It is with a very heavy heart that I write this tribute to Audrey Eyton (nee Gray), who died at her home on 30 June 2019, age 82. You may not know her face or her name because she avoided publicity like the plague, preferring to tirelessly work behind the scenes to protect animals. But she was absolutely key to the formation of Viva!.
Audrey first contacted me when I was in my twenties after hearing me on BBC Radio 2 creating a bit of a storm with a campaign urging teens to protest about factory farming. She subsequently followed my work with the Vegetarian Society and when I left, we arranged to meet at the Liberal Club in Pall Mall.
I had this big idea to form the first organisation to campaign loud and proud on vegan issues and expose Britain’s factory farms. Problem was, I had no funding! I drew up a five-year plan, Audrey asked a few questions and gave me £20,000. I could now buy everything - computers, franking machine, copier – and crucially everything I needed to launch our first campaign.
It is rare in life that you meet people with such faith, kindness and foresight. Audrey said in an interview for Viva! back in 2004: “I don’t support organisations, I support people... I was entirely vindicated [in donating to the embryonic Viva!]. Viva! established itself remarkably quickly, chose a good name and punched way above its weight.” Audrey was personally supportive – giving boundless enthusiasm, advice and funding in a way almost no one else does – not asking for grant applications, instead voting with her wallet when she saw a good campaign, interviews, investigations and media coverage. Over 25 years she donated £206,000!
Audrey was a beautiful person, with heaps of common sense, emotional and social intelligence and humour! She was also very business-savvy and persuasive. You may be wondering how she gained her wealth and why she chose to donate to saving animals and promoting veganism back when it wasn’t popular!
Audrey’s journey of compassion began in Blackburn with her parents, who both were sensitive to animals. Her father died when she was only 12 and she was just 16 when she got a job as a young reporter at the Accrington Observer. She worked her socks off and three years later moved to London and rose to Beauty Editor of Woman, under the by-line ‘The Lovely Helen Temple’.
It was here that she realised there was a massive gap in the market – slimming! With her then husband and no staff, she launched Slimming magazine in 1970 and later founded Ragdale Hall Health Farm in Leicestershire and several slimming clubs, which she sold in 1980.
Audrey then penned her extraordinarily successful book, The F-Plan Diet. It was a unique concept, a high fibre, whole food diet that encouraged quick weight loss with a massive boost in our health (leaning very much towards veg and away from meat) that blew apart the low-carb myths. She explained: “People really didn’t understand much about dietary fibre. It was the first British diet to be a big best-seller and sold four million copies. I toured the world. It was very successful in the USA, Australia and New Zealand – there were a lot of overseas editions.”
Amidst her success, she had to endure the worst possible nightmare - the loss of her two children. Richard was only 10 days old. Matthew ended his life at the age of 24. He was a magnificently intelligent and handsome young man, who began working with his mum to expose the horrors of factory farming. He won a post-graduate place at Cambridge University but from the age of 15 had a rapidly developing mental health problem, an extreme obsessive compulsive disorder. Audrey told me: “Matthew found humour in everything. He even made me laugh with droll jokes about his painful psychiatry, which went on for five years. He was a joy to be with, he had style.
“Matthew was vegetarian and was very generous hearted. If he passed a homeless person on the street he would always give him £10 – usually my £10! He once brought a homeless woman to our house because he couldn’t bear her situation. He was a very inspiring person.” Matthew’s treatments didn’t help and his life became unendurable. When he took his life he left his mum a note asking her to continue helping animals. And that’s precisely what Audrey did, by founding the Matthew Eyton Trust in 1991 and funding projects, people or organisations dedicated to ending farmed animal suffering. Poignantly, I remember Audrey saying: “I decided I couldn’t spend my life weeping and the best memorial is the way you live your life. I wouldn’t want to go on living if I wasn’t contributing to this cause.”
The birth of Viva! is related to Audrey’s absolute determination to honour her son’s life. And one of my son’s is named Finn Matthew in honour of Matthew Eyton.
Audrey moved to Canterbury where she lived until her death. She had been constantly active behind the scenes, talking to opinion formers. She loved animals and was particularly fond of pigs - rescuing four. One was trained at a puppy class, learning everything much faster than the dogs (including how to open the fridge!), a fact I’ve used in many of my talks. She made films with Bristol and Cambridge Universities, showing how intelligent farmed animals are – used by organisations and schools all over the world.
It is impossible to portray a lifetime of Audrey. She will be very warmly remembered for her cheerful ballsiness, go-get attitude, charm, positivity, bravery, astuteness, determination and of course incredible kindness. Audrey you are sorely, sorely missed.
Juliet Gellatley, founder & director of Viva