolled to study for a DPhil in the philosophy of biology. Ros had not, at this stage, enrolled as a student, although did so, albeit briefly, later.

Peter Singer with Yewande Okuleye

Peter Singer arrived in Oxford – with Renata, his wife – in October 1969 to undertake a graduate degree in philosophy. Born in 1946 in Melbourne, he was the son of Jewish Austrians who fled Vienna as soon as possible after the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany), their escape facilitated by the remarkable altruism of an Australian citizen who agreed, despite having only met Peter’s mother once, to act as a sponsor for Singer’s parents’ Australian visa application. His father was a coffee trader, and his mother was a doctor. His grandparents did not leave and were sent to concentration camps with only his maternal grandmother surviving.

Richard Keshen graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1969 from York University in Toronto. He then secured a four-year Canada Council scholarship to undertake postgraduate study. Just before setting off for Oxford in August 1969, he married Mary Robertson, an English graduate and qualified teacher, whom he had met in his second year of undergraduate study. Both were 22 year’s old.

Harris was born in London in 1946. After attending a Grammar School (his A levels were in science) in Fareham, Hampshire, Harris went up to Manchester originally to study Chemistry but after a year, transferring to study philosophy which interested him more. After obtaining a first-class degree, he went, in 1968, to Oxford to study, at Balliol, for an MPhil which was then upgraded to a DPhil. Harris met David Wood whilst studying philosophy as undergraduates at Manchester University so it was no surprise that they both gravitated to Oxford once they have graduated in 1968, the latter enrolling for an DPhil at New College. Mike Peters was Wood’s friend from Leeds who met Harris when arriving in Oxford to study for a DPhil in Sociology. Quiet and intense, Peters, unlike the others, was extremely left-wing, interested in revolutionary movements.

Dressed to Impress. Harris (bottom centre), Peters (bottom right), Godlovitch (top right) and Wood (top left).
Harris (bottom centre), Peters (bottom right), Godlovitch (top right) and Wood (top left). Dressed to impress!
Richard and Mary as they are now.
Richard and Mary as they are now
Mary and Richard circa 1971

The final core member of the group was Richard Ryder. He was a bit older than the others (born in 1940) and in the late 1960s did not have a University affiliation, but was working as a clinical psychologist at the Warneford psychiatric hospital in Oxford. He grew up in Dorset. His father, ‘Jack’ Dudley Ryder, was a county squire, a landowner of a large estate near Corfe Castle. Both his mother and father were fond of animals and Ryder puts his subsequent concern for animals down, in particular, to his mother’s intense dislike of animal cruelty.

Richard Ryder

Three others who subsequently became well-known animal ethicists had links with Oxford at the time but were either more peripheral figures, or had no involvement at all, in the Oxford Group. In the latter camp was Stephen Clark who was a PPE undergraduate at Balliol, and, in 1968, became a Fellow at All Souls. However, he had no contact with the others at the time and puts his conversion to vegetarianism down to an event external to Oxford. Secondly, there is Tom Regan, an American philosopher later to be the author of the influential book The Case for Animal Rights. Regan did visit Oxford – in the summer of 1973 – but it was only a fleeting one of six weeks on a trip with a group of students. He did meet Singer and they met on a number of occasions, thus beginning an acquaintance that was to last for the rest of Regan’s life (he died in 2017).

Finally, mention should be made of Andrew Linzey who later became the leading theologian of animal rights. Linzey lived in Oxford at the time and had done since childhood. However, he was only 17 in the Autumn of 1969 and was not a student at the University.  He was, though, extremely active in local Oxford animal societies, particularly before 1970 when he left to go up to King’s College in London to read for a degree in theology and was certainly part of the wider social network to which the Oxford Group members belonged.

Stanley and Ros Godlovitch’s role as gatekeepers is very obvious. They brought the Group together. For example, Harris and Wood met Stan in a lecture before being introduced to Ros. Similarly, Richard Keshen’s involvement can be dated from meeting Stan, together with John Harris, in the early part of 1970, at a sparsely-attended lecture given by Brian Farrell (who held the Wilde Readership in Mental Philosophy between 1947-79). Subsequently, Stan invited Richard and Mary to dinner.

Richard Keshen, armed with the arguments gleaned from the Godlovitchs, then played a key role in Singer’s introduction to the group. The crucial meeting was by accident. After they had both attended a well-attended lecture given – at New College towards the end of the Autumn term in 1970 – by the moral philosopher Jonathan Glover (part of a series on free-will, determinism and moral responsibility), a few students, including Keshen and Singer, stayed behind to ask questions. The two got talking as they left, and Richard invited Peter to his college, Balliol, for lunch. Waiting in a line, they perused the menu and Singer was curious when Keshen asked if the spaghetti sauce contained meat and, being told that it did, chose a salad instead. Eventually, after discussing Glover’s lecture, Peter asked Richard about his dietary preferences. Richard then recounted the arguments gleaned from the Godlovitchs so, for Singer, beginning a discussion that was to change his life. Over the next two months, Peter and Renata Singer were introduced to Mary Keshen, and Ros and Stanley Godlovitch and, through them, the other members of the loose grouping of vegetarians.

Richard Ryder was already a committed animal activist, although not a vegetarian, focusing on opposing animal experimentation and otter hunting. In the Spring of 1969, whilst waiting to see some late patients at the Warneford hospital, he wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph pointing out the similarities between humans and animals and the imperative to regard them more equally ethically. Following a sustained, albeit mixed, response from readers when it was published, he then wrote two additional letters. In terms of the Oxford Group the key intermediary was Brigid Brophy.

Brophy was a very well-regarded and well-known British novelist in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the founders of the enormously influential author’s collecting society, the Writers’ Action Group. She was also well ahead of her time in promoting animal causes. By the mid-1950s, she was a vegetarian and anti-vivisectionist. One of the key moments in the development of the modern animal protection movement was the publication in the Sunday Times on 10 October 1965 of Brophy’s article on animal rights. 

After seeing Ryder’s letters, Brophy – who lived in London with her husband the art historian Michael Levey who later (1973-87) became the Director of the British National Gallery – wrote to Ryder about a month later so beginning a working relationship that was to last until she was struck down by MS in the 1980s. More importantly, for our present concerns, Brophy, who already knew the Godlovitchs and Harris, put Ryder in touch with them and he met them for the first time, at the Godlovitch’s flat, about three weeks after Brophy’s initial contact.

The book ‘The Oxford Group and the Emergence of Animal Rights: An Intellectual History’ by Robert Garner and Yewande Okuleye will be published by Oxford University Press in 2020.

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